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Lady Colin Campbell by Giovanni Boldini (NPG 1630)

The Gallery faced a delicate challenge when this portrait was bequeathed to them in 1911. Lady Colin Campbell had gained notoriety in high society with a scandalous divorce case in 1886. Although she later had a successful career in the world of editorial magazine publishing and authored a number of books, there were concerns for the Gallery. Was she famous enough? What she too scandalous as a public figure? On the other hand, would it be wrong to turn down such a brilliant portrait?

In 1911, Boldini was considered the John Singer Sargent of Parisian society, and correspondence from the then-director of the Gallery, CJ Holmes, to Mr Niemeyer of HM Treasury, provides a counter for each objection. Firstly, that of fame: “the painting [...] is remembered as a remarkable portrait of one of the cleverest and most beautiful women of her age”. Secondly, the appropriateness of a woman of scandalous reputation in the Gallery’s collection: “The famous beauties of earlier times already [...] in the National Portrait Gallery supplement the portraits of famous men by illustrating the social aspect of each age and (apart from their attractiveness to the public) so completes the historical timeline which the gallery is intended to present.” Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, Holmes noted that to acquire a work of such brilliance was no longer an easy task: “these portraits are now so eagerly sought after that they have become too expensive for the purchase out of public funds and any chance of acquiring them by gift has to be seized.”

However, there was an added complication to acquiring the portrait, in the form of the Gallery’s Ten Year Rule, which meant that a portrait could only be acquired ten years after the sitter’s death.  Campbell’s portrait could not be accepted just in the same year as the sitter’s death, but the conditions under which it had been offered stated that if not accepted immediately, it would be offered to someone else. The Gallery turned to its neighbour, the National Gallery, for help, who were persuaded to display the painting for ten years. The reaction was instant. An article in the Daily Telegraph on 16 May 1912 tells of the “public dissatisfaction” at the Gallery’s acquisition of, and the National Gallery’s subsequent display of, the portrait.  The dispute even made it to Parliament, with the Secretary of the Treasury urged to have the picture removed to the Victoria and Albert Museum, or “some equally suitable place of exhibition”. Despite the outcry, Boldini’s portrait is very popular with today’s audiences and is regularly subject to loan requests from institutions around the world. As CJ Holmes sagely noted, “Time alone can decide the final importance of such acquisitions.”