English Heritage refused to lend one of its most precious paintings to a blockbuster Vermeer exhibition, claiming it was too fragile to travel, despite expert assurance that the risk of damage was “negligible”, documents reveal.
Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum tried to gather all of Johannes Vermeer’s 37 surviving paintings in one place for the largest ever exhibition of work by the Dutch master.
The Guitar Player at London’s Kenwood House was one of only nine known Vermeer paintings not to appear at the show, which ended earlier this month.
Now correspondence released after a freedom of information request reveals the lengths gone to by the Rijksmuseum’s curators to try persuade English Heritage, which runs Kenwood, to temporarily part with the painting.
At the start of the charm offensive last July senior figures from the organisation, including its chief executive, Kate Mavor, were treated to breakfast at the exclusive Wolseley restaurant in Mayfair by a Rijksmuseum delegation led by its director, Taco Dibbits, to discuss the potential loan.
The Rijksmuseum even commissioned a report by “the world’s leading expert [on] vibration mitigation” to try to convince English Heritage that the painting could be safely transported to Amsterdam using the latest technology.
In a “crate assessment for very fragile paintings”, Prof Kerstin Kracht, of Berlin’s Technische Universität, concluded that “the risk of damage was negligible”.
She recommended specially adapted transport crates that hold the painting using wire rope isolators to protect it against any bumps in transit.
The Rijksmuseum said it had used the same technique to safely move Rembrandt’s prized Night Watch painting on a touring show of the Netherlands. It also offered to commission Kracht to oversee the operation.
A video was sent to English Heritage and its painting conservators showing how art-moving specialists transported a fragile painting by Piet Mondrian from The Hague to Paris. It involved scanning the painting first to map its vulnerability.
From the start of the negotiations, English Heritage was reluctant to agree to the loan. In an email last June it explained that its Vermeer was “unlined” and sat on an “original strainer”, which makes the canvas weak and brittle. It conceded that the painting was loaned to the National Gallery in 2013 during refurbishment to Kenwood House, but other than this it has “always refused it for loan because of its inherent vulnerability”.
It added: “The rope isolators sound really interesting but this wouldn’t affect our decision – we are also concerned about vibration when it is handled as well as during transport.”
The Dutch curators said they understood these concerns but pleaded with the charity to reconsider. An email last August said: “We would not have asked you to consider this if the occasion was not so exceptional.”
It said that other reluctant Vermeer owners had allowed their fragile paintings to travel for the “first (and last) Vermeer retrospective in the Rijksmuseum”.
It also said that as part of the loan the Kenwood Vermeer would be examined and scanned by a “interdisciplinary research team of curators and scientists”.
It concluded with reference to the history of The Guitar Player: “The temporary homecoming of this exceptional painting for the first time in over 225 years would be of great significance to this exhibition.”
But still English Heritage refused. In an email last September it said: “Clearly this exhibition is a landmark event and will be a marvellous opportunity to study and appreciate so many works by Vermeer in one place, with all your scholarship supporting their presentations. In an ideal world we would love the The Guitar Player to be among them. However, we have to be guided by our basic duty of care of the painting and our conservators, after very careful and serious consideration, regard the risk of its fragile condition too great to justify lending it.”
The novelist Tracy Chevalier, the author of the international bestseller Girl with a Pearl Earring, based on a Vermeer painting of that name, said: “It was a shame not to see as many Vermeers as possible in one place, but I understand why some institutions said no.
“I suspect they might have some remorse now because the Rijksmuseum exhibition was such a success. I think they missed a great party.”
Chevalier said that the Royal Collection also refused to lend Vermeer’s The Music Lesson because it was also too fragile to travel.
She added: “The risk of damage may be negligible but a painting is always safer on a wall not being moved.”