The Iron Lady WAS For Turning – When It Came To Great Art

Recently released papers reveal that, during her tenure as Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher became personally involved in the effort to obtain one of the world’s most important private art collections for Britain.

The Thyssen-Bornemisza collection was begun by the German industrialist Baron Heinrich von Thyssen-Bornemisza back in the 1920’s. During the Great Depression, he began snapping up art from American and European collectors who had fallen on hard times. When his title and collection passed to his son Heinrich, the new Baron began to collect even more works of art, until eventually the collection was second in size only to that of Queen Elizabeth II.

It is difficult to fathom just how vast an array of paintings we are talking about, in terms of scope and quality. The collection includes works by Fra Angelico, Van Eyck, Holbein, Titian, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, and many, many others. If it were the national collection of a single country, it would be the pride of its citizens; as a private collection put together for the pleasure of one non-royal family, it is one of the greatest ever assembled, and unlikely ever to be duplicated in our time.

In the 1980’s, the Baron and his 5th wife Carmen Cervera, a former Miss Spain, realized that they did not have enough room to store and display all of the art in their collection. They began searching for a permanent home in which to house it, and a number of international cities were put on the couple’s short list. Countries fell over themselves trying to persuade the Thyssens to sell them their collection, and thanks to some significant, personal wooing by Baroness Thatcher, at one point Britain looked to be the front-runner.

British government documents show that, among other things, Baroness Thatcher sent personal notes to the Thyssens, to try to sweet-talk them into sending their collection to the UK. She invited them to visit her at Downing Street, when they were in London for the opening of an exhibition. Her cabinet appeared split over her desire to secure the collection for Britain, including future PM John Major (who was against it). Opinion was also split among the journalists, historians,  and curators whom Thatcher consulted privately, as to whether the country ought to purchase the art.

In the end, much to the disappointment of the Iron Lady, most of the collection went to Madrid. The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, or “Thyssen” as it is called for short, opened in 1992, and is thus celebrating its 25th birthday this year. The Baron’s wife thwarted the Prime Minister’s plans, to benefit her home country. Interestingly enough however, the museum is currently having a bit of a problem with its patroness, as indeed Margaret Thatcher did 30 years ago.

After the Thyssen opened, Carmen began assembling her own great art collection, a skill which she learned about from her (3rd) husband. Her cache of nearly 500 paintings was subsequently lent to the Thyssen for a period of ten years. That period expired several years ago, but has been continuing on one-year renewals ever since. This might be coming to an end, unless the Spanish government and the widow can come to some sort of a more permanent arrangement.

The takeaway from this is that Baroness Thatcher clearly understood the power of truly great art. No, she was not a modern-day Isabella Stewart Gardner. Yet the fact that she realized the value of this collection so much as to become personally involved in the effort to bring it to her country, even when art critics and political partners advised her against it, ought to make people pause before repeating the old canard about conservatives having little regard for art.

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