History Group Papers: 2012

Read an outline of the talks and papers from the National Gallery History Group in 2012:

Meeting Thirty-Eight: 3 May 2012

Lionel Robbins at the National Gallery - Susan Howson, Professor of Economics, University of Toronto
The National Gallery Archive does not hold a copy of this paper.

It has been claimed that ‘the economist Lionel Robbins was probably the greatest of the Trustees to serve in the [20th] century’ and even that he was ‘arguably the most effective Trustee the Gallery ever had’ (Jonathan Conlin in 'The Nation's Mantelpiece').

The Director of the National Gallery, Philip Hendy, pointed out - in a BBC radio interview in 1968 - that Robbins ‘had a rather unique relationship with the Civil Service and with governments throughout. It is due more to him than anyone else that the National Gallery grant was enlarged [in 1959].’ 

On a later occasion he also pointed out that the building’s ‘very shape, present and future, owes so much to him’. In this talk Professor Howson sought to explain Hendy’s (and Conlin’s) remarks, considering especially the initiatives Robbins took in his first term as chairman of the trustees (1954-9) and the accomplishments of those years and of his second term in the chair (1962-7).

Meeting Thirty-Nine: 26 July 2012

Charles Fairfax Murray on Morellian Infallibility and Leonardo’s 'Virgin of the Rocks' - Paul Tucker
The National Gallery Archive does not hold a copy of this paper.

The thinking that generated and supported the critical opinions and ultimately guided the activities, as connoisseur and collector, of Charles Fairfax Murray (1849-1919) mostly went unrecorded and was perhaps rarely verbalized: Murray wrote little and published less.

A document of some interest in this regard is an unfinished MS essay (private collection) attacking the Morellian school of art criticism and rejecting its claims to scientific status. The essay was drafted in response to an article by Mary Costelloe (later Berenson) published in May 1894, but expressed accumulated irritation at the “dictas” of Morelli and their “parrot-like” reiteration by disciples such as J. P. Richter and G. Frizzoni.

Another motive was undoubtedly resentment at Morelli’s denigration of Murray’s own judgement and honesty—albeit in the person of an anonymous “English connoisseur”—in his critical studies of paintings at Dresden, recently translated into English (Italian Painters,1893).

The MS discusses a number of paintings in the National Gallery (of which Murray had only the previous month failed to be appointed Director). Above all, it gave him the opportunity to realize a long-held intention and publicly address the question of the authenticity of the London 'Virgin of the Rocks', dismissed by Costelloe as a “sham Leonardo”.

Arguing from internal evidence only—supervening awareness of the new documentary evidence recently published by Emilio Motta and much debated in the British periodical press from June on probably led him to put aside the MS—Murray reached his own, somewhat surprising conclusion regarding the relation between the two versions, a conclusion (still more surprisingly) echoed by other writers, such as the newly appointed Director Edward Poynter and Herbert Cook.

Meeting Forty: 27 September 2012

Sir George Scharf and his Archive at the National Portrait Gallery - Bryony Millan, Archivist, National Portrait Gallery
A paper or related publication is available for consultation in the National Gallery Archive.

In the years immediately after its establishment, the National Portrait Gallery was viewed as a ‘Cinderella’ amongst the other galleries of London.  It lacked a permanent location, sufficient funds and the collection consisted of only a handful of portraits.

However, the Gallery was fortunate in the appointment of Sir George Scharf as its first secretary and director. The archetypal Victorian gentlemen, he worked tirelessly for nearly 40 years to lay the foundations of today’s National Portrait Gallery. Alongside his responsibilities as Director he worked in a private capacity on various external projects; preparing exhibitions and compiling scholarly catalogues of private collections.

Scharf was also a socialite, meeting and befriending many of the rich and powerful of his time. In all these activities, he was a meticulous recorder of the world as he experienced it, making countless sketches and entries in his private diaries.

This lecture provided an insight into the life of this remarkable man, through the lens of the Portrait Gallery’s history and using the collection of papers bequeathed to the Portrait Gallery. These papers were catalogued as part of a project funded by the National Cataloguing Grants Programme for Archives and a full text searchable catalogue is available on the Portrait Gallery’s website.


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