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A devoted medievalist: Sir Paul Ruddock, chairman of London's Victoria and Albert Museum, is a passionate collector and champion of medieval art. He talks to Apollo about the onus on museums to celebrate the often overlooked glories of our medieval heritage.

It does not take long in most of the world's great museums to be reminded that what one is looking at is not so much a single collection of acquisitions but a series of private collections that have come together by way of gift or bequest. Museums these days leave less to chance: in recent years they have increasingly encouraged collectors and potential patrons to become, through advisory committees or boards, actively involved in their development. For many of those involved, it is the public face of a very private passion. For Sir Paul Ruddock, since 2007 chairman of London's Victoria & Albert Museum and the most discreet yet public-spirited of collectors, it is but another side of the same coin.

When we meet in the neutral surroundings of a meeting room at Lansdowne Partners, the investment management firm that Sir Paul co-founded in London in 1998, it quickly becomes clear that his decision to help institutions redisplay, reinterpret and publish the works of art he loves was as natural as collecting similar material for himself. And not by coincidence has he chosen to devote much of his time, evident energy and financial resources to helping two institutions in particular: the V&A and the British Museum. (He was knighted earlier this year for services to the arts and philanthropy.) 'These were the institutions that inspired me as a child,' he says simply. 'They set me on the road to one of the great passions of my life.'

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This passion is for works of art of the medieval period. Begun modestly some 30 years ago but expanded dramatically in recent years, his collection is described by London-based dealer Sam Fogg, a specialist in the field, as 'the most important holding of medieval art formed since the early 20th century. You would have to go back to Pierpont Morgan or Henry Walters to find someone who put together a collection of such depth, breadth and quality.' Given the fabulous collection amassed by the German industrialist Robert von Hirsch (1883-1977) and offered by Sotheby's as the 'sale of the century' in 1978, this is quite a claim.

Dr Paul Williamson, Keeper of Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass at the V&A, describes Sir Paul Ruddock as belonging to 'a tradition where the importance and attraction of the objects' histories gives as much pleasure to the owner as their inherent beauty and interest, a tradition that goes back two and a half centuries to the first English collectors of medieval antiquities.'

'My interest in medieval art began as a child,' Sir Paul explains. He grew up in Solihull, Birmingham, near two National Trust houses, Packwood House and Baddesley Clinton, which his parents often took him to. Baddesley Clinton is a picturesque medieval moated manor house, Packwood House a Tudor pile with 16th-century furniture and textiles--'Quite different from the 1970s house I grew up in,' he laughs today.

There were, however, two specific events that fired his imagination. 'On my eighth birthday my parents gave me a present of the chess set that was made as the first commercial copy of the Lewis Chessmen at the British Museum,' he recalls. These extraordinarily spirited 12th-century survivals, mostly carved in walrus ivory, are pieces from four chess-sets found on the Outer Hebrides island of Lewis in 1831, and have remained among the most beloved treasures in Britain ever since (Figs. 2 and 3). 'I learnt to play chess with these Lewis Chessmen,' he says. 'That was quite inspirational.'

The other crucial event also took place when he was eight, when he visited the V&A for the first time: 'The Cast Courts, which were then in a desperate state of repair, had been boarded off, and I remember looking through a chink in the plywood at Trajan's Column [Fig. 6]. I must have been studying the Romans at primary school, because I knew exactly what it was--I was just awestruck at finding Trajan's Column in the middle of London, even though it was cut in half! I can honestly say that it was those two experiences that sparked my fascination with the medieval period and with museums.'

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Later, 'as an undergraduate [reading Law at Oxford University], I went to the Ashmolean Museum every week without fail. Back then I was interested in everything, even modern art. In my gap year I had worked in Italy, in Turin, a baroque city with fantastic treasures of every age. I had collected pennies and all the usual things that young boys who like to collect do. When I started working, I began buying contemporary prints by Sidney Nolan and Graham Sutherland. [Sir Paul still collects Modern British art.] It was not until the late 1980s that I made my first purchase of a medieval work of art. It was a Verona marble Romanesque lion--or so I thought; it was probably a Romanesque lion circa 1960. I gather that until not so long ago there was someone up in the hills above Verona still making them! That was a good lesson to learn.

