It has often been said that the collecting of Old Master paintings is no longer possible either because so few works are available, or that they are too expensive, except for the richest collectors both public and private. This is not true as so many Old Master paintings are continuously on the art market, especially at auction, but in diminishing numbers with dealers. Further evidence of collecting activity is that many of the public collections in the United Kingdom, both large and small, have been continuously adding to their holdings. Given the will, the private collector can still acquire paintings on the open market although certain fashionable artists remain out of reach for most collectors.
The history of collecting is still in its infancy, especially as so much research is still needed in finding out how and why collectors made their choices. Not all collections were simply accumulations, as many collectors disposed of unwanted works from time to time in order to achieve a certain goal, which would often change as the collector’s taste advanced. The Schorr Collection has taken a different point of view as with minor exceptions no pictures have been disposed of and thus the chronology of the collector’s taste can be worked out.
The Schorr Collection began with works by the Impressionists, two by Sisley and one by Pissarro, and soon progressed to a broad representation of the Old Masters from the 16th century onwards. What soon emerged was that the collection became representative of several stylistic trends which were defined by 20th century art history such as Caravaggism and Neoclassicism. A parallel interest was in the Netherlandish 16th century which now numbers some 60 works.
The collection therefore soon acquired an historical perspective quite unlike most other collections brought together in the United Kingdom in the last half century. This interest in looking at the Old Masters from an historical point of view and avoiding fashionable trends is not a new one and there are numerous examples from the last two centuries of collecting.
The public collections of the United Kingdom are an unusually rich repository of the Old Masters, even though widely scattered in several hundred small institutions as well as the handful of large ones. Many of these collections are the product of a single benefactor, with the larger ones often showing an accumulation of gifts and bequests, which often differ in type and quality. the reasons behind these benefactions are not always easy to define. For the most part it would seem that collectors wanted to pass on to posterity their own enjoyment, rather than have their possessions scattered by sale, taxation, or dispersed by inheritance to numerous heirs.
Until the 20th century all collections were brought together without the benefit of art historical knowledge, although they now have such strictures imposed on them. As far as can be worked out most of these early were based on two broad but interlocking premises, namely personal likes and dislikes and the more rigid canon of taste. Given this lack of academic and intellectual guidance it comes as something of a surprise to note that some collectors from the 18th century onwards seem to have been influenced by other factors. Modern observations on the nature of these early have to be somewhat speculative.
Before the foundation of the National Gallery in 1824 with its initial holding of 36 pictures, almost all the earlier benefactions were to existing educational institutions, schools and universities, as there was no concept of a publicly funded art gallery. The earlier benefactions are of some interest, especially that of General Guise to Christ Church College, Oxford in 1765 which contained a serious group of Italian 16th century works. Dr William Hunter gave his miscellaneous collection of modern and Old Masters to the University of Glasgow in 1783, and finally the largest and most significant gift was that of Sir Peter Francis Bourgois to Alleyn’s College of God’s gift at Dulwich in 1811. While these collections were essentially heterogeneous they formed part of educational institutions.
The story of William Roscoe in Liverpool is remarkable as he collected with an aim – his Italian pictures were to complement his History of the Medici. Roscoe collected pictures which were at the time hardly taken seriously as works of art. This was because they belonged to an earlier period before 1500 when Italian painters were considered of little interest. Today Roscoe’s early Italian pictures are considered to range from modest examples of Florentine and Sienese painting to masterpieces by Simone Martini and Ercole de’Roberti.
It is not clear whether Roscoe intended his pictures for permanent public exhibition, but following his bankruptcy in 1816 a number of friends clubbed together and bought some of his pictures at auction and deposited them in the Liverpool Royal Institution in 1819. This meant that Liverpool had on public view a number of Italian paintings which had been brought together for historical reasons, even though as works of art they would have had but little meaning to art collectors of the time.
When the National Gallery was founded there were no such historical principles, as the founding collection, from John Julius Angerstein, contained superb examples of the Old Masters of the 16th and 17th centuries rather than any idea that the pictures should represent the development of European painting. This concept was to come later as the National Gallery expanded in the middle years of the 19th century.
One of the fundamental changes in attitude towards Old Master paintings came with the influence of the writing and lecturing of John Ruskin. Although Ruskin was a complex and self-contradictory character he did believe that paintings were more than objects of beauty. He was violently critical of the then popular Old Masters such as Gaspard Dughet and Meindert Hobbema. He believed in the educational value of pictures and put his theories into practice when he founded a personal museum on the outskirts of Sheffield.
The talisman of the collection was a Virgin adoring the Christ Child now attributed to Andrea del Verrocchio. Ruskin believed that by placing an acknowledged masterpiece in a place where there were few other works of art it would have a beneficial effect on the city’s workers who could escape from the smoke of their steel works in order to contemplate an exceptional painting.
It is likely that Sir Charles Eastlake was influenced by Ruskinian doctrines as during his directorship of the National Gallery in the 1840s and 1850s many works were added for clearly historical reasons even though they were not strictly fashionable according to early Victorian taste. It has thus become established that there was a legitimacy in the historical approach to public collecting even though the private sector was seemingly unaware of this.
By far the largest collection brought together in the 19th century with the intention of creating a museum was that of John and Joséphine Bowes. They bought exclusively on the French art market from the 1840s onwards, and as their collecting progressed it became obvious that they wanted to represent European painting from the late 15th century onwards. This was in tandem with an even more ambitious buying policy for the decorative arts. This broad scale of collecting has often been a source of misunderstanding about the Bowes Collection as neither John nor Joséphine liked to pay high prices, instead they concentrated on the largest number possible of cheaper objects. Modern art historians, in examining the Bowes collection in detail, have proved them right as they were able to obtain significant works from the fifteenth century onwards. At the same time they acquired pictures by living artists who were more avant-garde than conventional. These included pictures by Courbet, Monticelli and Boudin. In recent years the Bowes Collection has been rehabilitated and its broad significance has been understood.
One of the least well known of the small historical collections in the 19th century was that put together by Thomas Kay (1841–1914) of Stockport, Cheshire. He catalogued his collection in 1911 before bequeathing it to the art gallery of the technical School in Heywood, Lancashire. The title page of the catalogue is significant in itself, “Description of pictures with a short history of anecdotal character intended to illustrate the progress of the art of painting from the Byzantine period to the present day”. Most of the Kay pictures were by minor figures or remain unidentified but one of them described in the catalogue as, ‘a good example of Byzantine art, probably executed in Italy’ has turned out to be by the 15th century Sienese painter, Giovanni di Paolo. The Kay pictures were transferred to rochdale in 1974 as a result of local government re-organisation.
Perhaps the most recent example of an historically oriented collection to arrive in a public art gallery was the gift of FD Lycett Green to the City Art Gallery, York in 1955. It is said that Lycett Green collected with the intention of presenting his pictures to the National Gallery of South Africa but he changed his mind. The collection covers the Old Masters from the 14th to the 18th century with numerous examples of pictures by artists of great historical importance. To name only a few, the works by Baburen, Melendez and Bellotto appeared less interesting at the time but are now seen to be works of significance in a national context.
The main thread which runs through these collections is one of a certain austerity of taste. This is a direct contrast to the other types of collection which have found their way into public galleries, especially during the 20th century. These collections are easier to like because they contain works of art which are a delight to the senses. Examples of this type are found in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge with the gift and bequest of 17th and 18th century flower pieces by the 2nd Lord Fairhaven. A second example, less easily accessible, is the Lord Samuel bequest to the Mansion House in London which contains many choice examples of Dutch and Flemish 17th century painting, with a strong emphasis on landscape.