Hester Diamond and VISTAS by Sir Nicholas Penny

New York | 29 January 2021

H ester Klein educated herself at the Museum of Modern Art in New York which she haunted as a schoolgirl and to the mysteries of which she initiated her future husband Harold Diamond. In her old age (when, as Keith Christiansen has observed, she seemed to grow ever younger in outlook), she was still keenly educating herself, chiefly by means of the Metropolitan Museum of Art – not only learning from the works of art displayed there but from its conservators and curators whom she is so esteemed.

Hester was generous in the help she gave to museums and appreciative of the help she received in return but she also collected the sort of art most likely to draw curators across the park – often puzzling works or examples of extremes in style which defy analysis or excite astonishment. That curators were sometimes difficult people never bothered her and that they didn’t always like each other never bothered her either. There were times when she consulted curators in advance of a purchase (which is the most frequent form of communication between collector and scholar) but, far more commonly, she wanted to know more about what she had, impulsively, acquired.

Aurelio Lombardo, Italian, circa 1525, Lot 120

Hester’s collecting in the last three decades of her life owed a great deal to the international art fairs where success depended upon rapid decision making. Her methods were the reverse of those of that great American collector Norton Simon whose policy was to take as much as he could on approval and to torture dealers with long reserves and protracted bargaining, transferring to the process of acquisition the techniques of his business in fruit canning and real estate. Dealers liked and respected Hester because she decided quickly and paid immediately, and also took seriously their real knowledge. Of course, it helped that she had been a dealer herself. The only problem for dealers was that they could never anticipate her. No one could guess what was would attract her next – no one, including Hester herself.

Hester’s philanthropic ventures arose directly out of her own research needs. This sounds somewhat self-centred which is certainly misleading since the beneficiaries were so extensive and widespread, but the original impulse lay in her recognition of an opportunity suggested by her own collecting. If a number on the back of a panel painting by Pontormo in her possession could be traced to an unpublished Medici inventory then why, she wondered, were the Medici archives not published, why not more fully explored and even fully photographed? Hester, in helping to launch and agreeing to lead the Medici Archive Project in the 1990s, did not only want to apply modern business methods –energy, efficiency and publicity – to an ancient European state archive, she also wanted to ensure that new technology for reproduction and conservation were made available. This brings me to VISTAS, her other great initiative as a philanthropist.

Hester collected painting and sculpture with equal zeal and she came to be especially attracted by those works of art made in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, in the Netherlands and Germany especially, in which the two arts were combined: painted wood carvings and sculptured altarpieces with painted wings or shutters. She quickly noticed that the connoisseurship of painting was far more secure than that of sculpture and that one reason for this was the far greater value of photography for the study of painting. (The elaborate carved oak retables of the Netherlands, often documented works, present extraordinary problems to the photographer.) She also realised that although freestanding sculpture was designed to be seen from numerous points of view it was known only from one or two photographs.

Hester made all the decisions concerning VISTAS, starting with its full name (Virtual Images of Sculpture in Time and Space), as I am sure that Jon Landau and Fabrizio Moretti, co-founders in December 2013, would acknowledge. It was her decision to work with Johan Van der Beke of Brepols, for example, recognising that we needed a partner who had a complete knowledge of the commercial world of publishing but also had a proven commitment to promoting scholarship. Indeed, she continued to lead even when she began to feel too old to be doing so. While the rest of the world was divided between those who believed the books were dead and those who refused to believe this, she felt certain that a reciprocal relationship was not only possible but desirable – something that is now widely acknowledged. The online features provided by VISTAS-VISUALS enhance and extend the value of the printed text.

Almost immediately VISTAS outstripped its original aims. It is in fact only now, after her death, that it is able to support the publication of recent conference papers on the work of Tilman Riemenschneider, a sculptor whom she is especially admired, and, thanks to a generous donation from Sam Fogg (one of her favourite dealers), this is to be supplemented by an online map whereby one can trace the different centres where the sculptor’s work remains in situ to this day.

Hester had no special interest in Giambologna. The small bronzes for which this artist is now best remembered did not appeal to her as a collector, but she understood that the full appreciation of his great fountain figure of Neptune in Bologna, the subject of Richard Tuttle’s monograph published in 2015 required not merely multiple photographic views but film.

She never collected ancient Greek or Roman sculpture although she did tell me what she did briefly feel drawn to it but had been put off by the problems of provenance. Nor did she ever collect neoclassical objects of any kind. However, when I proposed that VISTAS should publish a new edition of Taste and the Antique (written by the late Francis Haskell and me and first published in 1981) she immediately appreciated the value of doing so.

What engaged her most was the question of how sculpture should be photographed and she was personally responsible for the decision to engage James Stevenson and Ken Jackson of CHD to undertake this work. She also relished the negotiations with museums to organise photographic campaigns which frequently had to take place in the middle of the night, assisted in this by both the scholars responsible for the revision and extension of Taste and the Antique, Adriano Aymonino and Eloisa Dodero. What she regarded as the biggest challenge was France where she believed that an obstructive bureaucracy invariably prevailed, but, as she admitted, she was entirely mistaken, for Jean-Luc Martinez, the Director of the Musée du Louvre, and all the staff of the Department of Greek and Roman antiquities, made everything as easy as possible. The new edition will be published by Brepols next year. Every entry contains new information, much of it of major significance, supplied by Aymonino and Dodero, and the photographs will do much to reanimate interest in the ancient sculpture itself.

Hester Diamond would have enjoyed this sale. She was the most unsentimental collector and had no interest in perpetuating her collection. But VISTAS, her brainchild, is only now reaching adolescence and she rejoiced in the idea of its future growth.

About the Author

Sir Nicholas Penny

Director of the National Gallery 2008 - 2015

Visiting Professor, China Academy of Art , Hangzhou