British Ambassador Sir Oliver Wright was understandably smug as he arrived at the National Gallery of Art's opening dinner for "Collection for a King: Old Master Paintings from the Dulwich Picture Gallery."
"First the Leonardo da Vinci paintings from Windsor Castle, then this Dulwich show, the Stubbs exhibition coming in May and then the 'Treasure Houses of Britain' -- what a way to celebrate the 200th anniversary of British-American diplomatic relations!
"I just hope we get it all back."
Giles Waterfield, director of the Dulwich, the oldest gallery in London, was besieged by people who wanted further titillation after reading the gossip in his catalogue that the Dulwich had a reputation as a place of assignation. W.B. Yeats "conducted a love affair at 'Dulwich Picture Gallery and in railway trains' and George Moore's lovers in 'Evelyn Inness' were ill at ease on a backless seat in front of a masterpiece," according to Waterfield. "Evelyn Waugh grew bored waiting for a bus to Dulwich and instead went to buy a marriage license."
Waterfield said the arrangement among the original donors of the gallery, Noel and Margaret Morris Desenfans and their prote'ge', Francis Bourgeois, "was best described as a nebulous relationship. But things were different in the 18th century."
Waterfield said he enjoyed the National Gallery's sumptuous dinner, but that the dinners for Royal Academians provided for in Margaret Desenfans' will were so elaborate that they take 10 to 15 percent of the gallery's whole budget and had to be discontinued at the turn of the 20th century. "Though we had a fundraiser for 250 recently which was quite grand," she said.
Evangeline Bruce, in a marvelous jeweled collar, lives part of the year in London and knows Dulwich well. She said, "I love every stone in the building. It's so quiet, only your friendly neighborhood burglars go there much."
The gallery has suffered four "notorious thefts," as Waterfield said. One Rembrandt, "Jacob de Gheyn," was stolen all four times. They didn't get it back the last time.
Arthur Wheelock, the National Gallery curator of Dutch and Flemish paintings who organized the show, said he originally found the gallery, a short ride from downtown London, because of his fondness for the Rembrandt painting of "Girl Leaning on a Stone Pedestal."
"Dulwich is so marvelous -- the whole setting -- wonderful light and green field openness after the busyness of London. It's like finding a great treasure."
Before dinner, Ambassador at Large for Cultural Affairs Daniel Terra and his fiance' Judith Banks talked with Earl A. Powell III, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which will also show the Dulwich collection, as well as the Maurice Prendergast monotypes now on view at the National Gallery.
In after-dinner speeches in the West Garden Court, following salmon, duck and chocolate sorbet, all named after the patrons of Dulwich, the principals paid tribute to the gallery.
National Gallery director J. Carter Brown said he went to Dulwich to study Sir John Soane's design. He liked "the central space with the flanking wings, which inspired the British National Gallery and then ours." Brown pointed out that downstairs, in his building, is the Dulwich show, the core of which was assembled for a Polish king, "and the Da Vinci drawings from the British queen."
The exhibit's patron, Texan Gerald D. Hines, whose development firm is building an I.M. Pei-designed building at F and 13th streets, said, "We hope to contribute to public life in Washington, and we thank Dulwich for providing a beginning." Barbara Hines was resplendent in a Cartier art deco diamond pendant.
Paul Mellon, the perpetual patron of the National Gallery, and, as he put it, "an addicted Anglophile," said he thought the Dulwich Gallery was "most appealing, but too seldom visited and too little known . . . There's nothing dull at Dulwich."