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Sir Denis Mahon threatens to withdraw pictures from Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery

Veteran collector and lobbyist for the arts opposes introduction of entrance fees

London

Sir Denis Mahon has threatened to withdraw three paintings which were promised to Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery. This follows news that National Museums on Merseyside, which runs the Walker, will introduce admission charges on 1 July. Meeting on 18 February, the museums’ trustees agreed on a £3 charge for a one-year pass, following a fall in their government grant (£13.3 million in the past financial year and due to drop to £12.7 million in 1998-99).

Despite the anticipated loss of three important Italian pictures, the Merseyside trustees felt they had “no choice but to attend to their fiduciary duty and continue with their charging plans which will ensure that the seven institutions under their control remain open”. The £3-a-year pass will cover the Walker Art Gallery, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool Museum, Sudley House Merseyside Maritime Museum, HM Customs & Excise Museum and the Museum of Liverpool Life and the Conservation Centre. As museum director Richard Foster explained to Sir Denis Mahon: the Merseyside trustees have their “backs to the wall, and a gun pointed at our heads” by government cutbacks in funding.

Sir Denis insists he will recall one of his paintings which has been on long-term loan since 1991 to the Walker Art Gallery, Guercino’s “St John the Baptist visited in prison by Salome”. He also intends to revoke his decision to leave two other works to the Walker through the National Art Collections Fund. These are Giordano’s “Venus, Mars and the Forge of Vulcan” and Mola’s “Landscape with St Bruno in Ecstasy”. Although it was informally suggested to Sir Denis that his three pictures could be hung in an area of the Walker where they would be seen without charge, he rejected this proposal and wants his paintings to hang beside other appropriate seventeenth-century works.

Sir Denis says he intends to donate the three pictures to a gallery overseas. Although refusing to specify the recipient, he has already promised twelve pictures to the National Gallery of Ireland and the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna.

Donating the three works to a foreign gallery would require an export licence (assuming they are valued at over £119,000 each). If the Waverley Criteria were deemed to apply to any of the pictures, export licences would be deferred so that they could be offered for sale to a British collection. Such a scenario would put the Department of National Heritage in an embarrassing position. The paintings would be offered to British galleries at a commercial price, whereas under Sir Denis’s original arrangement they would have gone as a gift.

Sir Denis is to donate sixty-three paintings to public collections in the UK, which are worth over £25 million (The Art Newspaper, No.65, December 1996, pp.1,10-11). These are to pass through the National Art Collections Fund (except for two which go direct to the National Gallery) and will be withdrawn if any recipient deaccessions other pictures. The beneficiaries will be galleries in London, Oxford, Cambridge, Birmingham, Leeds, Edinburgh, and, in his original plan, Liverpool.

Meanwhile the exhibition of Sir Denis’s pictures opened at the National Gallery on 26 February. “Discovering the Italian Baroque: the Denis Mahon Collection”, which runs until 18 May, comprises seventy-nine paintings (including three which he sold in the 1970s). It has also been confirmed that his collection will be shown at the National Gallery of Scotland from 13 June to 21 September.

In his forward to the catalogue, National Gallery director Neil MacGregor paid tribute to Sir Denis’s determination: “Decade after decade, he has persistently reasoned and argued, hectored and blustered in defence of the museums of the United Kingdom. Astonishingly, in almost every case he has ultimately persuaded governments of all colours to face up to their duty to preserve public collections for future generations, always coming back to the point that if governments want private support for museums, they must unequivocally demonstrate their own”.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Sir Denis Mahon threatens to withdraw pictures'