It seems appropriate, for the first post of this new blog of culture commentary by members of the Courtauld Institute of Art, to mention some significant news relating to one of the Courtauld's most prominent alumni.
Last week, reports began to leak that Dr. Nicholas Penny,
current Senior Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Art at the National Gallery in Washington, had finally been tapped to head the other National Gallery in London, where he had been passed over for the job in 2002. Since the board's former choice, Charles Saumarez Smith, has left amid controversy to head the Royal Academy—a distinct step down in the museum hierarchy—the way was clear for Penny to return to the institution he had served as Clore Curator of Renaissance Painting, and later Keeper, (Senior Curator in the American parlance), from 1990 until Saumarez Smith's arrival.
This was a great choice for the London National Gallery. Penny is a scholar of unimpeachable credentials, educated at Cambridge and the Courtauld, where he earned his doctorate. He has proven a prolific writer as well as organizer of scholarly exhibitions, and, in addition to a number of exhibition catalogues and his published Ph.D. dissertation, he co-authored the seminal Taste and the Antique with Francis Haskell, himself a former National Gallery Director. He has also proven himself as a connoisseur, discovering Raphael's lost Madonna of the Pinks in the collection of the Duke of Northumberland, later acquired by the Gallery.
Readers outside of the art world may be familiar with Nicholas Penny's name from his contributions to the London Review of Books. In addition to many enlightening book and exhibition reviews on those pages, he was involved in one of the more entertaining exchanges of academic vitriol recently with Thomas Crow, formerly head of the Getty Research Institute and now Professor of Modern Art at the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU. After a Penny review the previous month called out the Getty Research Institute, the elite research library on the Getty campus in LA, for the lack of interest its visiting scholars exhibit in original works of art, Crow wrote in for the issue of February 8th, 2007. Penny's response follows: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n03/letters.html#letter1
Penny has proven himself a tireless defender of the importance of museums and contact with works of art against people like Crow, who represent the extreme philosophical wing of art historical practice. He will no doubt prove an able leader of the London National Gallery.