My Life in the Arts / an interview with Sir Timothy Clifford

My Life in the Arts is part of a series of interviews with leading figures in the art world. I hope to get an insight into what makes these people different, how they rose so high, their loves and passions and their mistakes and memories. The first in this series is with the museum director Sir Timothy Clifford.

‘As a child I would take a Meissen cup and lie in bed with my eyes shut, feeling the foot-rims and the handles, to learn the difference between soft and hard paste porcelain… soft paste porcelain is immensely sensuous stuff. Hard paste is very frigid.’

Sir Timothy Clifford could lay a fair claim to being the most passionate man in the art world. A great connoisseur, he ran the National Gallery of Scotland for over twenty years, transforming its galleries and acquiring astonishing masterpieces.

Whether admiring a great altarpiece by Raphael or a lowly Staffordshire teacup, Sir Tim is like a child released out of lockdown, bursting with energy. His enthusiasm is truly infectious, but it is deployed alongside an extraordinary array of knowledge built up through a lifetime of unceasing inquiry.

Before interviewing Tim I asked if he would do me a favour and look at an anonymous old drawing that was coming up at auction that I wanted to buy. Almost straight away he told me exactly when it was made and who it was by. I had come to the right man.

This amazing feat is born of his encyclopedic grasp of western art. As I cannot bottle this knowledge for future use, I spoke to Sir Tim to get an insight into how he got interested in art, the changes he made to the museums he ran and their role in public life today.

What were you like as a child?

‘I was fairly dyslexic, so pictorial things mattered enormously to me. I drew and painted as that was my easiest way to have a dialogue with people and objects. I was extremely interested in nature, in butterflies, birds, all sorts of wild flowers and orchids. I used to take The Entomologist’s Gazette as a schoolboy, which is quite odd thinking back on it.’

‘My father expected us to be inquisitive as children. When seeing and doing things, rather than speculating as to why they happened, he would say to us ‘let’s look it up!’ and we would go to the library and do exactly that. It was very stimulating.’

‘My room was absolutely filled with drawings, stuffed birds, fossils in boxes and shelves of ceramics. I started my own museum and spent ages labeling all these damn things. I would open my museum to my aunts and uncle and charge them to enter.’

Gian Lorenzo Bernini Portrait Bust of Monsignor Carlo Antonio dal Pozzo, Archbishop of Pisa, 1620. This magical portrait in marble, made when Bernini was just 21, was acquired by Sir Timothy Clifford for the National Gallery of Scotland in 1987.

Was he taken to art galleries and museums at a young age?

‘Absolutely. My father would take me with him to London and drop me off at the door of the Natural History Museum or the V&A, give me two and sixpence for my lunch and say he would be back at five o’clock. I would spend the whole day mooning around the museum.’

And how old was he when his father starting doing this, leaving him alone to roam London’s museums? ‘From the age of seven. My god it wouldn’t happen today but it was different back then. It was a huge education.’

‘I was probably about seven or eight when I decided I wanted to run a museum myself.’

You could call this a head start in life.

And Tim got his wish pretty quickly. After a rush of jobs, zigzagging from the Courtauld to Manchester to the V&A and then the British Museum, he was made Director of Manchester Art Gallery aged just 32. Tim was then appointed Director of the National Galleries of Scotland, a powerful position that meant running three museums, a role that he held for the next twenty-one years. He was knighted in 2002 and became known in museum circles for his sharp eye, famous discoveries and effusive nature.

Sir Anthony van Dyck Princess Elizabeth, and Princess Anne, daughters of Charles, 1637. Acquired by Sir Tim for the National Galleries of Scotland in 1996.
Manchester City Art Gallery, 1983, entrance hall after the removal of the bookstall and security desk, with sculpture re-introduced. Pictures are tightly spaced on the balcony with the frames not breaking into the stringcourse

Tim was notorious at both Manchester and Edinburgh for his radical re-displays (see above), hanging paintings floor-to-ceiling, in opposition to the then (and still now) ubiquitous international standard museum display. ‘It shocked everyone rigid. But it had to happen. In Scotland there were porridge coloured hessian walls, pictures hung side-by-side below belly button level. Most pictures were never intended to wallow in a sea of white. I got tons of pictures out of storage and placed the art at their correct height. When I hung a Goya high up people were so confused, but it was painted to go above a doorway so it’s distorting if the picture is shown at eye level.’

