I love going home to Yorkshire but often I need something else to do to help pass the time. Family chit chat isn’t really me. So when I first read of the opening of the Portland Collection at The Harley Gallery, I thought it made the perfect trip. Art and history combined in less than an hour’s drive from my parents.
All I knew of the collection was the famed Portland Vase which I’d first seen when going round the British Museum as a student. I was fortunate that my time at UCL coincided with the free opening of our great national museums and regularly sat in the grand central courtyard reading.
Like the nation’s very best museums the Portland Collection is also free. I was staggered by this: the quality of exhibits is so high that it’s something you would not resent paying for. Art is one of the few things my wife says I’m not stingy about!
The collection is broad based with everything from a pearl earring worn by Charles I at his execution, through to portraits, silver, jewellery in the shape of a magnificent Cartier Tiara, a collection of letters from virtually every Prime Minister and much, much more besides.
So, whilst the collection is over four centuries old, the building which houses it is very modern – yet tasteful. All you really see from the outside is the sleek zinc roof. The quality of the finish is such that it’s easy to see how it cost some £3m. The impression it gives is of something light and very finely balanced. Unlike many modern museum buildings, it doesn’t think it’s the star. Like one of the old faithful family retainers, it sits quietly in the background so that it’s the family and their possessions which take precedence.
The intention is to rotate the 5,000 objects in the collection over a 10 year period. There are a number of Van Dyke portraits on display including one of the future Charles II, as a young Prince of Wales in armour, as if providing a foretaste of the military turmoil which would later engulf him and the nation.
But what really interested me above everything else was a rare red chalk Michelangelo drawing. The Holy Family or ‘Madonna of Silence’, as it’s become known, was thought to be drawn as a gift in 1545. It’s not easy to see a theme in the collection beyond the very best quality. The drawing typifies that trait. It could be bought and so it was. It is a superb Michelangelo displaying with all the muscular virtuosity for which he is renowned. It has not been shown in public for 50 years, yet will now give this little corner of Nottinghamshire a world class gem.
The fact that much of the objects like the superb sets of miniatures will rotate will, I hope, bring people back time and again. The Portland Collection has really wetted my appetite and I’m now determined to return next year and do a tour of the nearby ducal seat at Wellbeck Abbey.