Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, which arrived at the National Gallery in September 2009, has belonged to some fascinating collectors. First painted for Philip II of Spain, the painting was owned by a series of European monarchs and noblemen, before coming into the hands of a colourful group of English aristocrats – men who helped to change British tastes in art.
Among the first British owners was the Duke of Bridgewater – a wealthy canal magnate who was considered something of a philistine. Had it not been for his enlightened nephew, Lord Gower, Bridgewater might never have shown any appetite for Old Master paintings (let alone have built a collection of them).
Once Gower had explained that the Old Masters could turn a healthy profit, the duke developed a rather sudden enthusiasm for art. Bridgewater and Gower joined up with the Earl of Carlisle to buy all the French and Italian pictures from the Orléans Collection – one of the finest collections ever assembled.
They retained many of the best works for themselves, selling off the others by means of a pioneering public exhibition-cum-sale. Their purchases were to influence UK art collections for generations to come.
Bridgewater and public displays
Tastes were not the only thing that Bridgewater and his descendants radically changed. They laid on a series of displays which created a new public fervour for art.
The popularity of the Old Masters – along with a new found patriotic desire to keep paintings in the UK – would eventually lead to the foundation of the National Gallery.