The Art of Collecting
The remarkable collection of works on paper at the Courtauld Gallery in London has at its heart the bequests and gifts of three very different collectors. An exhibition opening there this month reveals the breadth and character of the collection, and celebrates the tradition of philanthropy.
Rachel Sloan, Friday, 1st June 2012
The Courtauld Gallery, London, houses one of the most important collections of master drawings in Britain. Some 7,000 works strong, the collection is usually shown in small rotating displays. ‘Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery’1 (14 June–9 September) is the first exhibition of the greatest treasures in the drawings collection since 1991. As well as providing the opportunity to view a selection of drawings that parallels the breadth, depth and quality of the paintings collection, the exhibition allows for reflection on the formation of the drawings collection. Mirroring the origin and character of the Courtauld Gallery’s holdings as a whole, it is essentially a collection of collections, formed through a series of magnificent gifts and bequests.
The formation and character of the Courtauld’s collection of drawings is unusual when compared to holdings of similar size and art-historical importance. As part of a university art museum, it was created in part as a resource for the teaching of art history, a role that it continues to fulfil today. No less important is the mandate that it should be shared with a wider public audience. Given the exceptional quality of the collection, it is unusual that it was assembled exclusively in the 20th and 21st centuries. Comparable university collections, such as those of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford or the Fitz william Museum in Cambridge, were long established by the time that the Courtauld Institute of Art was created in 1932.2. The narrative begins with the co-founders of the Courtauld Institute of Art, Viscount Lee of Fareham (1868–1947), Samuel Courtauld (1876–1947) and Sir Robert Witt (1872–1952), each of whom left substantial, and complementary, collections to the Gallery. Together with other collections that arrived during the following decades – most notably Count Antoine Seilern’s Princes Gate Collection in 1978 – the Courtauld’s holdings of European drawings now encompasses most national schools and periods and provides an overview of the medium’s history until World War I.
The selection of works in the exhibition reflects the collection’s overall character. Italian drawings are superbly represented with examples dating from the mid-15th century to the late 18th century. Other particular strengths are 16th- and 17th-century Dutch and Flemish drawings, 17th century Spanish drawings, 18th- and 19th-century British drawings, and 18th- to early 20th-century French drawings.
The Courtauld Institute of Art embodied a shared vision of three very different men, each of whom recognised that, while England had many of the world’s finest art collections, it lacked the means to train specialists to care for this heritage and to interpret it for the benefit of the public. The notion that the rigorous academic training of this new professional generation of art historians, curators, conservators, critics, museum administrators and lecturers should happen with immediate reference to representative works of art was informed by the development of the new Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For Lord Lee the pedagogical purposes of the collection he formed were always paramount. In an article announcing the establishment of the Courtauld, Lee stated:
The present writer has endeavoured to build up a small collection of works of art (principally pictures), which shall illustrate the chief developments of painting in Europe from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and which shall possess a definite educational value. His intention is ultimately to bequeath the bulk of this collection (or so much of it as is considered suitable) to the Courtauld Institute of Art, in order that it may play in connection therewith a similar part to that taken by the Fogg Collection at Harvard, and at the same time be accessible for the enjoyment of the general public.3
Lee collected mainly paintings and some applied arts for the new Institute, but he also left a small number of drawings, including Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Kermis at Hoboken (1559; Fig. 2), a sheet he acquired in 1944. While Lee bought drawings only in exceptional cases, Samuel Courtauld acquired works on paper alongside paintings, bequeathing more than 80 drawings to the institution that bears his name. There are close parallels between Courtauld’s collecting of drawings and the formation of the Gallery’s collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings.4 Courtauld’s activity as one of Europe’s major collectors of modern French art was confined largely to the 1920s. His acquisitions of drawings span that decade too, and the range of works he bought shows that he fully embraced drawings as a medium: the earliest acquisition in the exhibition is Toulouse-Lautrec’s Au Lit (c. 1896), purchased in 1922, followed by Degas’ powerfully expressive pastel Seated Woman Adjusting Her Hair in 1923 (c. 1884; Fig. 3). In 1927 he bought Van Gogh’s pen drawing Tile Factory (1888); in 1928 Seurat’s large Female Nude (c. 1881), finished to a high degree of complexity, as well as Manet’s red-chalk sketch La Toilette (1860), a preparatory study for a print that Courtauld also owned in two impressions; and in 1929 Daumier’s elaborately finished watercolour Le Malade Imaginaire (c. 1850). Although Courtauld drastically reduced his collecting activities after the death of his wife Elizabeth in 1929, he bought Cézanne’s superb still life Apples, Bottle and Chairback (c. 1904–06) in 1937 for £3,500, highlighting the importance he assigned to Cézanne’s watercolours. The sheet was the last of three major acquisitions of works on paper by Cézanne, alongside a collection of paintings that originally numbered some 11 canvases.5
