The Dahesh Museum once again offered a valuable exhibition that expanded the offerings of art on view in New York. Dedicated to the display of “academic” art, its exhibitions have focused on the discarded artists of the modern period—Bouguereau, Rosa Bonheur, Alexandre Cabanel among others. This exhibition was no exception. While English art is on permanent display in New York at the Frick Collection and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it tends toward the well-trod areas of eighteenth-century English portraiture and early nineteenth-century landscape paintings, whereas Victorian paintings are in short supply. Briefly for a few precious months, this exhibition corrected the situation. The current renovation of the Russell-Cotes Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth, England, provided the occasion for this welcome exhibition of Victorian paintings from its collection.
It is admittedly a quirky collection of English nineteenth-century paintings initially assembled by Sir Merton Russell-Cotes (1835–1922), and given by him and his heiress wife, Annie (1835–1921), to the city of Bournemouth in 1908 along with their substantial home, East Cliff Hall, designed in an exuberant Italian villa/French chateau/ Scottish baronial style. The Russell-Cotes were the proprietors of the Royal Bath Hotel in Bournemouth, whose purchase in 1876 was made possible by Annie’s money; she was a member of a wealthy Scottish textile family. They had the novel idea of decorating their hotel with a collection of modern British art as well as with more exotic art objects from their extensive travels in Asia and the South Pacific. By the mid-1880s Sir Merton (who was knighted in 1897) had assembled more than two hundred paintings. It was not a comprehensive survey of English art—many of the most famous names are missing (Frith or Millais, for example)—but was rather a reflection of Sir Merton’s personal, often conservative preferences, which ranged from expected academic works to aesthetic paintings, and included a wide variety of genre, landscape, animal, and historical subjects with the latter often displaying a hearty dose of sensuality (see William Etty’s The Dawn of Love, 1828). Once the walls of the hotel were filled, the rest of the collection was sent on tour with the patriotic intention of introducing British art to the broader public. In 1905 two-thirds of the paintings were auctioned off and the remaining third was displayed in East Cliff Hall and in the adjoining galleries that were built to accommodate the collection.
Some paintings were purchased directly from the artists. Sir Merton took great pleasure in visiting the grand studio homes of Lord Leighton, Alma Tadema, and Edwin Long (which, in turn, influenced the design of his own home). Others were purchased at the autumn exhibitions of the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool or at the summer exhibitions of the Royal Academy (whose imprimatur gave him great confidence). Still others were obtained at London auctions or from the fashionable dealers on Bond Street. Clearly he enjoyed the role of “an art collector,” though he didn’t hesitate to sell works if they no longer interested him. Indeed, the fluidity of the collection makes its shifting contours difficult to grasp. With a successful merchant’s mentality he liked to get a good deal. One way to do this was to purchase works when they were no longer fashionable. He bought numerous works by one of his favorite artists, Edwin Langden Long in this manner. Today when the reputations of so many Victorian painters have soared—particularly the Pre-Raphaelites’ (one thinks of the extensive exhibition devoted to Edward Burne-Jones at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year)—Long’s has languished, and it began to languish almost immediately after his death in 1891. While his works achieved breathtakingly high prices during his lifetime, they plummeted after his death when Sir Merton snapped them up for a song. In the end, he owned sixteen works by the artist.
Although Long’s historical and biblical scenes have a lifeless air, he surpassed himself in his painting of a single woman holding a musical instrument, Then to Her Listening Ear . . . (1881), an “orientalizing” subject featuring a pleasing formal study of decorative patterns in soft buttery creams and blue. The prominence of the musical instrument reminds one of Walter Pater’s contemporary call for art to aspire to the condition of music, that most abstract of the arts. Pater’s writings contributed to and reflected the development of Aestheticism, an artistic style that emphasized visual beauty over narrative, moral lessons, or literal realism. Long’s graceful painting is a striking addition to this phenomenon.
