A noble thing

The Carved Room at Petworth, West Sussex. The conservation of the Grinling Gibbons carvings was funded by Simon Sainsbury. ©NTPL/Bill Batten

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.

The Ballroom at the Assembly Rooms in Bath, redecorated in the 1990s with funding from Simon Sainsbury. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

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.

View of Verona by Bernardo Bellotto (1720-1780), at Powis Castle, Powys, purchased in 1981 with a major contribution from Simon Sainsbury. ©NTPL/John Hammond

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.

Embroidered chair, 1714, part of a set secured by Simon Sainsbury for Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire, in the early 1980s. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

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.

Woolbeding, a National Trust property in West Sussex, where Simon Sainsbury restored the house and created a new garden. ©NTPL/Stephen Robson

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.

Pair of silver salvers, 1746, purchased for Uppark, West Sussex, in 2010 with a contribution from a fund created by Simon Sainsbury. ©NTPL/John Hammond

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.

4 Responses to “A noble thing”

  1. Parnassus Says:

    Simon Sainsbury, generous and unaffected, was a class act all the way. I recommend checking his Wikipedia article to get a quick overview of his life and extensive philanthropies–they list hundreds of millions of pounds, and never even got to his National Trust work. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Sainsbury )

    Your discussion of a variety of houses here reminded me that many Americans who visit Britain and want to see these properties might not know of the Royal Oak Foundation, which provides National Trust links and (discounted) memberships in America. A regular (tax-deductible) membership costs only US$55, which would pay for itself by visiting three properties, wholly aside from supporting the Trust. ( http://www.royal-oak.org/index.php )
    –Road to Parnassus

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Indeed, and characteristically Simon Sainsbury felt that the monetary value of his benefactions was essentially irrelevant: he just wanted to help secure beautiful objects and places.

    And yes the Royal Oak Foundation is a wonderful organisation, in the great American philanthropic tradition. I must try to highlight its work in a forthcoming post.

  3. artandarchitecturemainly Says:

    Many thanks. I am glad the book covers people who helped the National Trust to acquire their historic houses, gardens and treasures. They need to be recognised. But in a time of financial crisis for “luxury” projects like heritage, the book’s second mentioned goal is even more important – to chart the changing attitudes to heritage and philanthropy during the later 20th century.

    The subjects of preservation, restoration, protection, public ownership and heritage come up in every lecture I give. Especially from the Grand Tour era onwards. So I will need to read A Noble Thing fairly quickly.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Helen, glad this is useful to you. There is a lot of debate about philanthropy in this country at the moment, and how to encourage it.

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