Sunday 14 June 2020

Anno Domini

Continuing the lockdown trawl through 'my papers', I'm coming across a lot of features I wrote, years ago, about visits to various places around the country, some of which I've entirely forgotten; others I partly recall, while a few are still quite vivid in my memory. Just now I found a piece on the Russell-Cotes Museum in Bournemouth, which I do remember – who could forget it? The building is eccentric and rather ugly, but interesting, with clever use of natural light. The artworks, though, are a jaw-dropping monument to the ghastly good taste of a late-Victorian hotelier with too much money at his disposal. One of the prize exhibits that I mention in my piece is an enormous painting which, when it was bought, was the most expensive ever sold by any living artist. Sir Merton Russell-Cotes (for it was he) paid £6,900 – around £850,000 in today's money – for  Anno Domini, or The Flight into Egypt by Edwin Longsden Long. I had quite forgotten what this looked like, but found it online and was duly enlightened. Here it is...
Well, I suppose if you like this kind of thing, then this is just the kind of thing you'll like – and the bigger the better: this one is about 8ft by 16ft. Long made a highly lucrative speciality of this kind of Biblical epic on canvas, which had immense – and today quite incomprehensible – appeal to the public. Many were displayed in his own gallery, the Edwin Long Gallery, on Bond Street, and  after his death some of them were collected together to form the nucleus of a very popular gallery of Christian art which replaced the Gustave DorĂ©  gallery. The past in indeed another country.
I always quietly relish coming across these reminders of how soon the most celebrated and expensive art of its age can be entirely forgotten, surviving only as something to cause later generations to stare in disbelief. Damien Hirst and co, this could be you.

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