Luca Signorelli, The Adoration of the Shepherds (detail)
Luca Signorelli, The Adoration of the Shepherds (detail), 1496. National Gallery, London.

Between 11 November 1998 and 31 January 1999 83,002 people saw Luca Signorelli in British Collections in the Sunley Room at the National Gallery. 3,540 copies of the exhibition leaflet and 979 catalogues were sold. The video was played on all United Airlines transatlantic flights and over 2,000 times on the ground. How did the exhibition ever get airborne and what are my abiding memories of the resulting Signorelli-fest?

The idea was born at my Ph.D. viva in October 1996 when Francis Russell proposed that the National Gallery should mount an exhibition of all the paintings and drawings by Luca Signorelli in British collections, and that I should curate it. Even an informal approach to the National Gallery - something along the lines of 'the funniest thing happened at my viva’ - was warmly received, and I was asked to write an exhibition proposal.

Happily - as the end result demonstrated - it was an easy exhibition to propose, and I was wonderfully supported by the Keeper, Dr. Nicholas Penny. The National Gallery’s eight paintings by Signorelli were supplemented by ten loans from public and private collections in Britain and the eleven drawings by the artist in the British Museum were complemented by three from elsewhere. Together, this amounted to all the paintings and drawings by Signorelli that are in this country, and these works traced the artist’s career from his origins with Piero della Francesca to his death in 1523. They included large altarpieces, predella panels, frescoes, small Madonnas, and portraits as well as fragments of larger works and preparatory drawings.

The exhibition included three pictures that had never been published and several that are very rarely seen. One of the unpublished pictures only appeared six months before the exhibition opened after it had been brought into the Conservation and Technology department of the Courtauld and been investigated by Dr. Aviva Burnstock. Although some of his greatest works could not be borrowed (we could not, for instance, answer the criticism of one reviewer and bring the frescoes from Orvieto), the exhibition provided an incomparable opportunity to reassess the artist’s importance, and it is likely to be the largest group of the artist’s work that we will ever see gathered in one place.

The National Gallery was duly convinced and, after a two year gestation period, the exhibition opened in November 1998. I had not anticipated how exciting it would be to see the pictures come out of their packing cases. I had never imagined that introducing the owners of two fragments of the same picture, would be like reuniting twins who had been separated at birth. I had certainly failed to predict that the footage from Orvieto in the video would give my son nightmares about multi-coloured demons, or that his younger sister would look at a Nativity and ask which figure was Jesus’ nanny. I had not expected that my students’ essays on Signorelli would, for the first time, demonstrate a real feel for the artist, nor that every time I went through the exhibition there would be so many people looking, reading, and looking again. I’m missing him already!

Dr. Tom Henry