Galleries doomed to decay

Research on the county portrait galleries

A project modestly supported by the National Cultural Fund was launched some years ago aimed at the research and reconstruction of Hungary’s county portrait galleries. In the first phase, the portrait series once decorating the general assembly halls of modern-day Hungary’s seven counties were identified and a home page presenting the buildings and the paintings was made. The homepage is now closed and the project was stopped due to the lack of funds, even though this material and its research threw new light on a ‘rather neglected’ area of Hungarian cultural history. “Rather neglected” refers to the fact that studies have actually been written on the theme with the aim of providing a summary and also taking a look at individual items.

Once the most important means of power representation, these portrait galleries were integral parts of the public buildings of the counties. They were referred to as symbols of power capturing Hungary’s past and the history of the counties. As Benedek Göndöcs, abbey parish priest of Gyula, said on 13 May 1878 at the opening ceremony of the general assembly of the Békés County Archaeological and Cultural History Society, “through the portraits they wished to preserve the memory of prominent figures […] who belonged not only to us but to the homeland and the nation […] and leave it to coming generations as a worthy memorial.”

More and more portraits were painted, even in the interwar years, and some 150 years after their making they became ’redundant’. However, posterity did not wish to remember the history evoked by these works, and their artistic value counted for nothing. These portrait galleries were got rid of in a haste and only in lucky cases were they only removed and not destroyed. Most ended up in countryside museums and from the 1960s were stored in county museum vaults, while some were transferred to country level museums. Some pictures were in such poor condition that they were as good as destroyed, and some were lost, neglected or went missing.

In some cases county museums had works transferred to country collections (e.g. Nógrád County) quoting various difficulties (storage, preservation) as a reason, but it also happened on more than one occasion that county portrait galleries transferred beyond Hungary’s border were eventually returned to county museums in Hungary.

The inclusion of these portraits in county galleries had once been regarded as a public affair: county assemblies voted on the persons whose portraits could be painted and the scale of its cost. The artists were only selected by the county in certain cases, and even then the decision was made by a board.

The more than seventy county halls that are still standing preserve a unique building type of Hungary’s architectural history. Once the emblems of power, today these sites of our national history are monumental buildings without an exception.