The Story of Art Collecting in Britain as told by the National Gallery’s Pictures: 6 week course

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This course brings to light many colourful characters down the ages, seen through the types of pictures they have collected. It will survey chronologically key moments in the history of the most important British collectors of art from the king and his court, through the aristocracy to plutocrats. While our tale will be initially one of private collectors in the Tudor Age, our trajectory will also take us into the public domain, with the birth of the public museum in the 19th century and in particular the foundation of the National Gallery in 1824 – the country’s leading collection of paintings in the western European tradition. The unfolding story will naturally encompass some important events which have punctuated with history of Great Britain.

Lecture Outline:

  1. Collecting at Court: We will look at the way that British monarchs have projected their image and identity through art collecting and patronage. After a brief discussion of collecting and patronage in the Tudor Age (focussing on King Henry VIII), we will turn to consider the influential role of the Earl of Arundel at the court of Charles I and the rise of collecting that thereafter took place among a group of courtiers, known as the ‘Whitehall Circle’.
  2. The English Aristocracy and the Country House Boom: As royalty’s role declined in the UK, the British aristocracy embarked on building great country houses which have left an abiding imprint across the country. They often went on the Grand Tour or attended the increasingly popular public art auctions and consequently filled their homes with works of art by foreign artists as well as patronising home-grown artists.
  3. The Birth of the Metropolitan Plutocracy (I): After the 1832 Reform Act, the earlier power of the British aristocracy started to decline, and with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution a group of people with new wealth appeared on the scene. These industrialists and financiers, among others, started to push taste in many new directions. Some followed the taste of the aristocracy for Grand Manner art, which was encouraged by the dispersal of the famous Orleans Collection from Paris, in London in the 1790s; others felt happier to patronise the work of native living painters of the British School, where questions of authentication were less contentious.
  4. The Birth of the Metropolitan Plutocracy (II): Some of the newly rich set British collecting off in completely new directions and the types of art that they started to collect did not reflect the tastes of earlier generations in any way. We will consider three types of collecting instincts which led down hitherto unexplored avenues: ‘Le Gout Francais’, the collecting of Spanish art and the novel attraction of early Italian art.
  5. Collecting in the Museum Age and the Foundation of the National Gallery: The 19th century saw the birth of national and regional public art galleries, often founded through the generosity of private art collectors either during their lifetime or on their death. In the case of the National Gallery, however, Lord Liverpool’s government paid £60,000 for 38 paintings from the collection of the late John Julius Angerstein, and bought the lease of his former London town house in order to continue to display the Old Master paintings to the public.
  6. The National Gallery broadens its remit: a new interest in modern art: The final lecture will look at the history of collecting at the National Gallery’s collecting during the 20th and 21st century and will trace the ways in which, on the one hand, the Gallery has been comparatively slow to acknowledge new types of art, notably its very late response to buying examples of pictures by the Impressionists, and on the other its trail-blazing attitudes, including the fact that it has been among the first European national museums to collect modern Scandinavian art in a serious way.

Led by Dr Susanna Avery-Quash, FSA (Senior Research Curator in the History of Collecting, The National Gallery, London):

Susanna’s association with the National Gallery started in 1998; in 2014 she was appointed a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham. Topics on which she researches, publishes, teaches and organises conferences and exhibitions include the history of the National Gallery and other important public and private art collections; trends in artistic taste; and the evolution of the art market.

She co-directs the collaborative research project between the National Gallery and the Getty Research Institute, British Art Sales, 1680-1780 and she has assisted colleagues at the University of Buckingham to design a new MA course in ‘The History of Collecting and the Art Market’, launched in January 2016. Her recent research has had as one focus Sir Charles Eastlake, first director of the National Gallery. She edited Eastlake’s travel notebooks for the Walpole Society in 2011 and co-authored with Professor Julie Sheldon, Art for the Nation: The Eastlakes and the Victorian Art World (London, 2011).

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