The British Empire, which not only killed but also strove most officiously to keep alive, has been dead for some time. No longer are there school room maps which, with Britain at their centre, colour one third of the world’s surface red. No longer do pith-helmeted Tommies form defiant squares against naked, capering savages. No longer do the grim, grey battleships of the Royal Navy steam through the Channel mists, keeping at bay those hordes of gesticulating, treacherous foreigners.
These are now historical jokes, material for trendy satirists or playwrights hoping to make their name by an exposure of the personal frailties of the Empire builders. But some of the other symptoms of British capitalism’s decline we are still encouraged to take seriously and to regret. Among these is the sale and the export of works of art by owners in this country to buyers abroad — which, we are told, threatens something called the British Heritage.
This threat has in fact been at work for about a century but it was not until 1952 that it was officially recognised and since then there has been a sort of system for checking, delaying and perhaps stopping the export of works of art. The system does not, need it be said, embrace such objects as the mahogany aspidistra stand which has languished in some working class home in Mafeking Street, Fulham, since grandma got it as a wedding present. Items come into the system only when, apart from anything else, they are worth over £8,000.
They are then investigated by various “experts” who may advise the Minister of Arts to use his powers to delay the export. If a British collection can then offer as much as the export price, the Minister may refuse an export licence and the work stays in this country. In practice comparatively few objects are scrutinised by the “experts” and as a result there is a steady flow of them from Britain which, while it may satisfy the sellers and the dealers who rake in their commission, is alarming to all those people who think that there is nothing more worth protecting than the British Heritage.
One of the latest in this line is Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester
, a portfolio of notes and drawings about water and cosmology. This manuscript is owned by the family of the Earl of Leicester of Holkham Hall, Norfolk and there promises to be some desperate agonising when it goes up for auction at Christies in December. For one thing, such is its rarity that even the art experts have no idea of its price; that is why it is going for auction, where it may fetch £4 million, or £8 million, or £10 million . . .
While the trade was getting its breath back. Arts Minister Norman St. John Stevas
, already famous for his garish shirts and his giggling, stepped boldly forward to defend the British Heritage. “I would”, he exclaimed, “be very annoyed if this work of Leonardo’s left the country . . . I am determined to do all I can and use every means”. The Guardian
warned of the work being in “grave danger” of being exported—as if once it left these shores it would disintegrate—and the Daily Telegraph
reported criticisms of “greedy and inconsiderate” auctioneers operating on the accepted capitalist principle of making as much money as they can as fast as possible.
There need be no surprise that in all this excitement, overlayed as it was by a froth of frustrated patriotism, some important facts have been overlooked. Nobody seemed interested in asking whether this phrase the “British Heritage” had any meaning and, if it had, what relationship it could possibly have to the work of a mediaeval Italian. Nobody wondered whether any Italians had been as “annoyed” as Stevas, when the manuscript was originally exported from that country. Nobody particularly cared how, or why it came to belong to the Earl of Leicester. Although Holkham Hall is open to the public in the summer, the Codex was not on view but nobody asked whether it might be more widely seen if were sent abroad.
The Leonardo manuscript came into the possession of a former holder of the title of Earl of Leicester—
whose family name was Coke in 1717. When the Earl died in 1759 the title became extinct and the estates at Holkham were inherited by his great nephew Thomas Wenman who, perhaps in gratitude, marked the event by changing his name to Coke. When he died in 1776 Holkham passed to his son Thomas who, after the customary schooling at Eton followed by a Grand Tour, returned to England on a breath of mannered scandal to inherit not only the estate but also the Parliamentary seat for Norfolk.
At that time the Holkham lands were unenclosed and poorly cultivated, growing rye and supporting inferior livestock. After enclosure Coke, in the agricultural boom of the Napoleonic Wars, invested a small fortune in their development from a sandy rabbit warren into a thriving agricultural workshop, visited by admirers from all over Europe. He raised the rent roll from £2,000 to £22,000 and won the support of his tenants by giving them security of tenure, although under some fairly rigid controls. Not that there were that many tenants left, after the enclosures: “I look around”, Coke told an Enquiry in 1808 “And can see no other house than mine. I am like the ogre in the tale, and have eaten up all my neighbours.”
Coke was a staunch opponent of George III and was what is called a sportsman, which means that he hunted enthusiastically and was able to slaughter an impressive quantity of game birds with his guns. At the age of 68 he married for the second time and of this marriage there were five sons and a daughter. He was raised to the peerage in 1837, reviving the old title and becoming another first Earl of Leicester. The present Earl lives in South Africa and Holkham is inhabited by his son. Lord Coke, who elaborates on the Palladian splendours of the place:
It has marvellous paintings by Rubens, Clause, Van Dyck and other masters; Greek and Roman sculpture; one of the finest private libraries in the country; and furniture designed by William Kent.
All these treasures come from, and are perpetuated by, the exploitation of socially inferior people. The first Earl of Leicester refined and intensified that process to the limits of the knowledge and the equipment available to him in his day. Not that the exploited have ever objected; Coke’s tenants collected the money to raise a monument to him, after his death and there is little reason to think that working class attitudes are significantly different today. We need not weep for the Leicesters; typical of their class, they enjoy the best things in life and are tossing out only one of the treasures they have amassed, if perhaps the most valuable.
This is part of an historic process. Art objects have commonly been bought, or plundered, by a dominant class as an investment, or as an act of conspicuous consumption or simply as an expression of their dominance. With the rise of British capitalism—in the days of Thomas Coke—Britain was the world leader in manufacture, trade and imperialist expansion. The great houses of the ruling class were enriched with priceless works of art from all over the world. With the decline, it is all draining away, often to the homes of some newly rising capitalist class abroad. “If we did not sell the Leonardo manuscript,” said Lord Coke, “other things would have to be sold.”
It is a curious process of reasoning, which encourages the class whose exploitation has yielded the wealth of people like the Leicesters to bemoan British capitalism’s decline and to wring their hands over the symptoms of that decline. There is a pronounced illogicality in the idea that one country should construct a “heritage” which includes works of art originating elsewhere. If the term “national heritage” means anything then the works of Rubens and Van Dyck should not be at Holkham Hall but somewhere in Belgium and those sculptures should be packed off back to Greece and Italy.
Except that there is a wider, more fundamental question. It is typical of the tensions of property society, that even inanimate objects should be given a nationality and that a work like the Codex Leicester, which scrutinises natural forces common to the entire human environment, should be considered a fit matter for an exclusive, private possession. It is typical, too, that the prospect of this work passing from one privacy to another should ferment such hysteria.
What would Leonardo have thought, to see his works being obscured by fat cheque books and frantic jingoism? Who now can argue that capitalism liberates human talents which would be stifled and distorted in a society of common ownership and free access? Tell that, if you can, to Leonardo . . .