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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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Let’s make children see the nation’s greatest painting

Published by The Times (9th November, 2017)

It took more than 200 days of negotiations, but last month the Netherlands finally got a new government when four parties agreed to form a coalition. While many issues divided them, one was agreed at the outset of talks: that schools should ensure pupils visit the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam at least once to see Rembrandt’s masterpiece The Night Watch. This, along with visiting parliament and learning about the national anthem, is intended to help foster Dutch identity.

I am intuitively sceptical about attempts to impose national norms: such things are subjective and besides, countries constantly evolve. Yet what a fine idea to persuade pupils to view their nation through the prism of a painting, provoking a discussion about cultural values and history as well as potentially stimulating interest in art.

The Night Watch, or more formally Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, is a Dutch treasure, often regarded as a symbol of democracy. It portrays individuals looking ordinary and vulnerable, but who at the same time are spirited citizens. Such is its power that the work has been attacked three times. It may even contain a self-portrait of the artist, perfect for selfie-obsessed pupils to ponder.

Britain should follow suit. Yet what picture symbolises our divided nation? Some might suggest a Constable, Stubbs or Gainsborough, although these feel too tepid for my taste. A more mischievous mind might plump for one of those savage Hogarths or a ferocious Francis Bacon. Or perhaps even Damien Hirst’s crass diamond-encrusted platinum skull as a metaphor for an age that lost sight of real value?

Turner, though, is Britain’s favourite painter and The Fighting Temeraire, depicting the final voyage of a ship that fought in the Battle of Trafalgar, seems our most suitable candidate.

This glorious picture is a reminder of our imperial and naval history but it also reflects changing technology, with a smaller steam-powered tug taking the old ship to the breaker’s yard, and a great artist confronting his mortality. It speaks of decline and loss but is also a masterpiece of striking modernity that appeared in a James Bond film. ‘It always makes me feel a little melancholy,’ says Q in Skyfall. ‘Grand old warship, being ignominiously hauled away to scrap. The inevitability of time.’ Perfect as the clock ticks towards Brexit.

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