Thursday, August 19, 2010

Thomas Uwins - Returning from School

Price Realized £7,768

pencil and watercolour, heightened with touches of white and with gum arabic
11¼ x 8½ in. (28.6 x 21.5 cm.)

Preparing the Ground

Allen Staley

Some time in 1970 I received a telephone call from a friend who taught at Princeton University, telling me that a student there was forming a collection of English Victorian paintings, and asking what I thought of that project as the possible subject for a senior thesis, which every Princeton student must write. The idea of buying things as a form of academic research struck me as odd, but that a college undergraduate would have the interest and wherewithal to undertake such a venture, as well as unusual, was intriguing. Then came details. The student was Christopher Forbes, son of Malcolm Forbes, a flamboyant figure who was a passionate collector of everything from Fabergé to French châteaux, and the paintings would become part of the Forbes Magazine collections. The thesis would consist not simply of acquiring works of art, but would be a serious scholarly catalogue of the collection, which we agreed would constitute a perfectly legitimate and appropriate student endeavour. Since there was no-one at Princeton with much interest in or knowledge of Victorian art, as part of the package Christopher (or Kip, as he was and is universally known) attended a graduate course of lectures on Victorian painting given by me at Columbia University.

Kip did brilliantly in my course, as perhaps I should have expected, since he was not only an intelligent and well-trained Princeton student but brought with him the enthusiasm and engaged knowledge of a collector. On the other hand, I doubt if my teaching was of much use to him as he was forming the collection. I concentrated upon the artists I most admired and considered most important, mainly the Pre-Raphaelites, while his self-defined brief was to focus upon the Royal Academy, seeking out for the collection only works that had been exhibited there, or sketches or versions related to them. That led him down byways that neither I nor anyone else at the time knew anything about, and I am certain that in the long run I learned far more from looking at and thinking about Kip's pictures - some by once highly-respected academicians, others by totally obscure and long-forgotten figures, and in either case often memorable and beautiful - than he did from listening to me hold forth about Rossetti and Holman Hunt. Needless to say, the thesis was a resounding success, becoming the basis of an exhibition and its catalogue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1975, and the cornerstone of what continued to grow into the most distinguished collection of Victorian painting formed in the second half of the twentieth century.

After 1975, the original restriction of the collection to the Royal Academy pictures withered away; it now includes important works by artists who would not have been seen dead in the Academy, notably Rossetti; and the whole now has a range, a level of quality, and a degree of interest that help to explain its pronounced visibility in the midst of the rediscovery and renewal of interest in Victorian art in recent decades among collectors, curators, scholars, and art-lovers of all kinds. In retrospect, Kip's project can be seen as leading, but also participating in, what we recognise as a revolution in taste. But that could hardly have been foreseen when he embarked upon it. At the moment he was starting to collect, another important American collection of Victorian paintings was being dispersed. That was the collection formed by the A&P heir Huntington Hartford, which included such masterpieces as A Huguenot by Millais, the Perseus series by Burne-Jones, now in Stuttgart, and Laus Veneris and the The Mirror of Venus, also by Burne-Jones. In 1964 Huntington Hartford opened a museum for his pictures, which he titled the Gallery of Modern Art, pointedly challenging the hegemony of taste in New York and America represented by the nearby Museum of Modern Art. That was a revolutionary gesture, but a gesture that fell flat, perhaps because it was ahead of its time, but surely more because the polemical position antagonised the entire critical establishment of New York, which to a man refused to see any redeeming qualities in paintings now universally recognised as supremely beautiful works of art.

Nevertheless the Gallery of Modern Art was not an entirely isolated and eccentric venture, but the most visible manifestation of a lively emergence of interests and commitment during the 1960s, which nourished the soil in which the Forbes and other collections in subsequent years would grow and bloom. In New York, the late Robert Isaacson, initially in a gallery of his own, then as a partner in Durlacher Bros, presented a series of exhibitions - Alma-Tadema in 1962, Painters of the Beautiful (Leighton, Albert Moore, Whistler, and Charles Conder) in 1964, Simeon Solomon in 1966 - which now seem inconceivably daring for the time and place in which they were undertaken. Many of the works shown in them were lent by James Coats, an Englishman who dealt privately out of his New York apartment and lived surrounded by works that any museum would now covet (and many of which are now in museums). I remember first seeing Alma-Tadema's spectacularly decadent Roses of Heliogabalus hanging over his bed. That painting and several others found their way into another amazing but short-lived collection put together in New York in the 1960s, that of the television personality Alan Funt, of 'Candid Camera' fame, devoted exclusively to Alma-Tadema. Before it was dispersed in 1973, the Funt Collection, like the Forbes Collection, was seen by the public in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Victorians in Togas, accompanied by a catalogue written by none other than Christopher Forbes. Outside of New York, there were several adventurous purchases by museums, most conspicuously Holman Hunt's Lady of Shalott, bought by the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. There were also exhibitions of the Pre-Raphaelites, organised by the Herron Museum in Indianapolis in 1964 and subsequently seen at the Gallery of Modern Art as its first loan exhibition; of Victorian art more generally at the National Gallery of Canada in 1965, selected by John Woodward, the then Keeper at the Birmingham City Art Gallery; and a significant group of early Victorian and Pre-Rephaelite paintings in Romantic Art in Britain: Paintings and Drawings 1760-1860, at the Detroit and Philadelphia Museums in 1968.

