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Goya: Portrait of Francisco Saavedra y Sangronis

Lord Lee and immortality

So how does this portrait by Goya, of a little known politician who has no connection with Britain, come to be in London, in the Courtauld Galleries? The painting initially stayed in Spain but by the early 20th century it was in a collection in Paris. It came up for sale again in 1928 in Amsterdam when it was bought on behalf of the English politician and philanthropist Lord Lee by a firm of dealers in Frankfurt called J & S Goldschmidt. Arthur Hamilton Lee (1868-1947) was one of the truly great and good. The youngest son of a vicar he started his long and distinguished career in the military where he was soon noticed, becoming military attaché in Cuba during the Spanish American war. He was one of those people who seemed to have been good at everything. He had eminent friends across the globe (such as Teddy Roosevelt) and he married money - the daughter of a leading New York banker. In 1900 he became a member of parliament under the conservative banner (Balfour) taking the seat for Fareham in Hampshire. He served with distinction in World War I and became a member of Lloyd George’s government in charge of food production. As well as being charming and easy to get on with he was also a brilliant administrator, so he was one of those people that everyone wants to have on their committee. He became Lord Lee of Fareham in 1918 but gave up active party politics in 1922, although remaining in the public service. He was extremely persuasive and influential - he tried, but sadly failed, to get submarine warfare abolished. He had a country house and a thousand acre estate called Chequers, which he filled with works of art, making himself a knowledgeable connoisseur in the process. His marriage was childless, and with no descendants he and his wife gave the Chequers estate to the nation in 1917, with an endowment, as a permanent country residence for British Prime Ministers.

Although the Courtauld Institute and Gallery bears the name of the great benefactor, industrialist and collector Samuel Courtauld, it was in fact his friend Lord Lee who conceived the idea of setting up an institution for the study of the arts. Courtauld had it in mind to leave his pictures to the National Gallery and it was Lord lee who persuaded him to create and fund the institution which has made Courtauld’s name one of the best known and respected in the history of collecting and art scholarship. It was Lee who also arranged for the transfer of the Warburg Institute and Library from Hamburg to Germany before the Second World War. Lord Lee was truly an eminence grise whose name deserves to be much more widely known.

Perhaps it was this, and his own experiences as a government minister, that drew him to the portrait of Saavedra. Both of them, too, were men of Enlightened views, as was Goya. In any case, paintings by Goya came rarely to the market, even in the 1920s, and you can only buy what the market makes available. His widow gave the painting to the Courtauld Institute on his death in 1947 together with other works of art.

How does one ensure that one’s name is remembered by posterity? Cosimo de Medici rightly understood that the sure fire way is to create a pre-eminent building and attach one’s name to it. Its inhabitants will die, its collections may be dispersed, the purpose and function of the building may change, but it will always be known as X’s building (the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery is a good recent example). Another way, as perhaps Saavedra realised, is to have your likeness painted by a world class artist whose reputation is likely to last. This is a less certain route to fame. Lord Lee had his portrait painted by Philip de Laszlo and James Gunn. Famous and revered in their day and considered to be great, neither of them have turned out to be Goyas, even though their best is arguably better than Goya on a bad day. It is a pity, for if anyone deserves to be commemorated in a painting that should guarantee immortality, it is Lord Lee of Fareham.

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