Old Masters

Day 26. By the time J Paul Getty was 26 he’d made a million bucks out of oil in Tulsa, and that was just the beginning. An Anglophile, he had gone to University at Oxford and then worked a hefty inheritance enough that at one time he was called “The richest man in the world”. How a man spends his money when wealthy is a good indication of the sort of man they would be if they weren’t. Some people like to spend on self aggrandisement, golden elevators, bling, vast phallic monuments to their own narcissism. Getty loved the ancient world, specifically the architecture of the Romans. He spent on beauty. On art. Particularly old art – pre nineteenth century for the most part. This makes for a really deep, really historically interesting, really valuable collection. Ancient art doesn’t depreciate. He was no fool. I cannot even contemplate the value of this. I wish I could afford the cheapest piece. And when he died he left it for the people. He once said “There’s no glory in being remembered as old moneybags.” So, seeking legacy, he gave an endowment and his collection to form a free museum in Los Angeles. As the tour guide says, almost with wonder “He gave us … considerably more than we were expecting.” It’s the richest gallery in the world. Funded by the richest trust in the world. And it’s gorgeous.

The property sits on a hillside overlooking the whole of Los Angeles. Because the city is mostly flat, any hill is commanding, and this hill is well placed. There’s a computer operated tram that takes you up the side. It’s like being back on the DLR. The site was carefully chosen and laboriously dug over years and the design is wonderful. Italian stone with glass panelling in beautiful lines. Parts of it make me think of Escher. There is a great deal that is unnecessary but beautiful. I love unnecessary beauty. The layout and the view are deliberately reminiscent of a giant Tuscan villa. And it’s flawlessly kept. The museum doesn’t want for anything. They don’t have to compromise and sacrifice maintenance of the grounds for maintenance of the collection. They have enough money to make both beautiful and keep it beautiful. And enough to keep it free for the public. Even the cafes are pretty affordable considering museum cafe prices. This is the other side of the oil industry, of money. This is wealth used well. This is legacy.

I often shiver at the thought of lost masters in bank vaults or in underground private collections. It’s great to see so many  on display here. Turners, Rembrandts, Titians, a Van Gogh – so many of the greats – all housed in this beautiful place. A journey through art history. And thought beautiful old furniture. And through illuminated manuscripts. There’s an exhibition on alchemy, and I wish I had been to it the day before I went to the escape room rather than the day after. There are so many beautiful books of ancient knowledge. How much more civilised to have a Romanesque villa filled with the wonders of the ancient world than to have a load of huge towers full of gold with your name on. The dude had a pet lioness. A bison. Loads of dogs. A bear. I thought only Byron had a bear! Nope. Getty seems like he was a thoroughly brilliant human being. I’d have been mates with him.


I find myself dreaming about having a collection like this in a property like this. I’d have a load of rooms as well for artists to come and live in so they could be surrounded by lovely things and have the headspace to make something glorious. There’d be a working theatre and a working art studio and equipment to make films. All I’d need is a bunch of oil fields and a time machine. Actually all I’d need is a time machine. Get me that time machine.

I’ll be back at this place for sure. It’s serene, and there is so much to see. It’s welcoming. And after my strange feelings to do with the oil industry confronted with those pumps the other day, I’m happy to see so many glorious things assembled in such a lovely place because of it. Getty died in England – the old world for him. His legacy is sparkling, beautiful and important, and it feels like he understood the art he owned, rather than just collecting it for the sake of it. If only all rich men in the public eye these days had such desire to preserve and protect the old world, to welcome beauty, to encourage creativity, and to bring and nurture sensitivity.

And there’s a Moore in the garden… Not Getty’s. A donation from the Starks, apparently…

Author: albarclay

This blog is a work of creative writing. Do not mistake it for truth. All opinions are mine and not that of my numerous employers.

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