Something interesting is going down in London’s Trafalgar Square. Outside, people are queuing for hot chocolate and mulled wine at the annual Christmas fair. Behind them, huge hoardings have gone up to obscure major renovations at the National Gallery, which dominates the square. Inside, behind the hoardings, 52 masterpieces of European art dating from the 1400s to World War I are being checked, conserved, reframed and meticulously packed up before being sent to China for the very first time. An exhibition, “Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London”, opens in Shanghai in January, and will move on to two other Asian cities later. Meanwhile, another British cultural behemoth, the V&A (Victoria and Albert Museum), is in Hong Kong for a collaboration with high-end mall and art space K11 Musea and award-winning designer William Chang Suk-ping. The fashion-themed exhibition placed loans from the V&A collection side by side with works by six emerging fashion designers from around Asia. Cultural exchange between the UK and China has never been more earnest. Chu Xiaobo, the director of the Shanghai Museum, the first stop on the National Gallery exhibition’s Asia tour, has called it “the most ambitious project” ever to show Western artworks in mainland China. The exhibition is intended not only to be a National Gallery in miniature, but also to show the major developments in European painting over 600 years, in historical sections each headlined by at least one big name, including Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Turner and Monet, all the while keeping both a sense of coherence and diversity. No small challenge, then. One of the main people responsible for deciding which artworks made the cut was the National Gallery’s head of curation, Christine Riding. “You’ve got portraits, landscapes, religious works of art, secular works of art,” she says. But what pulls it together is the narrative nature of the works. Will China’s art market recover any time soon following Covid lockdowns? “All of the paintings, you’ll be able to draw out stories from them, whether or not it’s the biography of the sitter or the artist, or that they are narrative paintings and there are stories already embedded in there.” The first plan was to send 48 paintings. But it was too painful deciding which ones not to take. So they added four for good measure. The earliest headliner is Botticelli’s Three Miracles of Saint Zenobius , from around 1500. It shows a blind man being healed, and beside him his little dog sitting patiently. Inside Joseph Hotung’s long-hidden private Chinese art collection One of the last is Van Gogh’s Long Grass with Butterflies , painted when the artist was at a psychiatric hospital in St-Rémy, France, in 1890 and inspired by reading how Japanese artists concentrated on one blade of grass in order to understand the whole world. Before it leaves for China, each painting will have been seen by conservators, and in some cases the frames will have been swapped. “Some of the frames are works of art in their own right,” says Hannah Hawksworth, senior touring exhibitions manager. “So when we look at a painting to see if it’s robust enough to travel, we also have to make an assessment of the frame.” It’s not just that some are not strong enough, it’s also that, with some frames, nobody is sure what wood lies beneath the gilt. “There are serious regulations for artwork travelling abroad, for mahoganies and things like that,” she says. “There’s enough complication with Covid and the logistics of international shipping without tempting a visit from customs inspectors. The National Gallery’s collection is small in comparison with some other national collections, and this is explained by how the museum began. Art Basel Hong Kong back to normal in 2023, but still far from 2019 level “What you’re dealing with is the post Waterloo-period,” says Riding. In France the Royal Collection had been nationalised after the revolution, and later Napoleon pillaged Europe for artistic treasures, so the Louvre, in Paris, was packed with paintings “owned” by the people. After those European wars finally ended in 1815, Britain saw itself as a major world power, but it still had no national art collection. The problem wasn’t resolved until 1823, when the philanthropist John Julius Angerstein died, and 38 of his paintings were bought to start a national gallery. ‘At night we heard women prisoners wailing’: a female history of Hong Kong The National Gallery that we know today opened the following year, initially in Angerstein’s former house in London’s Pall Mall. One of the original 38, Claude Lorrain’s Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula , will be going to China. Two centuries, and many donations, later there are today some 2,600 works in the National Gallery collection, half of which are on the London museum’s walls at any one time, with the rest either being conserved or lent out. There