Saturday, May 7, 2011

British Collectors

There's another gem of a museum in NYC called The Frick Collection that I always recommend to visitors who want a bit of art but don't have time for the large collections at the Met or MOMA. The bequest of American industrialist Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919), this museum was originally his house and thus showcases his art collection as part of a domestic Gilded Age interior, providing the visitor with an experience different from the usual encounter with paintings hanging on walls in museum galleries. The Frick Art Reference Library, established in 1920, is one of the best art research libraries in the country. Frick amassed an incredible collection of paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts from the early Renaissance through the late 19th century. The Fragonard Room is one of my favorite spaces in the museum, and they have a virtual tour online so you can see what the room looks like. You may recall that I had highlighted Colin Bailey's talk about these paintings at the CAA conference in February. The beautiful portrait you see here of The Hon. Frances Duncombe was painted ca. 1777 by Thomas Gainsborough, one of my favorite British painters. This work was owned by Frick, but among its previous owners was the Jewish banking magnate Lionel de Rothschild, a British collector about whom I heard a fascinating talk on Friday.

In 2007 the Frick established the Center for the History of Collecting in America. This weekend they held a two-day symposium entitled British Models of Art Collecting and the American Response (here's a PDF of the program). I wasn't able to go to the entire symposium, but I attended the Friday afternoon session of papers, which focused on British practices. Overall, the papers were interesting, but because this was done as a series of formal presentations, there were no opportunities for questions, which I found disheartening. The keynote address by James Stourton (Sotheby's London) was an overview of the history of art collecting in British history from the period of the 1600s into the 20th century. Encyclopedic in scope, his informative presentation set the stage for the rest of the papers, highlighting not only the change in patronage from the aristocracy to the nouveau riche industrial middle classes. Jordana Pomeroy (National Museum of Women in the Arts) gave a talk on the sale of the Duc d'Orléans collection in the 1790s, which brought into England for the first time many of the greatest works of art from the Renaissance. Hugh Brigstocke (Walpole Society) presented a very detailed biographical talk about the artists William Young Ottley and James Irvine acting as dealers on the European continent during the years of the French Revolution.

Arthur MacGregor (Journal of the History of Collections) presented on 18th-century collectors like Charles Townley and Henry Blundell. These collectors were interested mostly in Roman antiquity, and he argued that the acquiring of ancient sculptures and the construction of classical-style country estates were interrelated obsessions. Michael Hall (Rothschild Collection) gave a very interesting talk about the aforementioned Lionel de Rothschild (1808-1879) as an art collector, pointing to his own first tours of northern Europe at the age of 19 as a source that helped guide him in his lifelong art collecting practices, typically of works quite different from that of his contemporaries. The independent scholar Julia Armstrong-Totten also gave an informative and engaging presentation on the art dealer John Smith and how in the 1830s he sought new ways to rejuvenate his business, including publishing his multi-volume series of art books in the 1830s as a way to expand his clientele. The last paper I heard was by Jeremy Warren (Wallace Collection), who spoke about the different art collecting practices of the 4th Marquess of Hertford and his illegitimate son Sir Richard Wallace. Their collections eventually led to the superb Wallace Collection in London, which I first visited last Fall.

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