Image credit: Paul Cézanne, “Still Life with Apples” (ca. 1878), Fitzwilliam Museum (on loan from King’s College), Cambridge, via Wikimedia Commons
By Jason Zweig | March 30, 2018 11:07 am ET
Just days before the start of World War I in 1914, the British Treasury urgently summoned the brilliant economist John Maynard Keynes to serve as an adviser. His Majesty’s government would need to fund the war while lending heavily to France and other allies to keep them from collapsing. Keynes, then just 31, devoted himself to the war effort for the next four years, living (as he later wrote) “in daily contact with the immense anxieties and impossible financial requirements of those days.”
As if the job itself weren’t stressful enough, it also alienated Keynes from the friends he cared most about: the artists, philosophers and writers of the Bloomsbury Group. A loose set devoted to free thought, free love and, as Keynes later put it, “the creation and enjoyment of aesthetic experience,” the group included Virginia Woolf, her sister Vanessa Bell, Vanessa’s husband Clive Bell and his fellow art critic Roger Fry, the artist Duncan Grant and the writer Lytton Strachey. They were pacifists, and by 1918, many of them were turning their backs on Keynes for his help in financing a war they detested.
So Keynes took matters into his own hands. A hundred years ago this week, the young man who would become the most influential economist of the 20th century executed a scheme for winning his way back into the good graces of his bohemian circle. He would do it through art….
To read the rest of this story:
The Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/when-keynes-played-art-buyer-1522422454
In March, I had the honor and thrill of visiting Cambridge and seeing much of Keynes’s art collection, as well as many of the materials relating to it in the King’s College Archive at the University of Cambridge.
A few months ago, I’d stumbled on the story of how Keynes did a brilliant debt-for-equity swap in 1918, using his formidable powers of persuasion to tap the British Treasury for enough money to buy numerous masterpieces of French art for the National Gallery in London. Keynes rightly predicted that the French would be able to repay their massive war debts to Britain only in a currency so badly depreciated that the loans would be a total loss. So, Keynes realized, Britain could instead buy paintings at the upcoming auction in Paris of the estate of the great artist Edgar Degas. Instead of extending yet another loan to France, the British could buy artistic masterpieces, effectively replacing a bad debt with great art whose value would likely go up, not down, over time.
The auction offered not only works of art by Degas himself but by many other artists whose work he admired, including Manet, Delacroix, Cezanne, Ingres and Gauguin. Keynes conscripted the National Gallery’s director, Charles Holmes, and got the Treasury to provide 20,000 pounds (approximately $1.3 million today) to buy art. Holmes bought about two dozen great paintings and drawings with the money Keynes had wheedled out of the Treasury, and Keynes bought four works of art for himself with his own money.
Keynes was a meticulous recordkeeper and seems never to have thrown anything away, especially not if it was related to his art collection. Under the influence of the Cambridge philosopher G.E. Moore, Keynes and his fellow members of the Bloomsbury Group believed that the appreciation of beauty was one of the main purposes of life. Keynes’s grandfather had a small collection of British paintings, his father collected stamps, and Keynes himself began collecting rare books as a schoolboy.
One of his best friends (and, for a time, his lover) was Duncan Grant, a leading British modernist painter. The artist Vanessa Bell was also among Keynes’s closest friends. The painter and art critic Roger Fry, cultural critic Clive Bell, and the writer Virginia Woolf also helped tutor Keynes’s taste in art. Few economists have ever spent more time in museums and art galleries than Keynes did. He was also an art patron: Having made a substantial fortune as a private investor, Keynes chose to spend much of it supporting museums, the theater, dance companies and other artistic endeavors. He wrote extensively about the need for public support of the arts, helping to inspire the Arts Council of Great Britain and, by that example, the National Endowment for the Arts in the U.S. Keynes even bestowed lifetime annuities on some of his artist friends, enabling them to work for the rest of their lives without financial worries.
To Keynes, being productive in leisure — by enjoying painting, music, literature, dance, and the other beautiful things in life — was no less important than being productive in work. In a world that increasingly regards contemplation with contempt, where attention is the scarcest of all human and natural resources, we all should pause to admire the way Keynes made it a priority even in wartime to bring more beauty into his world.
Here are some of the paintings he enabled the National Gallery to buy:
The ferociously intense portrait of Monsieur de Norvins by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres:
The Bibliothèque Nationale de France (French National Library) has made the entire catalogue of the Degas sale available online here and here, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s fascinating 1997 book associated with its own commemorative exhibit about the Degas sale is here.
Here, in Keynes’s handwriting, is an inventory of the art he bought during that banner year of 1919, including works by Degas; the Seurat, Picasso and Signac mentioned above, and a Matisse (“Woman Seated in an Armchair”) for 178.10 pounds:
Keynes believed that the test of a successful economy was how much opportunity it gave people to spend their leisure time appreciating the beauty of the world around them. Today’s world is much richer, monetarily, than Keynes could have imagined when he died in 1946. Whether our souls are richer is another question. We would all be better off if we shut off our phones every once in a while and invested more in serenity, attention, and the contemplation of the great works of the human imagination.