'One of the reasons why I focused on works of medieval art is that paintings were always very expensive. At the time, when I was in my 20s, it was important that I could buy good quality objects for very little money, and so I would buy small Gothic ivories or alabasters. I remember buying a lovely Flemish alabaster of St Christopher at Sotheby's in 1990 for under 1,000 [pounds sterling]--you could not have bought a Royal College of Art degree show work of art for that.

'I have always marvelled at the art of the sculptor, the ivory carver and the metalworker,' he enthuses. 'There is a real sense of awe when you pick up a Gothic ivory and wonder at the skill of the craftsmen. Ivory carving used to be considered a minor art, but in fact the quality of an ivory carving considerably surpasses that of monumental stone sculpture, and there is no evidence that ivory carvers were considered inferior to stone carvers at the time. In fact, the price of ivory was so expensive--a medium-sized ivory tusk cost the equivalent of 40 oak trees--that it is unlikely that it would have been given to second-rate craftsmen. I like the tactile quality of these pieces, the pleasure you have from holding them in your hand. You can't get that with a painting.'

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As to period, he is drawn to the Romanesque and the Gothic, but he also looks both backwards and forwards (and sideways: he also owns some African art). 'The Renaissance is obviously amazing, but I tend to find myself more empathetic to the earlier period. There is a spirituality in medieval and early Renaissance art that is lost in the later period, just as Roman art lacks the soul of the Greek. What is fascinating is the way Greek and Hellenistic art continues and pops right back up in Byzantium, in the East. In the West you have the so-called "Dark Ages", but of course that was a period of tremendous creativity in metalwork. In a sense, what I am interested in is the art that forms modern Europe--the period from the fall of the Roman Empire to 1000-1100, when Europe was reformed.'

I ask Sir Paul whether he has educated himself through the collections of the V&A and the British Museum. 'Absolutely,' he replies. 'The other way I have learnt is through exhibition catalogues. They are a fantastic educational resource in the way that they reveal how history interacts with art.' He cites the catalogues of three medieval art shows staged in London--'English Romanesque Art 1066-1200' (Hayward Gallery, 1984), 'The Age of Chivalry' (Royal Academy of Arts, 1987-88) and 'Gothic' (V&A, 2003)--along with the three great Byzantium exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (he was elected to the Met board last year).

Soon after making his first medieval purchases, Sir Paul telephoned the V&A and asked them if he could help in some way. 'Those were the days before they had a development department,' he recalls. 'A very nice lady called Victoria Timberlake, who worked there a couple of days a week, asked me to come in for tea. There were six of us who were "Patrons" rather than "Friends". In 1999, during the British Galleries project, I was asked to become involved; my wife Jill and I helped restore the Great Bed of Ware [c. 1590], which was quite exciting. It certainly was in the mind of our godson, who asked whether we slept in it every night!'

In 2002 he joined the board of the V&A. 'Around that time, when the museum started to drive its "FuturePlan", I said to Paul Williamson that given that it had one of the world's great collections of medieval art, wouldn't it be fantastic if that [collection] was the next focus? I gave a pledge of funds and the project just got bigger and bigger as it went on. The Medieval & Renaissance Galleries opened just over two years ago and they have been an absolute triumph' (Fig. 4)

These 10 new galleries, which cost 31m [pounds sterling], are spectacular indeed, occupying the entire south-east wing of the museum and for the first time presenting the V&A's collections in continuous displays which tell the story of European art and design from the fall of the Roman Empire to the end of the Renaissance period and place the exhibits within their original social and cultural contexts. They mark the completion of the first phase of FuturePlan, which with a total budget of 120m [pounds sterling] aims to revitalise visitor facilities, restore the 1850s museum building to its original glory and redisplay the collections. As both board member and benefactor, Sir Paul and his wife were the lead donors who kick-started the development of the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries. They also enlisted in the cause their friends Michael and Dorothy Hintze, who contributed to the Sculpture Galleries, and William and Judith Bollinger, who supported the new Jewellery Gallery.