Samuel Courtauld presented his own home, Home House, the magnificent 18th century townhouse designed by Robert Adam in London’s Portman Square, to the new Courtauld Institute of Art in 1932. An early guidebook lists among the works on display Cézanne’s watercolours A Shed (c. 1880) and Montagne Saint-Victoire (c. 1885–87), Daumier’s Le Malade Imaginaire and Degas’ pastel After the Bath (c. 1895).6 Given the large number of drawings he owned, Courtauld probably did not display all of them framed on the wall; however, he certainly considered that to be the most appropriate way of viewing master drawings in both private and public collections. Courtauld fully appreciated the educational power of the particularly intimate encounter with the medium, noting in a rare public statement about art in 1958:
Many a private owner of a few drawings will gladly show them to a small appre-ciative group, and he will never be better pleased than when he can transmit a share of his enthusiasm to newcomers. Such an experience may very likely be more inspiring to young people than visits to public Galleries in the large regiments which one sometimes encountered before the war.7
Courtauld’s collection provided the first generation of students at the Institute with modern and contemporary works as study material. He gave one of the latest drawings in the exhibition, Matisse’s Seated Woman (1919; Fig. 4), acquired by Courtauld from the Leicester Galleries in 1928 and given during his lifetime in 1935.
The study of the development of European drawings through original works became possible when Robert Witt bequeathed his collection of about 3,000 drawings in 1952, along with his vast reference library of photographs of paintings and approximately 20,000 largely reproductive prints now held by the Courtauld Gallery. In the scale and depth of his bequest and in his ambitions for its use Robert Witt may properly be regarded as the founder of the drawings department at the Courtauld. Unlike Courtauld’s collecting, which was strongly guided by aesthetic qualities, Witt’s interest in collecting works
on paper – which he considered ‘at once the most civilised and least spectacular form of collecting’8 – was predominantly scholarly.
He aimed to establish ‘a corpus of original works which could help the student to identify the characteristics of a large range of artists’.9
A successful lawyer, and Samuel Courtauld’s neighbour in Portman Square, Witt was in a comfortable position financially, but prices for master drawings, particularly those of the Renaissance, had risen considerably after World War I, when he began to collect. Witt avoided famous names and instead sought works by lesser-known artists, such as Maerten van Heemskerck and Charles-Joseph Natoire, or those whose works were not highly valued. Today, many of these artists count among the most important draughtsmen of their periods and schools.
Particularly notable is Witt’s collection of Italian Baroque drawings, including a superb group of more than 30 works by Guercino (Fig. 6), as well as Flemish and Dutch drawings of the later 16th and 17th centuries. He bought fine British and French drawings of the 18th century, and his acquisition in 1921 of significant parts of the Stirling Maxwell collection of Spanish drawings was entirely characteristic of his approach.10
Count Antoine Seilern’s collection of more than 350 drawings, bequeathed to the Courtauld in 1978, brought many of the greatest masterpieces into the collection. Known as the Princes Gate Bequest, after Seilern’s London address, it was at the time described as the greatest single bequest to any British gallery in the 20th century. Seilern (1901–78) began collecting in the late 1920s and, much like Courtauld, searched for the inherent beauty of a work. His lifelong collecting was motivated by a declared ‘love and reverence for the highest products of the human genius’.11
Born in England to an Austrian father, Seilern was educated in Vienna. After inheriting a fortune in 1931, he read history of art at the University of Vienna, concluding his studies in 1939 with a dissertation on the Venetian sources of Rubens’ ceiling paintings before emigrating to London in the same year.12 His scholarly interests strongly informed his collecting; his lifelong interest in Rubens led him to acquire 23 drawings and 32 paintings then attributed to the artist. Seilern became the archetypal scholar-collector, generating a vast and detailed correspondence with curators and academic art historians and travelling extensively to study works at first hand in museums and print rooms across Europe. His research resulted in a series of scrupulous catalogues of his holdings, published according to national school in seven volumes between 1955 to 1971.
In the foreword to his final catalogue, Seilern stated that the purpose of a collection was to ‘induce in the visitor an intense concentration and absorption in the world of the artist, as revealed in one of his master-pieces’.13 Favouring the intimate and serious discussion of drawings, he was deeply rooted in a humanist tradition of art collecting established during the Renaissance. The extraordinary acquisition of Michelangelo’s The Dream (c. 1533; Fig. 5) in 1952 is particularly meaningful, as the artist’s presentation drawings were created as finished works of art intended for intimate study by knowledgeable collectors.
