As I mentioned in a previous post, the late Simon Sainsbury was one of the great recent benefactors of the National Trust, and indeed of the visual arts in Britain generally. He was not only very generous, but could also act as an effective negotiator and persuader. When he and his two brothers were sponsoring the building of what was to become the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London it was Simon Sainsbury who found a way through when the discussions became fraught. ‘Thank God for Simon’, architect Robert Venturi scribbled on one of his plans.
Simon Sainsbury features in the recently published book A Noble Thing, in which Merlin Waterson describes some of the people who helped the National Trust to acquire the extraordinarily diverse colection of historic houses, gardens, countryside and coastline that it manages today.
The book not only provides astute vignettes of various – and variously motivated - benefactors, including aristocratic donors of country houses, inspired-but-difficult members of staff such as James Lees-Milne and generous supporters such as Simon Sainsbury, but it also charts the changing attitudes to heritage and philanthropy during the second half of the twentieth century.
The donation of Attingham Park in Shropshire by Thomas, 8th Lord Berwick and his wife Teresa in 1947, for instance, was a very generous and at the same time a very unobtrusive act. More recently, Simon Sainsbury was similarly self-effacing about the many acquisitions and projects he helped to fund.
During the last couple of years, by contrast, acquisitions like that of Seaton Delaval Hall and the Nostell Priory Brueghel have been made possible by donations from many different quarters, and have been accompanied by intense publicity.
Autres temps, autres moeurs. And now the Government is contemplating extending tax incentives for the donation of pre-eminent works of art and other ‘heritage objects’ – something the National Trust would welcome.