Tim is most famous for his acquisitions.

Botticelli, Leonardo, Raphael, Bernini, Algardi, van Dyck, Canova…

These are names that every museum in the world dream of. Sir Tim managed to bring them all to Edinburgh, each of them a masterpiece, transforming it into a truly international museum.

‘I am very greedy. I always wanted the best pictures in my gallery. I wanted to beat the big London nationals. And I am afraid I probably broke all the rules to make sure we did.’

(left) Sandro Botticelli The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child , c. 1485
(right) Antonio Canova The Three Graces (Aglaia, Euphrosyne and Thalia) , 1815 – 1817
Both acquired for the National Galleries of Scotland (the Canova is shared with the V&A in London). The Botticelli was bought from my father, who had originally sold it overseas to the Getty Museum. Sir Tim had just eighteen days to raise $23 million to stop it being exported. It is now one of the most popular works in the museum.

Was it harder raising money for a museum in Edinburgh or Manchester rather than a London museum?

‘Almost certainly, but I shouted so loudly people paid attention. In Scotland I bought two Raphael drawings and one Leonardo but nothing by Michelangelo. A chance came up to get one and I told the Heritage Lottery Fund that we must do everything to have it; Scotland needs this Michelangelo! But they objected, twice, as they said there were plenty of Michelangelo’s in England. It really annoyed me.

Why should a child growing up in Scotland not have the opportunity to see one object by Michelangelo?’

I ask if many regional museums have this ambition today?

‘Not really as hardly anyone cares for connoisseurship these days. The labels at Manchester, for example, are now hugely political. They don’t actually look at whether it is a picture of quality or not, we just get a political diatribe. The visitors are hard done by.’

‘You have to remember museum directors are editors and they tell people what they should look at and how they should appreciate things. On one occasion I addressed the museum associations conference about connoisseurship and everybody there hissed at me.’

‘I have turned into a complete dinosaur as this world is concerned as the sort of things I passionately believe in are the sort of things that don’t seem to be of much consequence these days.’

Brian Sewell (another favourite of mine) said of Tim; ‘if you’re on his level, it can be absolutely mesmerising and exciting, but a lot of people don’t like it. The English do not like clever people. The people who succeed in this country make their careers by offending no one.’

I think Sir Tim will be vindicated in time. For me, the real dinosaurs are those who disdain such deep learning and Tim’s simple love of objects.

An artwork without context is a confusing mystery. Sir Tim is a man who has spent his life looking and learning and has used this experience to uncover this mystery for us. Through his passion and knowledge he transforms art from an archaeological specimen of a vanquished culture to something more moving and magical. In essence, he has brought art alive. I think this is a gift worth treasuring.

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6 thoughts on “My Life in the Arts / an interview with Sir Timothy Clifford

  1. Dearest Milo, What a wonderful article on Timothy Clifford! Would love to meet him as he seems to be a magician as a curator and succeed in collecting wonderful paintings sculptures and drawings for any museum which has the luck to have him on board. He has a completely encyclopaedic knowledge it seems (a bit like someone in your family?!) I really loved your writing and am full of admiration. It is Easy to understand you and fascinating. Please carry on! Thank you for sending it to me. Lots of love from your ancient aunt, Venetia XXX

    Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Milo, I have a question that perhaps you or Sir Clifford would know. Michelangelo once said, “It is only well with me when I have a chisel in my hand.” Where did he say this? A letter? Was it in Italian or Latin when he wrote/spoke it? I cannot seem to find the origin of this famous quotation.


    1. I am sorry to say I do not know the source. It is the sort of thing he would say, if you go by his contemporary biographies but if it is not in Vasari or Condivi or another contemporary biography it is possible it was made up by someone. Good luck searching!


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