By the time he left Vienna, Seilern had already assembled a very important collection of drawings: in 1934 he had acquired the outstanding portrait of Rubens’ young wife, Helena Fourment (1630–31; Fig. 1), which, like The Dream, celebrates beauty and the art of draughtsmanship. He acquired Canaletto’s View from Somerset Gardens (c. 1746–50) in 1935; Bruegel’s Storm in the River Schelde with a View of Antwerp (c. 1559) and Dürer’s Wise Virgin (1493) followed in 1936. A particular focus of Seilern’s early collecting was the French 18th century; he purchased drawings by Watteau and Hubert Robert in 1935 and, in 1936, Fragonard’s Young Girl Seated (1785). In 1941, he bought Picasso’s Female Nude (1920–21) and Cézanne’s large pencil drawing Hortense Fiquet (Madame Cézanne) Sewing (c. 1880). Later in life, the focus of his collecting changed:
I have lost interest in much of the art of the French eighteenth century – Watteau excepted – and even to some extent in the now so fashionable French nineteenth century – Cézanne excepted. It seems to me now that these certainly very beautiful works of art are concerned primarily with problems of decoration, representation and pure form. They are without doubt most appealing to the eye, and to the mind in so far as it delights in contemplating the development of new representational methods…Only in the work of Cézanne do I still find the solution of these problems exciting.14
At the same time Seilern regretted that ‘Only fairly recently, and alas too late, have I come to appreciate the art of Rembrandt.’ Seilern bought his first Rembrandt drawing in 193715 and assembled 30 sheets then attributed to the master; today’s scholarship assigns about half of these to Rembrandt’s hand, including two selected for the exhibition.
Seilern’s most significant purchase of a large group of drawings was more than 1,200 sheets from the collection of Thomas Fitzroy Fenwick (1856–1938). He donated most of these drawings anonymously to the British Museum in 1946.16 The 24 works that he kept included some of the finest Italian Renaissance drawings in the Courtauld’s collection – sheets by Leonardo da Vinci, Carpaccio, Pontormo and Veronese. Another major acquisition was the 1957 purchase of nine sheets of the so called Gabburri album, with landscape drawings by Fra Bartolommeo, and a remarkable collection of about 20 sheets by Parmigianino. Claude Lorrain was another focus of Seilern’s late collecting, by which time the prices for Old Master drawings had risen. Introducing a series of his most recent acquisitions in 1971 he bewailed ‘the end of the age of the private collector’. He wrote: ‘Works of art are becoming more and more scarce; in other words, beyond the reach of the normal collector trying to be guided solely by his own taste’.17 Seilern’s approach to drawings was in tune with practices of professional museum curators. Like Witt he kept the works in boxes, thus protecting them from excessive exposure to light.18 His research interests were guided by questions of attribution and dating, the identification of subject matter, and the discussion of the role of a drawing in the artist’s working process or its place in an oeuvre.
Seilern considered bequeathing his collection to the Courtauld as early as the late 1940s, when Anthony Blunt (1907–83) began his long directorship (until 1974). Blunt himself collected drawings, primarily related to architecture, sculpture and decorative works, and left his collection to the Courtauld upon his death. Bernini’s Design for the Louvre, East Façade (1664) is one of the most important of his Renaissance and Baroque drawings.
A group of some 2,500 British drawings forms one of the most distinctive aspects of the Gallery’s collection. Sir Robert Witt acquired about 1,300 of these, among them fine landscapes by Thomas Gainsborough. The strength of the Courtauld Gallery’s English watercolours grew significantly with the 1967 bequest of the Yorkshire industrialist William Wycliffe Spooner (1882–1967) and his wife.19 Great names of British watercolour – John Robert Cozens, Francis Towne and John Constable – entered the collection. In 1974 some 13 watercolours by J.M.W. Turner were presented (Fig. 7) in memory of Sir Stephen Courtauld (1883–
1967), Samuel Courtauld’s younger brother.
As this necessarily incomplete narrative illustrates, the collections of works on paper at the Courtauld are largely the result of a series of important individual gifts and bequests. This tradition of philanthropy continues in more recent decades. Most notably, Dorothy Scharf’s outstanding collection of more than 50 British watercolours, including nine sheets by Turner, arrived at the Gallery in 2007.
Her generous bequest signals the continued growth of the collection at the highest level
of ambition and quality.
Rachel Sloan is Assistant Curator of Works on Paper at the Courtauld Gallery, London.
‘Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery’ runs from
14 June to 9 September at the Courtauld Gallery, London (www.courtauld.ac.uk).
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