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The Madonna of the Pinks is the popular title of a work attributed to the Renaissance master Raphael, painted in Florence in about 1508. The picture, in oils on wood, is loosely based on a Leonardo da Vinci picture known as the Benois Madonna, which is found in the Hermitage museum, St. Petersburg. Raphael's picture shows the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus playing on her lap. She is dressed in a grey and yellow dress with a blue skirt and a small white veil, and Jesus sits naked on a white pillow on her lap. A window in the top right corner shows some tumbledown buildings, and behind the Virgin, on the left of the picture, is a curtain in a dull green colour. The picture takes its name from a bunch of pinks, most of which Mary is holding in her left hand, and one of which the infant Jesus is holding up to show to his mother. Jesus looks serious but contented, and very naturalistic, unlike the child-man image of Eastern icons and earlier western religious art. Mary seems actually to be laughing. Both, of course, appear as fair-haired white-skinned caucasians, out of place even in Italy, let alone Palestine; but that's a characteristic of much art of the period, and we need not blame Raphael. The execution of the work is masterful, and at less than a foot square1 the picture may be described as small but perfectly formed.

The image was a successful and popular one in Raphael's own time, and his studio produced several copies. The one thought to be the original was in the Italian Camuccini collection until the middle of the nineteenth century, when Algernon, Fourth Duke of Northumberland purchased it. At that time a great many Renaissance works were purchased for private and public collections in Britain, which was then one of the richest nations in the world. It then hung on the wall of an upstairs corridor in the family quarters at Alnwick Castle, the Duke's residence, for over a century. In 1991, Nicholas Penny, a Renaissance art expert then working for the National Gallery in London, visited the castle to meet the 11th Duke and look at the major art works housed there, and happened to notice the small, rather dirty picture labelled 'Raphael' in the corridor. According to Penny's version of events, his gaze was first attracted by the frame rather than the picture itself, which was considered to be one of the copies and was not prominently displayed. According to the present (12th) Duke of Northumberland, the 10th Duke, his father, had always considered it likely that the work was genuine, and had hung it at an appropriately well-visited spot in the apartments. In any case, the National Gallery restored the painting, and were granted a long loan of it by the family. It hung in the National for over ten years, becoming one of its more celebrated treasures.

In 2002, the J Paul Getty Trust arranged to purchase the picture from the present Duke for £35 million. Selling a work 'off the wall' of another gallery in this manner is not unknown, and the Getty has done so before, but it is considered to be poor taste in museum circles. This has provoked a national outcry in the UK, and a great deal of controversy which is not yet resolved. A temporary bar has been placed on the export of the picture, to allow time for the National Gallery to put together a competing bid. Due to tax concessions offered in such cases, the National need only raise £29 million to outbid the Getty, but such a sum is still no mean feat in the present climate of depressed art funding. An unprecedented £20 million has been tentatively offered as a grant by the Heritage Lottery Fund, but the expenditure of such a large sum of public money for the benefit of one of the country's richest men has been is unlikely to be popular in all quarters. In a letter to The Daily Telegraph published on January 13, 2003, the Duke defends his action in selling the work by pointing out that the money will be used not for his personal pleasure, or even for his wife's pet project of laying out a public formal garden at the castle, but to maintain his estates of farms and tourist sites which are significant employers in their respective sectors in the north-east of England. The previous day's Sunday Times had been implicitly critical of the 111th richest person in Britain seeking to dispose of an item of national heritage, and had unkindly alluded to the death by accidental drug overdose of his older brother, the 11th Duke. I at least have difficulty seeing how a work by an Italian master is an essential part of Britain's national heritage, but I dislike the Sunday Times' handling of the story, which seems to be argumentum ad hominem. Nicholas Penny, now a senior curator at the National Gallery in Washington, DC, has lent his voice to the media personality, former head of the BBFC, the First Church Estates Commissioner Andreas Whittam-Smith, has argued that the Getty, being richer and owning fewer Raphaels, has every right to take the work.

1: 29 x 23 cm

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