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What does Waverley mean?

14 November 2013

Scott_-_RaeburnA recent letter in The Times drew attention to the distinguished administrative career of the author of the Waverley criteria who had been summarily dismissed by one of its correspondents as “some 1950s committee man”, while another correspondent (13 November) entertained us with a story of his taciturnity which I shan’t spoil. To people of a certain generation, the name “Waverley” may summon up an avuncular character in a children’s television series, while others will think of nineteenth-century novels of excessive length. Being then interested in such things, my childhood memory is of a splendid passage in Bertrand Russell:

If “the author of Waverley” meant anything other than “Scott”, “Scott is the author of Waverley” would be false, which it is not. If “the author of Waverley” meant “Scott”, “Scott is the author of Waverley” would be a tautology, which it is not. Therefore, “the author of Waverley” means neither “Scott” nor anything else – i.e. “the author of Waverley” means nothing, Q.E.D.

As is evident from the Times correspondence, Russell was clearly right. None of this undermines David Aaronovitch’s original argument that sets out to debunk the nationalism displayed in the recent acquisition of a pair of curiosities by Stubbs which the National Maritime Museum kept from going to Australia. These undistinguished daubs (by an artist who is normally so much better) have already occupied far more space than they deserve, and I add only my view that their departure for Canberra, so far from being a misfortune for our country, would have increased the average quality of the public holdings of art in both countries.

But the real question goes beyond Aaronovitch’s trenchant analysis of misplaced cultural nationalism and muddled public thinking on this subject, and is of far more general application than to these two paintings which have been hidden away until now. It is that the use of these criteria perpetuates the concentrations and vacua in our national collections. By effectively restricting  our acquisitions policy to “saving for the nation” things that have been here, often since they were created, generally purchased on the Grand Tour by wealthy British aristocrats, we simply repeat and reinforce the choices and tastes of an era that are already extremely well represented in our museums. We have, for example, pretty good holdings of seventeenth-century French painters Claude and Poussin, but eighteenth-century France is woefully underrepresented.

What we need is a different approach in which museum curators can go out to buy what they require to create balanced, representative collections. And where other countries have gaps in areas that are our strengths we should cease to regard it as a misfortune if they end up in easily accessible collections abroad.

But we dare not propose this. If my approach were suggested to the Treasury, we wouldn’t trust them not to accept that quid of withdrawal of the current acceptance schemes without giving the quo of a grossed-up general purchasing budget.

We have in a word tied our kangaroo down.

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