THREE HUNDRED YEARS Of BRITISH PORTRAITURE comes off feebly at the Auckland City Art Gallery. It is a mixture of familiar faces from the Dunedin Public Art Gallery and the Auckland City Art Gallery permanent collections; so the imposing title is no more than a banner headline to get the public to look at mild sensations inside: six recent Auckland acquisitions, i.e. one very pretty Cornelius Johnson, one pretty Raeburn, one swooshy Beechey (Lawrence, minus class), one Ramsay head of unknown gent, one near-ruined Reynolds, one decent Frith. Their companions are a mixed bunch: four familiars that look nice any day, Auckland's Wright of Derby, Dunedin's Ramsay, Raeburn and Romney, John and Dobson look all right: the rest dull, damaged, or dubious.
Portrait of a Lady 1633
oil on panel, 784 x 657 mm,
(collection of the Auckland City Art Gallery,
The M.A. Serra Trust)
There could have been a modest little show of eleven, or ten if the Reynolds had been left out. Auckland's better Gainsborough is not on show: John Sparrowe by Gainsborough faintly visible and dull as ever is. The Dahl is a wooden studio version of royal George I; Ramsay's royal George III is all studio work including the head. Dunedin's Gainsborough is right in the head and bosom but very perfunctory in all the rest. Beach and Beale are very dull. The Cotes is badly rubbed, so one cannot tell now what it should be like. The Hoppner is glossy but is it much repainted? Dunedin's Reynolds is awkwardly cut at the bottom (and the sides?) and has no visible glazes. As for the drawings, one charming Lawrence portrait, then a head said to be of Robbie Burns, rubbed, a faint Rossetti so-called (not in Surtees' catalogue). A head of Gainsborough so-called, by Gainsborough, it's said, but not in Hayes catalogue - for good reason, it's not by Gainsborough - perhaps an anonymous copy after a Gainsborough painting? At the tail end, two fancy heads, not portraits, one attributed to Lawrence the other to Angelica Kauffmann. The attributions appear to be by the one-time owner Smythe and not to be trusted, except for the Lawrence portrait.
The catalogue omits to mention these things. It leaves out questions of attribution and date and condition, physical state of disrepair or restoration, except for a 'Rossetti' drawing that's not in the show. It does give dowdy biographies of artists and of some sitters, reprinted from such old tomes as The Dictionary of National Biography; not a very useful way to resolve the doubts that one might reasonably have about the character of the pictures.
What is the use of a seedy collection of British portraits in New Zealand? Well, some of the additions are pleasant, especially the Cornelius Johnson. And that's about all one can say about the exhibition as an exhibition and about the pictures as things to look at. One wonders how many people who saw the show thought they were seeing the real thing throughout - e.g. a real Dahl, a real Gainsborough drawing? And were put off for life. One wants to ask whether the exhibition with catalogue may have been just a little misleading, and one wants to ask, not petulantly, whether the show was worth the trouble. Most of these paintings are regularly on show in Dunedin and Auckland and only a few of them are good to look at. One also wants to ask whether it is worthwhile buying more of these portraits, moderate to dull, or in poor condition. The Gallery has other strengths to build on: small bronzes, early twentieth century British, and drawings and prints, not forgetting what should be its greatest strength, the New Zealand Collection.