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.

The Courtier In The Federalist: Our Obsession With Midcentury Modern Design Is Out Of Control

'GILMORE GIRLS' TV SERIES - 2000My latest for The Federalist is out this morning, in which I look at some of the issues surrounding our current obsession with “Midcentury Modern”, that incredibly imprecise term which gets bandied about everywhere these days. The article builds off of a piece I wrote a few weeks ago for this site, which resonated with many of you. It gave me the opportunity to revisit the very gracious home of Richard and Emily Gilmore on “Gilmore Girls”, while at the same time praising the work of several key furniture designers of the past several centuries – not to mention making an aside about the “art” of Lucio Fontana. As always, I am ever grateful to everyone at The Federalist for the opportunity to share some of my musings with their readers.

Help Me Move! (No Heavy Lifting Required) 

After nearly nine years, I’ll be retiring the Blog of the Courtier in the near future. Now don’t panic, because I’ll still be writing. But it’s time for a change – and I need your help.

I began blogging back in the mists of time, when I taught myself HTML during law school and started my first web site. Later I launched this blog on Blogger, and then switched to WordPress several years later. Over the years I’ve built up a loyal group of readers, who appreciate my (often overwrought) musings on this, that, and quite a bit of the other, and from whom I’ve learned a great deal.

Yet I’m very much aware that I’ve plateaued.

If you’ve ever lifted weights or played a musical instrument, then you know that at some point, you reach a level where everything stays the same. You don’t have to try so hard, and things come pretty easily. That leaves you with a choice: stay where you are and coast along, or try to do something different. That’s the place where I find myself, since there a number of things about this site that just aren’t improving anymore.

For example, the title of this site neatly sums up the sort of things I write, since it’s a play on Castiglione’s “Book of the Courtier”, a work that I’ve always found inspirational. On the other hand, it’s pretty clunky. Without naming names, I know several writers and podcasters who reference this site in their work, but struggle with how to pronounce it, or even remember what it’s actually called.

We have to keep up with the times, if we’re to stay relevant. That doesn’t mean lowering our standards, but it does mean taking a long, hard look in the mirror from time to time, to see what needs to be updated. Your grandfather’s Harris tweed jacket will never go out of style, but his extra-wide ties certainly have.

I know that this is a risky move as a writer who is not more widely known. I also realize that I’m going to lose a lot of readers when I move. I could just stay here and do more of the same. But I feel the need to push myself a bit harder, and the least I can do, for those of you who want to stick around, is to make that as pleasant and attractive a prospect as possible.

What I’m hoping to get from you, gentle reader, is some feedback.

I’ve already got several ideas about where I want to take things in the future, but I’m still working those out. In the meantime, it would help me a great deal if you would let me know your thoughts. What do you like/dislike about reading my work? What are your opinions on issues such as format, length, subject matter, and so on?

Please use the “Contact” tab, located up in the header of the site, to send me your thoughts. I’d prefer that you use that form, rather than comment directly on this post, since it will be easier for me to review the responses. I‘ll be very grateful to receive them, and I promise to read and consider all of them.

For the time being, I’ll keep posting on this site as I always do. It’s not going to go dark without plenty of advance warning. And while we await the outcome of this move, please allow me to thank you for your many years of support; I hope you’ll continue to support my efforts, as I launch into the unknown.