The Disastrous Relation Between Art and Property: John Berger, ‘A Moral’

A Moral was published in Permanent Red (1960), a collection of writing developed from articles written for the New Statesman between 1954 and 1959, which the author described (in a 1979 reissue) as being characterised by the recurring theme of ‘the disastrous relation between art and property’. Back then, Berger remarked that in rereading those articles he was struck by how much he had changed since their composition; but even today many of the issues he was dealing with remain remarkably unchanged

In Holland in the seventeenth century a picture was painted. It was a portrait of a ship chandler’s young wife. The artist was paid £50. The picture remained in the ship chandler’s family for several generations. But there came a time when no one was any longer interested in their great-great-grandmother. The picture was then sold to a furniture dealer for the price of a new dress. The dealer sold it, along with a cabinet of inlaid wood, to an English gentleman. Twenty years later this gentleman’s son moved from the family house in East Anglia to Nottingham, where he began to make a fortune from his coalfield. He had no time for paintings or inlaid cabinets. The picture lay forgotten in the attic of his house for nearly a century.

Not long ago it was given with a lot of other junk to a charity sale. An antique dealer saw it, recognized it as seventeenth century Dutch and bought it for £3.10.0. Quite soon afterwards an advertising executive, driving through York, stopped at the dealer’s shop near the old city wall to see if he could buy a four-poster bed. He noticed the portrait and was instantly convinced it was a Rembrandt. He bought it furtively for £40.

It was hung in his London flat in a place of honour. One of the firm’s commercial artists confirmed that it was undoubtedly a Rembrandt – and so must be worth £40,000. The executive’s friends and clients, who dropped in for a drink, were greatly impressed. The executive himself was made very proud. He also argued that with this picture as security, he could take risks which would otherwise have frightened him. He took these unusual risks and made an unusual amount of money. He never asked an expert to authenticate the picture. This may be thought naive. But then who does bring in an outsider to verify a personal triumph? Besides the picture served very well as a Rembrandt.

The executive had to go to the States for nine months. He let his flat to an old German friend. This man invited an art historian friend of his own to dinner. Clearly the painting was not a Rembrandt, said the art historian. When the executive returned from America, he was told the bad news. Another historian was called in and agreed with the first. The painting was taken down from the wall. The executive told his friends that he had sold it. In fact it was put into a cupboard.

A young painter went to see the executive to try to get work in the firm’s studio. The executive took a liking to him and invited him to dinner. They drank quite a lot and the innocence of the young man reminded the older one of his own idealistic youth. Once he had dreamt of being a novelist. Waxing nostalgic and sentimental, he began to confess and tell of his disappointments in life. Amongst many other things he mentioned the Rembrandt. The young painter asked if he could see it. Perhaps it is not a Rembrandt, he said, but it is a marvellous painting. Then take it, the executive replied, it’s yours. Don’t try to get a job in one of our studios. You’re the real McCoy, I can see that. Struggle on. And take this as a present. Thereupon he insisted on the young painter taking the picture away with him under his arm that very night. If he had failed to discover a Rembrandt, he could at least discover how to be generous again – so he thought as he went to bed.

The young painter hung the painting on the wall of the single room in which he worked and in which also he and his wife slept, ate and lived. It gave him great pleasure and he came to think that the girl portrayed was a little like his wife. He always felt guilty about his wife. She was delicate in health and yet it was she who daily went to work in order to earn the money on which they both lived. Occasionally when she lost a job and they were desperate, he tried to get work himself – as he had done when he first went to see the executive – but somehow he always failed.

A few months later his wife told him that she was pregnant. Soon she would have to stop working. He decided to go and see his benefactor and try again for a job. The executive wouldn’t hear of it. But, he said, I will lend you a hundred pounds. The young man hesitated. Finally, he agreed to accept the money but only on condition that he gave back the picture as security. I know, he added, that it is not worth that much, but at least it is a token. To spare the young man’s feelings, the executive agreed. The painting went back into the cupboard.

It was a difficult birth and both mother and child were weak. The hundred pounds was spent. The young painter hadn’t the face to go back to his previous benefactor. He went to another advertising firm and was given a job. In two years’ time they were able to move to a larger flat. Then he went back to pay the £100.

The painter never gave up his job. But he came to an arrangement with the firm whereby he had Fridays off in order to do his own work. The picture now hangs in their bedroom for, naturally, he is not often in his workroom.

The story, as you will agree, is not unusual. But since it is a story nothing need be hidden from the writer or the reader. I can tell you that the picture was painted by Carl Fabricius. Fabricius, a student of Rembrandt, was killed in an explosion when he was thirty-two years old. Consequently his works are very rare and very valuable. A newly discovered portrait would be worth about £20,000. But of course in life one can never know the whole story. In life it would be better if paintings were for looking at.

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