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October 2008

The news that the Duke of Sutherland has offered his two late Titians, Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, to the National Galleries of Scotland and their counterpart south of the border (of which I am a trustee), has been greeted with the usual mixture of good and bad sense. The fact that the cost, £100m, is clearly a bargain has not deflected the howls of protest, not least at the idea of all that lovely lolly going to a duke, of all people. Why dukes - unlike other squillionaires, or indeed the rest of us - should not be allowed to sell their possessions remains a mystery.

At least there seems to be universal agreement that if you are going to add to the national collections, then this is as good as it gets. These two canvases are quite simply the greatest old masters left in private hands anywhere in the world. They are the works of art that, even discounting the tax advantages and the Duke of Sutherland's generosity which, with luck, put them within the reach of our museums, anyone would most want to acquire. Better still, they are among the greatest paintings ever made: crucially, their pre-eminence is not merely a consequence of the fact that so many of their rivals are already in public collections.

One of the most striking aspects of the coverage of the story has been its confirmation of the timeless appeal of Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, above all to artists. In 2001, Lucian Freud stated: "To me, these are simply the most beautiful pictures in the world", and in the wake of the announcement of their sale the press has quoted such luminaries as John Bellany, Tracey Emin and Alison Watt on their merits. The reason is that Titian's living force, unrivalled among Renaissance artists, is a consequence of both the form and the content of his late works. On one hand, it derives from his gestural handling of oil paint, and on the other from the blazing intensity with which he brings his actors to life.

In 1518, very possibly before he was 30, with the completion of his magisterial Assumption of the Virgin for the Church of the Frari in Venice, where it remains to this day, Titian had assured his artistic immortality, but he was not yet the painter he ultimately became. Exactly half a century later, in 1568, when Giorgio Vasari published the second and definitive edition of his Lives of the Artists, he recognised Titian's genius and discussed what he referred to as his "last manner". This involved the triumphantly free brushwork which inspired all the great painters of the 17th century - Rembrandt, Rubens, Velázquez - and has continued to inspire artists in endlessly various ways ever since. However, it is arguably even more Titian's capacity to combine tragic subject-matter - neither of these stories from Ovid ends well - with a sense of affirmation, of joie de vivre, that makes him stand alone.

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Susan Hill
October 9th, 2008
1:10 PM
I wonder why the Duke could not just put them on loan to the nation, to be recalled /sold only if he was near-bankruptcy ? They would still belong to him and could be used as assets, we could all see them but it would cost nothing. On the other hand, I suppose it could be near-bankruptcy now. But I bet a fiver he isn`t

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