Certainly the most spectacular painting in the collection is a prime example of Aestheticism by one of its most impressive painters, Albert Moore. His large square painting, Midsummer (1887), depicts an enthroned, classically draped sleeping woman symmetrically framed by two female companions. This stunning work brings to mind Algernon Swinburne’s apt description of Moore’s painting as the “exclusive worship of things formally beautiful.” Placed prominently in the exhibition, it features an original palette of exceptionally intense shades of tangerine, yellow, and pale chartreuse against a shimmering silver backdrop provided by the throne. Clearly Lord Leighton looked to this example when painting his more famous Flaming June, R.A. 1895 (Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico). Sir Merton expressed great admiration for Moore in his autobiography, At Home and Abroad (published privately, 1921), and patronized the artist, though this painting (like several other appealing works in the exhibition) came into the museum in the mid-twentieth century as a result of “the museum’s thoughtful expansion of the original aesthetic boundaries” (wall label) of Sir Merton’s collection. Another man who earned Merton’s high praise was John Ruskin. Ruskin is recalled here in the charming watercolor by Joseph Arthur Severn, which depicts Ruskin’s cluttered study in Brantwood, his home in Coniston (1893).
It was Ruskin’s voluminous writing, infused with moral imperatives, that inspired Sir Merton’s appreciation of art and his belief in its redemptive role in the larger society. Some of the paintings in his collection were closely associated with Ruskin’s taste. John Brett’s landscape (Land’s End, Cornwall, 1880) with its meticulous record of the natural environment closely adheres to Ruskin’s truth to nature invocation. Sir Merton owned two landscapes by Brett, though this particular example is a later acquisition. Brett’s paintings reflect a Pre-Raphaelite sensibility, but generally speaking, Pre-Raphaelitism did not attract Russell-Cotes’s support. After all, it began as a rebellion against the Royal Academy, an institution that he held in the highest regard. The one painting by a bona-fide member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Rossetti’s ravishing Venus Verticordia of 1864–68, was only purchased by the museum in the late twentieth century (though two watercolors by Rossetti passed through Russell-Cotes’s hands at one point). It is an example of Rossetti’s later lush, sensuous style that focused on single women with full lips and long, thick hair. It is one of the stars of the exhibition, but it doesn’t reflect Sir Merton’s own taste. Other works—for example, the dramatic depiction Flood in the Highlands (1864) by Queen Victoria’s favorite painter, Sir Edwin Landseer; Briton Riviere’s amusing and skillful rendering of a pug dog attracted and mystified by a ticking watch (Tick-tick,1881); Edward Matthew Hale’s ambitious painting, Psyche at the Throne of Venus (1883), featuring a rather earthy Venus in transparent drapery contemplating with condescension an abject Psyche; Lord Leighton’s more somber, majestic classicizing study Perseus and Andromeda (1891); and, of course, Edwin Long’s historical scenes—better epitomize Sir Merton’s taste and the taste of the Victorian middle-class public at the time.
While Sir Merton continued to purchase (and sell) paintings during the first two decades of the twentieth century, his taste and values remained conservative. He generally spurned art influenced by such new-fangled styles as Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and the like. With the confidence of a prosperous middle-class businessman, he knew what he liked and he went after it, generously sharing the results with his community. One unusual feature of the collection was the number of works by women artists. Paintings by Helen Allingham, Evelyn de Morgan, Sophie Anderson, and Henriette Ronner once graced the collection. The current exhibition displays a poignant family scene (Always Welcome, 1887) by Laura Alma Tadema, wife of Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema. And recently the museum had the good fortune to acquire an exquisite watercolor of an ornate interior (Drawing Room, 1a Holland Park, 1887) by Anna Alma Tadema, Sir Lawrence’s daughter, which now adorns the cover of the catalogue. A large powerful painting of horses by Lucy Elizabeth Kemp-Welch (Gypsy Horse Drovers, 1894) also commands attention. Given the scale and vigorous quality of this work it is not surprising that she was called the “English Rosa Bonheur.”
The catalogue contains informative (though sometimes overlapping) essays by Simon Olding, Giles Waterfield, and Mark Bills. Olding provides a brief introduction to the exhibition, describing the nature of the collection, along with a summary description of the activities of Sir Merton and Lady Russell-Cotes. Waterfield’s fascinating essay, “A Home of Luxury and a Temple of Art” places the museum in the context of other British municipal museums founded in the nineteenth century, taking care to point out its exceptional character. Mark Bills gives an overview of Sir Merton’s collecting activities, a brief description of Edwin Langden Long’s career, followed by valuable entries for each painting—though it should be noted that several paintings in the catalogue did not appear in the exhibition, excluded no doubt because of the small scale of the Dahesh Museum.
Kathryn Moore Heleniak
Professor of Art History, Department of Art History and Music, Fordham University
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