In England, of course, Victorian art had never really gone away. The Pre-Raphaelite collections of Birmingham and Manchester were always on view, as was the assemblage of later Victorian art in the Lady Lever Art Gallery at Port Sunlight (albeit somewhat reduced by 'de- accessioning'), and more specialised establishments such as the Watts Gallery, Leighton House and the William Morris Gallery carried on their missions. But such a large portion of the vast Victorian collections at places such as (and foremost) the Tate had been relegated to storage, it did seem that the establishment was trying hard to forget there ever had been a Victorian England. While many of the established Bond Street dealers had the occasional picture (and Agnew's put on an important exhibition of Victorian painting in 1961), I believe that in 1960 there was only one dealer in London, Charlotte Frank, whose prime commitment was Victorian art. Mrs Frank and her husband had come to England from Germany because of Hitler, and, in a manner paralleling Nikolaus Pevsner with Victorian architecture, discovered beauties in art that Roger Fry and his epigone had taught everyone to scorn. The Franks' single greatest legacy was the Last Judgement triptych by John Martin now in the Tate, but over the years following her husband's death Charlotte Frank, in a tiny room in a basement in St James's Street, sold wonderful paintings and initiated those fortunate enough to find their way to her into the infinite pleasures offered by Victorian art. In 1961 Jeremy Maas opened his gallery in Clifford Street and held the first of a sequence of exhibitions of mainly Pre-Raphaelite works that gave a much more public face to mid and later nineteeth-century British painting. And in the course of the decade, the venerable Fine Art Society in Bond Street, an institution harking back to 1876, re-invented itself and began presenting exhibitions of extraordinary sophistication and originality - most memorably British Sculpture 1850-1914 in 1968 and The Earthly Paradise in 1969, with catalogues by Lavinia Handley-Read and Charlotte Gere respectively. This burgeoning activity both encouraged and was encouraged by a new generation of collectors, among whom during the 1960s, Charles and Lavinia Handley-Read were the most conspicuous. Painting was not the Handley-Reads' sole concern, and they lived amidst an unforgettable profusion of furniture by William Burges, bronzes by Alfred Gilbert, and so on, as well as amidst lovingly chosen paintings, including the beautiful and poignant Dyce St John leading Home his adopted Mother in the present sale (lot 156). Before the collection was dispersed in the aftermath of their tragic and untimely deaths in 1971, it was seen by the public in exhibitions at the Royal Academy and the Fine Art Society, and the example of their passionately devoted activity remains vivid in many memories.

All too brief acknowledgment should also be made of the exhibitions of Ford Madox Brown, John Everett Millais and Holman Hunt organised by Mary Bennett at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool in 1964, 1967 and 1969; and of three books: Victorian Painting by Graham Reynolds (1966) Victorian Artists by Quentin Bell (1967), and Victorian Painters by Jeremy Maas (1969). Kip Forbes's discovery in 1969 of Graham Reynolds's book was the acorn from which the Forbes Collection grew. Nevertheless, as I hope my recollections of the period have suggested, that happy discovery should be seen within the context of many other things also happening in the years preceding it. All of them helped to prepare the ground for the next phase of the rediscovery of Victorian art still going on to this day, a continuing rediscovery in which the Forbes Collection has played a signally central and significant role.

When in 2002 the news reached me that the Forbes Collection was going to be sold, I was surprised and saddened. On reflection, neither response seems entirely called for. In 1970, when I first heard about Kip's thesis project, I never dreamed that I was hearing about a venture that would be going strong thirty years later. The job that was initially proposed was completed on schedule, and then lived on in a long and immensely fruitful afterlife. None of the collections formed in the 1960s mentioned in the foregoing paragraphs still exists. Each made its mark and is part of history. The works from those collections have gone into other collections and, in many instances, into museums. Now the Forbes Collection too will go on to other collections and museums, but it too has made its mark and is entering its niche in history.

London, Society of Painters in Water-Colours, 1811, no. 7.

Uwins was elected a member of the Old Society of Painters in Water-Colours in June 1810, and he contributed no less than fifteen works to the exhibition held by the Society the following year, including the present example. Many of his subjects were Shakespearean, but he also drew inspiration from rural life, and the present watercolour was exhibited alongside other rustic scenes including Hertfordshire Children Going to the Plat School.

In the present early watercolour, the boy in his drover's smock looks up to catch the viewer's eye, and the girl turns shyly away, clutching her schoolwork. There is a study for the boy in Uwins's sketchbook (private collection).

No comments: