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October 2005 - The Mirror of Art


This last summer the National Gallery, in collaboration with the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, has asked the British Public for first nominations and then votes for a shortlist for Britain’s favourite painting. Charles Saumarez Smith, the Director of the National Gallery, commented at the start of the process: ‘At the National Gallery, we believe the search for 'The Greatest Painting in Britain' will tell us a great deal about how 21st century, multicultural Britain sees itself.’ So what is the ‘great deal’ that engagement with these cultural products tells us about our contemporary culture or cultures?

First thing to note is that, although the shortlist stretched from Pierro della Francesca to David Hockney, all were in a realist figurative style and all were clearly from a dominant European culture. Only one painting was by a living artist. Indeed all the other paintings were nineteenth century or earlier, most dating from before the Industrial revolution. The major feel of the shortlist was Romantic in a technical Art Historical sense: picturesque, escapist, exotic, touching emotion more than reason. This suggests that 21st multicultural Britain sees itself (?herself) through a pre-modern monocultural lens.

Text Box:  The winning painting announced on September 5th was Turner’s Fighting Temeraire (my own vote as it happens). Our choice was not for urban Graffiti tags nor the edgy provocations of BritArt, yet alone the distinctive Asian and African art that has enriched our cultural landscape. Rather we chose something which even in the time of its painting was nostalgic – a sailing ship being towed to its dismantling by a paddle steamer.

In fact the art work which has most impressed me recently has been the Tree of Life, currently in the Great Court of the British Museum. Fabricated in Mozambique from decommissioned weapons it speaks directly of hope arising out of conflict and keys into Jewish, Christian and African imagery – But as it is a sculpture not a painting it wouldn’t have been eligible for this contest. The author, as the picture shows wnet to the exhibition, saw the piece and bought the T-shirt. Neither of course is the Angel of the North which I suspect would have been a candidate if the rules were drawn wider.

The demographics of the voting population would be interesting to know but my guess is that they are regular visitors to art galleries (me), subscribers to the National Gallery e-mail newsletters (me) and listeners to the Today programme (me), are largely over forty (me), University educated (me), white and middle class (oh dear, me again). Yet despite being part of the dominant subculture of Britain, I often feel alienated and often seek solace in music, art and literature of previous generations when things seemed less brutal and more beautiful. I don’t say this to defend myself, or to make myself into a representative of the British public but to observe that I am not alone. I feel obliged to say that our Christian response must be to treasure the best of the past but also be open to best of the present and future so that in every generation the beauty of the Lord may be revealed.


by Fr Philip Knights, CASE Team Member