Foreign travel for me has always been about seeing art. Of course, I take in other things, but visiting galleries and museums has always been central. When I was fifteen I made my first visit to the Louvre during a school trip, and in my early adult years, I was able to see the Prado, the Brera, the Uffizi, the Venice Accademia and many other smaller collections. For many years the family holiday was always in Italy, based around one or other mural cycle or architectural figure. My family was usually interested or tolerant, although I remember my daughter going through the several miles of the Vatican Galleries neither looking to left or right, waiting for the bribe of an ice cream. In Verona she sighed and exclaimed, ‘Dad and his Sanmicheli gates,’ signalling that she well understood adult madness. In recent years it has become my custom to have a short break early in the year to visit the galleries of northern Europe: The Netherlands, Germany, Vienna. I have still to visit the Hermitage. This year I have already had the good fortune to see ten collections in New York and France.
The great change that I have seen over the years has been in museum shops. At one time, major museums would stock postcards of practically every work in their collections. Today they sell books, toys and anything on which they can stamp a reproduction of a well-known work, from wine bottles to cushion covers. There may still be a handful of cards of signal works – the very last ones I will need any prompting to recall.
The primary reasons for visiting the great collections is to see in actuality, the masterpieces of European art already known from reproductions. Collecting postcards, for me at any rate, was a way of retaining some memory of minor or unusual works that impressed. It consolidated the experience of the visit. I was often disappointed in smaller museums. I would see a small work, by Signorelli for instance, that seemed to me better than anything he achieved on a grand scale, or something in one of the minor galleries in Milan that contradicted the rule that paintings by the Leonardo followers are uniformly awful. By the very nature of the problem, my list of missed opportunities to get any memento of these aesthetic experiences is small. Any impression of these finding has escaped for ever. Among the cards that I treasure are those of a series of small murals by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, (who is for me a more interesting painter than his prolific and accomplished father), from the Ca’ Rezzonica; Venice, a painting of a flute player with a white horse from the Musee des Beaux Arts, Rouen, attributed to Watteau, (it convinces me that it can only be by the master); and portraits by da Messina from the palazzo galleries in Genoa.
In a gallery shop, I am not going to buy a guidebook illustrated with works that are known worldwide. Nor am I going to buy heavy tomes that I can consult elsewhere and certainly not tat that uses great works of art inappropriately. From the now lapsed practice of stocking inexpensive reproductions of a large range of a collection’s exhibits, I have a personally selected gallery in miniature of works that would be difficult to track down even in a good library. I regret not being able to add to it.