is rarely a chance to take so many paintings of such importance for a tour to the other side of the world, but with some rooms at the gallery closed for the bicentennial renovations, the opportunity arose to do something extraordinary. One of the important guidelines for the National Gallery is that it’s up to the host museums to decide how they are going to hang the paintings – in what order and with what kind of narrative. “We don’t want to impose any of our own ideas onto that,” Hawksworth says. Also, they know that some of the true magic of this process of cultural sharing comes when a fresh set of curators decides how to tell a story of art in their own way. The V&A, another UK museum expanding its collaboration with China, would agree. For it, the whole point of exhibiting is to create new stories and juxtapositions with the explicit aim of generating new designs. For the exhibition “The Love Of Couture: Artisanship In Fashion Beyond Time”, V&A is displaying 12 items of clothing from its collection at K11 Musea. “It’s amazing the story you can tell in a relatively small number of objects,” says the museum’s deputy director, Tim Reeve. “I sometimes think we get obsessed when we go to galleries and we want to see a lot of things. But it’s a really neat exercise to try and narrow it down to a dozen objects you think are particularly iconic. And then to see how half a dozen emerging designers respond to that, reflect on it and give it a contemporary feeling.” Among the pieces on display is a wedding dress from around 1840 that is not white but sand-coloured, printed with flowers and scattered with paisley patterns (named after the town near Glasgow that copied them shamelessly in the 19th century, but originating in Central Asia). There is also a figure-hugging evening dress from 1921, made by Paul Poiret, the Paris designer who had earlier invented the hobble skirt (which pushed silk petticoats into the fashion history books). In addition, there’s a utilitarian wartime women’s skirt suit, designed by British couturier Elspeth Champcommunal, in 1942, to ensure that such clothing – although complying with rationing restrictions – was still made to high standards. And then there are the new designs, created as a response. “There’s nothing more thrilling for the V&A than to see our objects being used to create something new and different today,” Reeve says. “It’s what they’re for. We talk about the museum as being a ‘source book’ and that’s what it is. It’s there to be used.” Reeve remembers the day he first visited the V&A “as clear as yesterday”. He was 11. It was a leave day from school. His mother had come from Norfolk, in the east of England, to meet him in London. They took turns deciding what to do on his leave days, and that particular day it was his mother’s turn. “We visited the cast courts,” he says, referring to the great room full of plaster casts of sculptures intended to allow British people without access to Rome or Florence or Santiago de Compostela see how those sculptures looked in three dimensions – and be inspired by them. Reeve never forgot that experience. However, he reveals, on the next leave day, when it was his turn to choose, they went to watch Back to the Future – which was also appropriate for his current career, because the V&A is all about the future. The V&A opened in 1852, a year after the Great Exhibition – the first World’s Fair, held in London, which exhibited cultural and industrial marvels from around the world – and was originally called the Museum of Manufacturing, with the mission “to educate designers, manufacturers and the public in art and design”. Its first big venture in China was a collaboration to create Design Society in the southern city of Shenzhen, which opened in 2017 (the partnership has since expired). The intention of the exhibition it held there was to explore the history of Chinese design, and one of the more extraordinary subjects was the social media platform WeChat . The offline demo version of the app was displayed, alongside GIF files of the WeChat sticker series Bubble Pup, as well as a series of pencil sketches showing how the stickers were developed. “We’d not got any experience negotiating an acquisition with one of the world’s largest technology companies,” Reeve says. “We didn’t know what ‘acquiring WeChat’ might even mean. And if we managed, how are we going to display it and then how are we going to conserve it? Because none of it is anything we’re familiar with.” ‘A test bed for new ways’: London’s V&A museum celebrates African fashion It was only in the process of working with others on such an international collaboration that the team from the V&A – a museum set up to help others to learn – realised that it was also the one that was learning. Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London, Shanghai Museum, Jan 17 to May 7, 2023. The Love Of Couture: Artisanship In Fashion Beyond Time : K11. Until Jan 29.