Art: It’s goodnight from him

    I take my hat off to them.

    Yet for one museum director to look tall, it is necessary for another to be around at the same time who is just as clearly a midget or a flea. In this, too, we have been fortunate. Because, coinciding almost exactly with the careers of the brilliant Serota and the great MacGregor, there has been Timothy Clifford, director of the National Galleries of Scotland, from 1984 until today.

    After 21 years at the helm in Edinburgh, Clifford is finally retiring in January. Hurrah. If I were Scottish, I would press for a national holiday to be declared on the day of his departure. In the fields of museum display, value judgments and, the one for which he is most notorious, collecting, Clifford has, in my view, been a disaster. To prove this, and to mark his departure in suitably ornate style, he has put together an exhibition of the things he has acquired during his 21 years in charge of Scotland’s national collections.

    Whatever else this outrageous show is, it is not an example of someone seeking to hide his light beneath a bushel. I suppose there must be precedents for a museum director seeking to bid adieu with a display of his finest moments. I just cannot recollect them.

    The 500 or so pieces Clifford has crammed into the Royal Scottish Academy strike me as an unusual mix of the predictable and the misleading. What’s predictable is that they reflect so fully his appetite for fripperies and footnotes. A few years ago, I complained on these pages that Clifford’s remodelling of the Scottish National Gallery had left the collection looking like “a tart’s boudoir”. This same frilly aesthetic lowers the seriousness of the present arrangement: pictures hanging one on top of the other in higgledy-piggledy rows; bits of vaguely posh furniture scattered about to create a sense of the palatial; medals, armchairs, sofas mixed with architectural drawings and paintings by 19th-century Frenchmen of no consequence. The aesthetics of the drawing room have been transported to the museum.

    Where the show manages to be misleading is in the impression it gives that all this crazed accumulation is somehow Clifford’s individual achievement. How else can we interpret a show whose raison d’être is to commemorate this director’s span in office? Twenty-One Years of Collecting for Scotland, trumpets the title.

    In fact, as Clifford himself points out in a colourful catalogue essay packed with thrilling tales of madcap taxi chases to secure missing auction masterpieces and fortuitous weekend stays at dusty country houses, the national collections of Scotland are overseen by various curators and directors, some of whom seem to me to deserve more obvious credit at these proceedings than they are given. In particular, the director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Richard Calvocoressi, whose superb wheeling and dealing, and excellent cultivation of donors, has resulted in the building of Britain’s finest collection of surrealism, appears underpraised. Clifford would surely be the first to admit that modern art is not his thing. Yet the modern sections of this show are its most reliably impressive stretches.

    These are minor criticisms, however. I would be happy to forgive Clifford his wretched display fantasies and that alarming vanity if his impact on the business of collecting for the nation had not been quite so disastrous. It is surely to him we owe the recent popularity of the shrill, jingoistic, unworthy campaigns to “save” masterpieces for the nation. Remember the indecent fuss over Canova’s Three Graces? How that needed to be “saved” from the clutches of the dreaded Getty Museum in California? Whipped into a fierce anti-Getty frenzy, we managed, as a nation, to cough up £7.6m to stop this dismal piece of neoclassical soft porn from going to California, where it would have looked at home, and move it to Scotland, where it doesn’t.

    Canova’s white marble bottoms have pride of place in the grandest spot in this show, and the giant marble gewgaw appears every bit as unnecessary as I remember it being. Clifford’s notorious campaigns were offensive on a number of levels. They inflamed feelings of jingoism and cultural possessiveness that were entirely inappropriate in the circumstances: how can an Italian statue truly be part of Scotland’s heritage? They inflated art prices that were already obscene. They turned museums into trophy cabinets and distracted them from their real business, the achievement of enlightenment. Above all, they signalled the takeover of museum behaviour by cultural spin doctors. The whipping-up of deliberate media storms, the bandying of Monopoly sums, the unforgivable confusion between huge price tags and real contributions to civilisation — all this was thinking worthy of Alastair Campbell, but not of the National Gallery of Scotland.

    Clifford’s antics in the collecting arena, the media fusses he inspired, to buy the works he is most proud of here — the Canova, the Botticelli, the Titian — are perhaps understandable as ways for the National Galleries of Scotland to get noticed. But these same noisy methods have, alas, been taken up by other institutions, most tragically by the National Gallery in London, which has allowed a new taste for cultural spin-doctoring to disfigure its achievements in ways that would have been unimaginable in MacGregor’s graceful time.

    You will remember the recent media frenzy over the dubious and tiny “Raphael” Madonna, which had to be “saved” from American clutches and was eventually acquired for £22m. Now an infinitely superior painting, a real masterpiece, Titian’s Portrait of a Young Man, which has hung at the National since 1992, is going to be sold. Having just triumphed in one noisy appeal to save an unmissable masterpiece for the nation, the gallery is in no position to repeat the effort. Its familiar pleas for help are falling, understandably, on deaf ears. That is what happens when you cry wolf as loudly as the National Gallery has been taught to cry wolf.

    If the great Titian goes, then this singular loss, and not just the huge tonnage of minor works that bulks out the crammed display at the Royal Scottish Academy, will be the legacy of Timothy Clifford.