In a review of the current Canaletto and His Rivals exhibition at the National Gallery, Brian Sewell spills the beans that the curator of the show, Charles Beddington, is a dealer and that "the provenance of one painting includes the line "with Charles Beddington Ltd, from whom purchased by the present owner 2006". Here's the whole section:
There is perhaps some general point in an exhibition of works by Canaletto and his overlapping rivals, but to demonstrate it thoroughly requires more than the paltry 55 on view in Trafalgar Square. With primacy given to Canaletto and Guardi, less familiar painters are given short shrift, yet it is these who need greater exposure and discussion, and the vexed question of the varying degrees of authenticity in paintings by these popular and expensive painters (particularly Canaletto) is not touched on at all. As some very grand paintings from public or impeccable collections are included, some very beautiful, some scintillating in atmosphere and detail, it seems odd to have borrowed a number that are dry, dull and open to question; it is odder still that any scholar-curator should have selected paintings recently on the market and only briefly in their present private ownership. Long used to the wiles of the art trade as I am, I sense the scratching of art dealers' backs, for Charles Beddington, the curator in question, is himself such a dealer and quite open about it — the provenance of one painting includes the line "with Charles Beddington Ltd, from whom purchased by the present owner 2006".
Should we be concerned? Sewell certainly thinks so.
Should the National Gallery allow a working dealer to select and catalogue an exhibition of paintings by artists whose work is his stock in trade? As for his unenlightening scholarship — surely that is easily matched by any jobbing art historian, even the permanent curators of the National Gallery? Is it churlish of me to wonder what fee and expenses he has been paid? Dealers should, of course, be encouraged to mount exhibitions in their own premises (for then we all know where we stand), and they should be consulted when thought to have particular knowledge, but for the National Gallery to surrender its exhibition rooms for a dealer to use as he wills, seems a wretched and dangerous precedent.
Intrigued, I googled Charles Beddington and found out that he joined Christie's old master division from the Courtauld, now owns a private gallery, Charles Beddington Ltd, and is a member of the Fine Art Fund Group. The objectives of the funds are: to capitalise on its art market expertise; build long-term capital growth for Investors; provide diversification to a client's investment portfolio. Hardly the language that curators speak, is it?
I agree with Sewell that it would be a pity if this exhibition set a "wretched and dangerous precedent." Mind you, the public exhibition has always brushed up against the free market. Back in the 18th century, some complained that the public salon at the Louvre was a "picture shop." Nearer our own time, do you really think Poussin's Sacraments (one of which is to be auctioned at Christie's in December) has not been ogled by some prospective buyer during their tenure at the N.G.? Though in that case it's more likely to be a museum than a private individual. My money's on the Washington N.G.
The NG doesn't seem too concerned about Beddington's link with the art market, which should give cause for concern in itself. I dare say Mr Sewell will have more to say about this in due course, namely on the theme of how the public museum is not a sales room, like in this illustration- Christie's in the 19th century.