FINE ARTS SPECIAL
Owners and donors
Richard Shone looks at the relationship between private collectors and public galleries Iwonder if you heard on Radio Four's Midweek (12 October) the extraordinary stor.-3', of a Scottish collector living on the Isle of Arran. In the late 1940s, Tom Alexander found he had a modest £30 or £40 per annum at his disposal and decided to. buy works of art — one per year — for lus home. He approached his chosen artists directly by letter and over the years amassed a collection which includes excel- lent examples — though I have only Libby Purves's gasps of pleasure as proof — of work by Hepworth, Hitchens, Davie, Sutherland, Piper, Scott, William Roberts and Stanley Spencer. Of the artists to whom he wrote, only one — Francis Bacon — failed to reply. Mr Alexander charitably suggested that it was Bacon's disinclination to answer letters that deprived his collec- tion of a screaming Pope. A likelier expla- nation is that a Bacon then cost a great deal more than could be afforded from Mr Alexander's little nest-egg. It was a charm- lug story combining thrift, determination, nous and pleasure. I think it would be extremely difficult to do nowadays what Mr Alexander did then. Of course, artists still sell directly to the public but this invariably means going behind the back of a dealer or an agent. When the shrewd Scot began, most con- temporary works of art were comparatively cheaper, dealers were thinner on the ground, art was not such a big business and the serious private collector of modest means was not a rare phenomenon. They were, in fact, the mainstay of an artist's life at a time when there were fewer corporate collections and even fewer adventurous public galleries and museums ready to buy recent art. The Arts Council of Great Britain was not a significant purchaser of new art in bulk until relatively recently and the National Art Collections Fund was not then concerned with contemporary art. Only the Contemporary Art Society, founded in 1910, could be relied upon to seek out young artists and buy their work for presentation to public collections who, in turn, paid a small annual subscription to the Society. This was like having the pick of an extensive and widely-based private col- lection (individual buyers appointed each year were responsible for the purchases). Thus Batley got its Bacon, Oldham its Bomberg, a Paul Nash went to Harrogate and Preston secured its Lucian Freud.
Private collectors of the art of this centu- ry have played a magnificent role in the enrichment of British public collections. Without their gifts and bequests, many could not now fill the gaps in their collec- tions that history and hindsight have made apparent. Take the case of Southampton Art Gallery. It is well known for its comprehensive collection of Camden Town Group pictures and its commitment to recent art, particularly sculpture (it is, for example, the only regional museum to have acquired a work by Rachel Whiteread, well before her Turner Prize and the interna- tional celebrity of her 'House'). In 1963, the profile of the Museum soared when it received a bequest of nearly 100 works from the private collection of the London dealer, Arthur Jeffress. It included paint- ings by Bonnard and Delvaux, Sutherland and Piper, Sickert and Freud. Generosity on this scale immeasurably helps a gallery to attract further bequests and funds. Thus, in 1980, Southampton was allocated by H.M. Government a 'Madonna and Child' by Giovanni BeRini and was later helped by a Government Grant-in-Aid and the N.A.C.F. to acquire an exquisite Monet of Vetheuil. More spectacular perhaps is the shining example set by Alexander Macdonald (1837-84) of Aberdeen. This local granite merchant left works by Millais, Watts and others to the Art Gallery but, more impor- tant, a large purchase fund, stipulating, in his own words, that 'no pictures painted more than 25 years before the date of pur- chase shall be eligible.' This was truly enlightened. In the hands of adventurous curators, the Macdonald Bequest has led to Aberdeen's wonderful collection (in 1937, for example, it purchased an excellent Leger — a dozen years before the Tate Gallery acquired a work by the artist), to several further bequests and the Govern- ment allocation of landscapes by Renoir and Sisley to join paintings by Monet, Vuil- lard and Bonnard which it already owned. Scotland has been fortunate in the generos- ity of its private collectors; an aesthetic `auld alliance' has brought superlative French pictures to Edinburgh (the Rich- mond-Traill and the Alexander Maitland gifts to the National Gallery, for example) and to Glasgow (the 1944 McInnes Bequest to the Art Gallery included works by Cezanne, Seurat and Matisse) as well as, of course, the great collection of works by Degas made by Sir William Burrell.
