The Bridgewater Collection: Its Impact on Collecting and Display in Britain

Changing tastes

As is clear from an investigation of the collecting instincts of Bridgewater and his heirs, the taste for collecting pictures which revived during the 18th century in Britain was encouraged by private individuals rather than by Parliament or the Crown. William Buchanan in his two-volume 'Memoirs of Painting', published in 1824, interpreted this phenomenon as one of patriotic zeal on the part of the British nobility and finished his narrative with the hopeful prediction that public institutions would soon burgeon in Britain, which would match their Continental counterparts.

Certainly many British aristocrats were desirous of promoting art in the public domain and foremost among them were the owners of Titian’s Diana and Actaeon. Mrs Jameson sums up accurately the influence of the Bridgewater Collection, pointing out that it was noteworthy not only ‘because of the value, variety, and interest of its contents’ but also it took ‘the first rank’ because 'its history is so connected with the history of the progress of art in England, as to render it peculiarly interesting. Of all the private collections, it will be found to be the one which has had the most favourable, the most 'refining' influence on the public and individual taste'.29 

In any survey of significant events in the rise of interest in art and in collecting and display in this country, it is easy to demonstrate the leading role played by Bridgewater and especially his heirs. There can be no better place to start this overview than with an assessment of the impact of the Orléans Collection exhibition. To some the crowded, unframed pictures may not have looked their best; Lady Amabel Lucas, for instance, noted that at the Lyceum the paintings appeared ‘dirty, or more sunk in their colours than those at Bryan’s [gallery]’ and in particular that '[t]he Venus detaining Adonis; the Actaeon and the Callisto of Titian whose colouring looked so fine at the Palais Royal, did not appear so beautiful here'.30 

Even so, most witnesses at the time, and many more with the advantage of hindsight have agreed that this double-exhibition was a revelation. Certainly to see Old Masters ‘in the flesh’ was exciting, the last comparable occasion being the dispersal 150 years earlier of the collection of Charles I. Since then, those fortunate enough to be able to travel abroad could have seen large-scale Italian mythologies and religious pictures 'in situ'. But for those who never left British shores their experience of the Old Masters would have been more restricted. Certainly there were many British collections full of Old Master paintings, including Houghton, Holkham, Blenheim and Chatsworth, but their collections were not of the consistent quality of the Orleans pictures and nor were their doors open to the general masses. For the less well-to-do their experience would have been more often limited to viewing the occasional Old Master which came up for sale at the London auction houses and in reproductions, usually monochrome reductions.

Thus the Bridgewater syndicate, through its initiative to purchase, display and disperse the Orléans Collection, succeeded in pushing British collecting in a new direction – away from the Dutch and Flemish schools towards pictures of the Italian schools of the 16th and 17th centuries. The sensational effect of their effort is well summarized by Hazlitt (1788-8130) who some years later recalled: 'I was staggered when I saw the works there collected, and looked at them with wondering and with longing eyes. A mist passed away from my sight: the scales fell off. A new sense came upon me, a new heaven and a new earth stood before me …We had all heard of the names of Titian, Raphael, Guido, Domenichino, the Carracci – but to see them face to face, to be in the same room …was like breaking some mighty spell'.31

The impact of the Orléans Collection on various artists’ work is also well documented; to take but one relevant example, David Bindman has convincingly argued that William Blake’s 'Bathsheba' (London, Tate) with its open sensuality and luxurious background – unusual for the artist – is indebted to the Orléans Titians.32  As far as the English art market was concerned, the Orléans sale was one of the catalysts which induced many aristocratic, banking and mercantile men to become serious collectors on the back of their acquisitions from it. The other factor was of course the vast number of notable pictures driven onto the market by the French invasion of Italy and Spain. Certainly, from the 1790s English collections started to rival in terms of quality and quantity, as well as in the type of art collected, those in the traditional centres of collecting, notably Paris, Madrid, St. Petersburg and Italy. 

