John Charles Robinson, perhaps the greatest connoisseur Britain has ever known, was turned down on four occasions for the post of director of the National Gallery. He was thought to be too closely associated with the trade ('little better than a dealer'), and was known to have operated with scant respect for officialdom when employed by the South Kensington museum. In addition, his taste deviated too far from the orthodox, as was most clearly demonstrated by his great enthusiasm - already developed by the 1860s - for the obscure Spanish painter El Greco. Sir Henry Layard, the trustee most vehemently opposed to Robinson, considered El Greco to be a 'clever, but eccentric and rather repulsive painter' whose best works 'show a strange mixture of powerful, though frequently false, colouring and execrable drawing'. In 1867 Robinson tried in vain to sell an important El Greco to the gallery. In May 1895, not long after Layard died, he offered the Expulsion of the Traders from the Temple, justly observing to the new director, Sir Edward Poynter, that 'it is very much above the average of this most eccentric master's works and has the advantage of being in splendid condition.' It is striking that 'eccentric' was the adjective employed by both detractor and defender.
LRB 4 March 2004 | PDF Download