'It did not take a genius to figure out that, 15 years ago, the V&A was looking quite tired and dull and that something had to be done,' he says. 'One of the things that I have always felt very strongly is that museums have to display things in such a way that they really draw in and interest the general visitor. Today, the average person has 200 TV channels coming in to their house; they walk down their high street and see shops with huge plate-glass windows and cleverly lit displays. Even when I joined the board, the London museums still had Victorian display cases and atrocious lighting--you still see a lot of this on the Continent.'

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He continues: 'We have our study collections, but in the main galleries it is important not to overcrowd. What is good in the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries is the way in which works of art have space to breathe, so that you can really appreciate their virtuosity, and masterpieces such as the 12th-century Gloucester Candlestick [1104-13] and Giambologna's marble group of 1560 of Samson Slaying a Philistine [c. 1562; Fig. 4] are given their own cases or prominent positions. In the "Devotion and Display" gallery, for instance, a bishop's cloak and crosier and various ceremonial objects are brought together to give a sense of how they were used together--rather than, say, have all the silver chalices in a row.'

The museum has also spent the last 10 years ripping up the practical, but dreary, black linoleum covering the museum's original mosaic floors, and opening up divided galleries and blocked lunettes. To avoid a homogenous 'sameness', different architects have been employed for each project. 'Our big challenge now is to develop the North Court and provide a new underground exhibition gallery and an open courtyard and cafe above, on Exhibition Road,' says Sir Paul. 'There are 10 million visitors a year to this museum 'island' in South Kensington, and yet there is not a single place to have a cup of coffee on Exhibition Road!'

Sir Paul believes that it has been a 'Golden Age' for museums in Britain, in light of developments at the V&A, British Museum, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Wallace Collection and Dulwich Picture Gallery as well as the opening of Tate Modern: 'British museums have seen a rejuvenation and a huge rise in attendance figures--visitor numbers at the V&A, for instance, have doubled in the last 10 years--and that has not been the case in all countries. We have had some great museum directors.'

Sir Paul has also played a significant part in the rejuvenation of the British Museum. Once again, he got involved by calling up its director, Neil McGregor, in 2005. 'The British Museum has one of the best small collections of medieval art in the world, and yet it had what was one of the most awful galleries!' he laughs. 'The curator, James Robinson, was very enthusiastic, and Neil was very enthusiastic, and as a result we renovated the medieval gallery that covers 1050 to 1500.' The gallery, which opened in 2009, integrates art with archaeology and places the collection in its fullest historical context (Fig. 5). 'Now,' he adds, 'we are in the process of helping with the earlier galleries which have the Sutton Hoo treasure and the late Romans finds.'

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Given these museum projects, his co-funding of the global on-line Gothic Ivories Project organised by the Courtauld Institute of Art--he has also served on the board of the Courtauld Trust--and his various loans, gifts and donations, I ask Sir Paul whether he has seen it as his mission to champion medieval art. Once again his smooth features break into a broad smile: 'I have been trying to foster interest in medieval art for the last 15 years, and I would like people to appreciate it. Some of the greatest art produced in this country is medieval--Westminster Abbey, our great castles and parish churches--and yet we tend to take these great glories of our heritage for granted. But my real mission is for people to understand why art in general is so important to civilisation. The high points of the civilisations of the last millennia are the art that they produced, and the role of a major museum is to explain the creativity of the human spirit across all societies and ages.

'At the V&A, we cross the bridge between pure art and applied art. Our original mission was to inspire British manufacturers to produce better design, and there is no reason why that should change--Britain produces fantastic designers.' But with over 40 per cent of current visitors to the museum already working, teaching or studying in the creative industries, Sir Paul wants to broaden its transformative potential as well. 'The museum should expose as many people as possible to the widest range of creative arts,' he says. 'It could be a kid from anywhere who is passionate about football: and he could come in and be inspired by something--a sculpture, a piece of metalwork or a manuscript.' Or by Trajan's Column.

PORTRAITS DAVID VINTINER

Susan Moore is associate editor of Apollo.
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Title Annotation:FEATURE: SIR PAUL RUDDOCK
Author:Moore, Susan
Publication:Apollo
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 1, 2012
Words:2558
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