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A piece by Charles Hope in the London Review of Books (2 January 2020seemed not to be a book review at allbut instead was a ruse to attack the legitimacy of the so-called Salvator Mundi sold for $450 million by Christie’s in 2017. And it got a reaction. Even then Hope’s aims and objectives seemed opaque. Susan Grundy investigates.

92672A8D D6C2 472E A8C8 431061D56FF1“Bless you, my children, I am not the Salvator Mundi by Leonardo.” (As illustrated in the Guardian)

I was first alerted by an article in the Guardian 29 January 2020 to a new storm said to be brewing over the so-called Leonardo Salvator Mundi: “Row over Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi erupts in the LRB: dispute is over whether the painting was for sale before its display at the London National Gallery [2011/12]” (therein most mysteriously illustrated with a painting that isn’t even the painting under discussion, but another work colloquially the De Ganay panel). Clicking on the link “critique of the painting” took me to the review on the LRB website titled “A peece of Christ” by Charles Hope, which is said to have been the source of the eruption. 

I know what Hope’s obscure title is referring to, as I have background research. It has to do with the proposed provenance of the so-called Salvator Mundi sold by Christie’s in 2017 for $450 million. However, to the average person the title might be less than meaningful, and purported book reviewer Charles Hope leaves the reader dangling. Indeed, he is fifteen very, very long paragraphs into his diatribe before he explains to his reader what his title refers to – “a peece of Christ done by Leonardo” in the collections of Charles I (1600–1649, beheaded). But by this point I’m exhausted and have forgotten it’s the title of his review. Actually, finally getting to his point, it appears to be that the so-called Salvator Mundi, in his opinion, is not Leonardo. So, I wish he had put that in his title – Not “a peece of Christ” done by Leonardo, then I’d have had some hope of following him from the beginning.

Hope implies his piece is a review of an Exhibition (Paris until Feb 2020) and three books, Bambach (2019), Lewis (2019) and co-authored Dalivalle, Simon and Kemp (2019). However, other than this preamble he doesn’t state a clear aim. He introduces his review with dull prose and pontificating tone, setting out to impress with assumed erudition and knowledge of the life of “Leonardo” (who cares?). He doesn’t say why he has chosen this exhibition and these three books, or what he is going to say about them, what they have to do with each other (aside from “Leonardo”) or what the title of his piece has to do with the three books. 

Eventually, the reality unfolds. The Bambach and Lewis titles are obviously there to support Hope’s supposition that the Salvator Mundi is not by Leonardo, and should not have been included in the London National Gallery exhibition in 2011/12. One should note that Bambach’s idea that the so-called Salvator Mundi is by an assistant, with touches of Leonardo, is extremely short on any real scholarly enquiry, and Lewis’s book is quasi-crime fiction, far away from rigorous art historical research.

But then snaking around his motive Hope’s real aims seem to be to neutralize Martin Kemp, and to pressure the London National Gallery in its loans’ policies for an upcoming exhibition on Titian. Hope states the “trustees [of the NG] need to consider their policy about loans of this kind [the SM], preferably before the forthcoming Titian exhibition”. So, the truth is Hope is not interested in anything under topic, is not interested whether the past trustees are rebuked for the Salvator Mundi debacle, only interested that the National Gallery of London will do something he wants it to do. We can only guess what that might be, but it clearly has something to do with Titian, and nothing to do with Leonardo.

The response to the “review”

Robert Simon, who is one of the authors of the third book (supposedly under review) “Leonardo’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ and the Collection of Leonardo in the Stuart courts”, responded furiously to Hope’s piece. Simon also belonged to the consortium of dealers who greatly benefited from the painting’s upgrading by the National Gallery, selling the work for exponential profits in 2013. His response is defensive, obviously, but many points are valid. He demonstrates Hope is purporting to review an exhibition in Paris about “Leonardo”, but indeed focusses only on a work that isn’t even there.

And this raises what is surely a crucial issue which is how this “book review” got past the Editor and into the London Review of Books as a “book review” in the first place. If the title had been clear: two books against the attribution of a SM and one for, honesty might have prevailed. But even then, Hope’s real aim seems to be the Titian exhibition anyway. Of course, the Editor is free to do what he likes, but it certainly puts me off. A journal that purports to be a leading cultural mouthpiece is here just the mouthpiece of one individual, which would have been fine if it really was just a book review.

Brewing in a London teapot

Following Robert Simon’s response came Nicholas Penny (ex National Gallery Director) defending Simon, Charles Hope having another go and then Ben Lewis weighing in on the side of Hope. Artnet (News) picked up the story (30 January, “A leading Old Masters Scholar is accusing London’s National Gallery of unwittingly inflating the price of the “Salvator Mundi”). Naomi Rea claims that “in a flurry of spirited letters in response to the article, two sides duke it out”. I must be reading a different London Review of Books.

First of all, the piece by Hope was not an “article” it was clearly a “book review”. There is a difference. Second, there is nothing “spirited” about the responses. Same dull writing, same longwinded opinions, no one getting anywhere. 

The issue isn’t what the National Gallery said about the painting (or didn’t) in the catalogue to the exhibition in 2011/12, it is they said anything at all. National Gallery curator Luke Syson wrote this painting’s attribution to Leonardo. It is as simple as that. Before that moment the painting was not Leonardo da Vinci. Syson was neither qualified nor impartial. It also doesn’t matter how many experts did or didn’t say it was Leonardo, then or after. 

The painting should never have been in the National Gallery in the first place, at that point, and the National Gallery director and staff were never unwitting participants as suggested by Rae in her title. It is clear. A painting bought for a few thousand dollars, publicly exhibited in a national museum as a Leonardo less than ten years later, would turn a stellar profit. It is not rocket science.

Notably, Hope is “W2”, Penny “SW4” and Lewis “N7”,so in terms of location the argument was clearly going downhill. It will likely pass as a storm in a teapot, and nothing will be decided, and nothing will change.


The Guardian

London Review of Books

Artnet News

About the Author

Dr Susan Grundy

Dr Susan Grundy

Dr Susan Grundy, D Litt et Phil, University of South Africa   Susan Grundy is an independent Art Investigation Consultant, patron and collector of fine art, specializing in Seventeenth Century ...