Page 7, 10th September 1982

10th September 1982
Page 7
Page 7, 10th September 1982 — Jonathan Petre talks to Michael Levey, director of the National Gallery now facing a 20th century challenge

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Organisations: Oxford University
Locations: London


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Jonathan Petre talks to Michael Levey, director of the National Gallery now facing a 20th century challenge


THE LETTER pages of the more serious newspapers are presently the battleground for an issue that has aroused the strongest, if not always the most admirable, emotions in the most diverse of protagonists. The issue? Modern architecture; or more specifically, the proposed designs for the new extension to the National Gallery, the foremost repository for the nation's art treasures.

One who remains officially neutral on the subject, although he must find it hard at times, is Sir Michael Levey, who has been the Director of the gallery since 1973. All he was prepared to say when I met him last week was that he didn't have a favourite design and that "any of the last seven must be good for the gallery."

Whatever the final choice of design, whether it be the futuristic "Dan Dare" spacepad envisaged by Richard Rogers, or the more conservative concrete superstructure conceived by Sheppard Robson, Sir Michael will be happy, because the attendant publicity will again throw the National Gallery to the forefront of national attention.

For he is very clear that his job as Director is not just about the "behind-the-scenes" administration, which he conducts with smooth efficiency from his purple painted office which overlooks Trafalgar Square. "If you want a harmonious organisation," he told me, "it is necessary to administrate it. But far more publically relevant (and I think it is the fire that keeps on burning) is that either by acquiring paintings, by exhibitions, or by events, one proclaims the value of a visit here or of an interest in the things here."

Sir Michael is not, however, someone who would ever seek self-publicity. Although he is a prolific author of books on all styles of painting, and most recently a detective novel which, he hopes, "is more than just that," Sir Michael is perhaps less well known to the public than his wife, the writer and critic Bridget Brophy. He admits, with mild self-deprecating humour, that it was by chance that he ever found himself in the National Gallery at all.

"It was all very much a fluke," he said, grinning iike a schoolboy. He left Oxford University with a degree in English but no formal training in the visual arts except for various trips to Europe, taking in as many art galleries as possible. "I didn't have any idea for a job. I came to London to see a girl fdriisecnody eorfe dm itnhe, atwthheorehawdabseaen joabt Gwhio had Og fnogr t hwei t Nh atimonea,1 a lery for

an assistant keeper, and asked me to help her fill in her application form.

"I said: 'Well, why don't I apply at the same time as you?' She said: `No, don't do that because you'll get it!' I explained to her that neither of us would z.t it — we had no qualifications apart from our degrees and simply writing on the form 'I've been to Italy' ot '1'm very fond of Bellini' wouldn't get us anywhere. We were both interviewed and I got the job.

"I had no idea that there was anything behind the walls of the gallery — I couldn't think what an assistant keeper would do. I soon found out."

Michael Levey was brought up in a strict Catholic environment. His father came from a large Irish family — "I had seven maiden aunts" — and his mother, who he describes as "a peasant person by nature," was a Catholic convert from Yorkshire.

He was educated at the Oratory which was overshadowed by the giant figure of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the school's founder. "The chaplain at my prep school, a man called Fr Henry Tristram, was actually able to start talks to us by saying 'Cardinal Newman said to me' — which, looking back, is rather a fabulous link with history. We were always told in those days that Newman would end up a saint."

But, although he is no longer a believer, he does not regard his Catholic education as entirely useless. "It left me a residue of reasonably recondite useful knowledge, if only about saints' days and things that appear in paintings."

He explains his interest in the visual arts through his early interest in colour — at the age of five he collected toothbrush handles for their stained glass translucency — and his earliest influence, he painfully admitted, were postcard reproductions of pre-Raphaelite paintings, which he now considers very bad taste. But good taste is not merely a matter of education.

"I think it does begin literally with taste, a feeling on the tongue, not a million miles away, dilettante though this may sound, from the appreciation of wine or cooking ..." and art is a necessaty food, "bread rather than jam; I think without it we are going to be emotionally stunted people."

Although he finds many challenges in modern art — his Achilles heel is the notorious Tate "bricks" which he finds lacking in "visual glamour" — his prime interest is with the great masters of the past. "I feel one can easily misinterpret the art of the past, because the artists are dead, and not realise that there are still challenges for us in the work they left behind."

His favourite painter? Althouh he is reluctant to make a choice, he eventually decides on Titian, the most "Shakespearean" of painters. "From Titian you get A Midsummer Night's Dream' a marvellous fairy tale of almost fragile enchantment and equally great depths of emotion which might be paralleled in King Lear, or even The Tempest where everything is reconciled in an old man's farewell to the world."

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