The nation lost a tycoon’s priceless collection to Portugal 50 years ago. At last, the treasures are coming to London, reports Alice O’Keeffe
When the National Gallery turned down a priceless bequest from the oil tycoon Calouste Gulbenkian in 1950, Britain was deprived of one of the most significant art collections in the world. Paintings by Rubens, Degas, Monet, Turner and Gainsborough were shipped out of the country, alongside a wealth of artefacts including Egyptian sculptures, scores of gold and silver Greco-Roman coins, delicate Qing vases, Ottoman velvets and Lalique jewellery.
The collection and its eccentric owner found a home in Lisbon, where the Gulbenkian museum and charitable foundation became one of the cornerstones of Portuguese cultural life. But now, for the first time in more than half a century, the collection is lending some of its paintings – contemporary British works by artists including David Hockney, Bridget Riley, Patrick Caulfield and Paula Rego – to an exhibition at Tate Britain in celebration of the foundation’s 50th anniversary.
‘Gulbenkian was a British subject, so it seems appropriate to mark the anniversary in Britain,’ said Jorge Molder, director of the Gulbenkian Museum of Modern Art, which is providing paintings for the exhibition, opening in March. ‘As an organisation, we have always had very close links with Britain. It was Portugal’s good fortune that the collection didn’t stay there, as he had planned.’
A diplomatic dispute lay behind the National Gallery’s decision to reject the bequest. A Turkish-born Armenian, Gulbenkian took British citizenship in 1920. He dedicated much of the fortune he made as ‘Mr Five Per Cent’, the owner of 5 per cent of the Iraqi Petroleum Company, to building up his art collection. He proudly offered to give it all to the National Gallery, and was even planning to pay for the construction of a purpose-built annexe in which to display it.
But his relationship with the gallery, and with the British government, soured during the Second World War. Gulbenkian was angered when the British classified him an ‘enemy alien,’ when he stayed in his Paris home after the German invasion. He demanded that the classification be wiped from his record, but the British refused, with one government memo in 1944 referring to him as a ‘slippery benefactor’.
Gulbenkian had also earned the government’s disapproval by his attempts to avoid paying British tax on his millions. After years of negotiations, the bequest fell through when Gulbenkian’s friend, Kenneth Clark, was replaced as director of the National Gallery by the irascible Philip Hendy, who opposed his plans.
‘Gulbenkian didn’t hold a grudge against the British,’ insisted Rui Esgaio, head of the president’s office at the foundation in Lisbon. ‘Some of his family continued to live in the UK. When the foundation was established, it seemed appropriate that there should be a branch in London.’
It is rumoured that the Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar offered Gulbenkian tax exemption to bring his treasures to the country. The Gulbenkian museum is now one of Lisbon’s top tourist attractions. Middle Eastern tiles are set into the walls, and one room full of stunning 14th-century Syrian mosque lamps is backed by its own closed garden, representing the Islamic idea of paradise.
‘To create a collection like this, you have to be an artist,’ said Maria Deolinda Cerqueira, curator of the museum. ‘These artworks perfectly represent Gulbenkian’s personality, reflecting his interest in both Islamic and Western art. He was a bridge between the two cultures.’
The Gulbenkian foundation, formed a year after his death in 1955, boasts assets of €2.5 million and an annual budget of €100m, making it one of the biggest charitable bodies in the world. It spends 85 per cent of its budget in Portugal, funding the arts, social development, education and science.
The British branch funds the annual £100,000 Gulbenkian prize for museums and galleries and it is sponsoring the Tate Triennial, an exhibition of new British art going on show alongside the Gulbenkian exhibition in March.
But until now the treasures once within Britain’s grasp have remained elusive. ‘Gulbenkian only ever bought work he loved – he never sold or lent them. He thought of his artworks as children,’ said Cerqueira. ‘Perhaps that explains why he was reluctant to let them go.’