One highly important result of the double-venue exhibition of the Orléans Collection was a new commitment on the part of England’s art-owning nobility not only to collecting certain kinds of art but also to 'displaying' it for public benefit. Initially this took the form of owners of private art-galleries opening them up on a regular basis, but this trend also led to the pioneering development of loan exhibitions and eventually the establishment of permanent art galleries. The Bridgewater Collection was the first in the capital to be made available for general viewing.33  Although it had been an accepted custom for decent travellers to call at country houses and be given a tour, the same tradition did not exist in London, so that the opening of the Bridgewater Collection was a considerable novelty.

The pictures of Diana were briefly kept by the 2nd Earl of Stafford at Stafford House (built as York House, now Lancaster house). The first grand opening of Stafford House on 8 May 1806 was described in detail in the press. Over 2,000 guests attended, including many French Princes and the Prince of Wales with his five brothers. 'The admiration of the Prince of Wales', we are told, 'increased as he advanced through the State apartments, but when his Royal Highness entered the picture gallery he was lost in ecstasy'. A week later Lord Stafford began to issue tickets for Wednesdays, during the season, to view his pictures. So popular did the first day prove that the visitors were loath to leave at closing-time. According to the 'Morning Chronicle' of May 23rd: 'At eleven o’clock on Wednesday last about two hundred of the principal artists and amateurs in the kingdom were gratified with a view of that National Museum rather than private collection, the Picture Gallery at the Marquis of Stafford’s. At five in the afternoon, with some difficulty, the domestics were able to prevail on the company to quit the attractive scene in order that preparations might be made for dinner.'

This pattern continued down the years, with select ticket holders (people personally known by or recommended to the family) and artists being allowed admittance.34 The tradition continued after Ellesmere inherited his portion of pictures from his father, 2nd Marquis of Stafford, 1st Duke of Sutherland – including the pictures of Diana – when he moved his pictures to his new house, Bridgewater House, which he had built by Charles Barry (the architect of the new Houses of Parliament and part of the National Gallery) on the site of his great-uncle’s Cleveland Row property. Indeed, Barry’s plans were specifically revised to accommodate a separate staircase leading straight to the picture gallery for the convenience of the visitor and to maintain the privacy of the family.35

Not all the visitors respected their privilege, however, and Mrs Jameson recorded how shocked she was to see 'loiterers and loungers… strut[ing] about as if they had the right to be there, talking, flirting, peering and prying, lifting up the covers of chairs to examine the furniture, touching the ornaments – and even the pictures!’36 To assist those who did want to study the pictures 'in situ' or afterwards to have an 'aide-memoire' of the collection a guide-cum-souvenir was published. Although catalogues 'per se' were not a novelty (the first ones appearing in the 17th century), the splendour of some of the publications relating to the Bridgewater Collection was notable and recalled those produced for the Orléans and Walpole Collections.37  To reiterate, at this time when the National Gallery had not yet been established, it was the Stafford Gallery/Bridgewater House with its well-labelled and well-catalogued pictures that attracted art lovers in London.

This pioneering enterprise led the way for the construction of several picture galleries in other grand London mansions, a fact that induced an Italian visitor, Count Leopoldo Cicognara to note that: 'The galleries of London are very numerous, always open to the public, and furnished with old and modern works of every school’.38  Sir John Fleming Leicester filled his London pied-à-terre (24 Hill Street) with 'modern' British art which he opened to the public in 1818, and Wyatt’s 'sculpture' gallery at Londonderry House was finished in 1828; Thomas Hope’s sculpture gallery in Duchess Street house was regarded as important too. More usually gentlemen and noblemen collected and displayed Old Masters pictures. Notably, Lansdowne House was completed in the late 1820s, Grosvenor House followed in 1825, the gallery at Buckingham Palace was finished in 1827 and the Waterloo Gallery at Apsley House was ready in 1830.

The last great post-Waterloo mansion was Dorchester House, begun in 1848, which was clearly designed to outshine these earlier models: although it boasted no picture gallery as such, it did have a lavish suite of rooms reminiscent of Renaissance Italy.

Next: Temporary exhibitions

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