Some private collections are so personal that to break them up through integration with the rest of a Museum's holdings reduces their impact and the lessons they hold in regard to the taste of individuals or of a specific period. Two examples come to mind where the collector's integrity has been respected — the unusually avant-garde collection of Margaret Gardiner (Nicholson, Gabo, Hepworth) which in 1978 formed the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness on Orkney; and H.S. Ede's gift to the University of Cambridge of Kettle's Yard in which works by 20th-century masters — Ernst, Miro, Gabo, Brancusi — rub shoulders in a domestic setting with their British contem- poraries such as Moore and Nicholson.
There is, however, another side to the coin — a collection so awful that its blush- ing recipient can only wonder what on earth to do with it. Sir Robert Lloyd Pat- terson (1836-1906), a businessman, natural- ist, yachtsman and Belfast J.P., left an extensive collection of 'mainly anecdotal works by minor Victorian artists' to his wife who in 1922 gave everything to the Corpo- ration of Belfast. In the late Twenties the collection was assessed by the art critic, Frank Rutter, who wrote to the city's Museums Committee that 'to exhibit pic- tures of this class would bring discredit on the Art Gallery ... and would be calculat- ed to do actual harm from an educational point of view ... ' Sensibly, the Corpora- tion agreed to the sale of the collection (bar a handful of works); in 1930 it raised the paltry sum of just over i425. But Pat- terson has also left £6,000 in his will to the Art Gallery. The two sums were then used to buy modern British art and, with the `That's typical – as soon as you snap on the light, you can never find them.' advice of the Contemporary Art Society, nearly 50 works were swiftly acquired including paintings by Sickert, Roberts, Grant, Paul Nash, Wadsworth and Stanley Spencer — gems of the new Lloyd Patter- son Collection.
In spite of some of the examples given above, it has been the exception rather than the rule to find collectors wading into modern European or American art. This was not always the case in Britain. Hogarth became almost a bore with his vociferous championship of English artists who he felt were being sidelined by collectors in favour of foreign art. The 19th century saw a sig- nificant change. Huge prices began to be paid for the work of homegrown artists; foreigners hardly had a look in, certainly not the Impressionists, even when their reputations had vaulted from difficult to secure. In 1905, for example, at an enor- mous show of French Impressionism put on in London by the great dealer Durand- Ruel, hardly a painting sold and only after- wards did the National Gallery acquire, with funds from private subscribers — no, not a Manet, a Pissarro or a Sisley — but one modest Boudin.
Twenty years later it was only rich pri- vate collectors such as Samuel Courtauld or Maynard Keynes who could afford the great masters of the French school. Con- temporary French art fared much better between the wars, though the prevailing taste was for the less extreme examples of the Ecole de Paris. Works by Derain, Dufy, Marchand, Segonzac and the quieter phas- es of Matisse and Picasso of the early Twenties were acquired by collectors such as the Birkdale cotton merchant Frank Hindley Smith, by St John and Mary Hutchinson, the novelist Hugh Walpole, by Lord Sandwich, Mrs Pleydell-Bouverie and Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill (who gave the Musee Granet in Aix-en-Provence its first Cezanne). The more modest prices of homegrown art attracted more modest col- lectors, the doyen being Sir Edward Marsh, Churchill's private secretary. All hopeful young artists would scan the crowd at then' private views for a glimpse of Marsh's rococo eyebrows and his enthusiastic mon- ocle. At his death in 1953, bequests went, through the Contemporary Art Society, to museums great and small throughout Britain and 'the Dominions'.
Through such figures as these, combining personal pleasure and public generosity, British galleries, usually underfunded, led by sluggish curators and subject to tough local councillors, now contain sometimes exemplary holdings of modern British art. Since then, private collecting has been revolutionised in Britain, becoming moire adventurous in the 1940s and 50s, reaching a high point in the 1980s and slumping wildly thereafter.
Richard Shone is deputy editor of the Burlington Magazine.