The recent sad death of David Bowie reminds me that in the early 1990s The Bowes Museum had a painting on loan from him!
It was a very fine and very important painting by the 16th century Venetian artist Tintoretto of St. Catherine of Alexandria, being warned of her impending martyrdom [‘broken on a wheel’ – a horrid ancient torture that proved ineffective due to the invention of God!] .
It came from the ancient church of Saint Geminiano, right opposite the Cathedral in St.Mark’s Square. The church itself had been demolished under Napoleon for a huge range of public buildings, so this was one of many treasures that left Venice in the 19th century.
The initial approach was made anonymously, by his agents/ dealers, but it soon got known that he was the owner. I was curious as to how The Bowes Museum described him – rock star or space oddity? – but I found the press release described him neutrally as ‘musician’. Needless to say it attracted enquiries about the possibility of his visiting, which never materialised. Sadly the painting was returned in 1992, but visitors can still enjoy the two superb paintings of Venice by Canaletto, showing the regatta [boat race on the grand canal] and the bucintoro, the huge elaborately gilded state barge that was also destroyed by Napoleon to eradicate the memory of the Venetian republic when he invaded.
In a recent article in the Telegraph by Colin Gleadell, Bowie is quoted as saying: “Art was the only thing I’d ever wanted to own”…“the only thing I buy addictively is art”, and the author of the Telegraph article says: ‘What will happen to the Bowie collection now is anyone’s guess. Hopefully we’ll get to see it all together somewhere, sometime.’
By Dr Howard Coutts, Curator of Ceramics