Developing the collection: the upcoming exhibition of French drawings in Edinburgh displays the acquisitions which the National Gallery of Scotland has made over the last 30 years. Here, gallery director Michael Clarke reveals the private passions behind the purchasing process.
Such an achievement may not, at first, seem worthy of note, yet it does include the addition of important works by artists such as Corot, Girodet, Ingres, Pissarro, Poussin, Seurat and Watteau, as well as truly outstanding sheets by lesser figures such as Etienne Jeaurat (1699-1789) and the virtually unknown Louis Roguin (active 1843-71). As a result, the gallery's French drawings collection now represents a suitable complement to its excellent holdings of French paintings, and many of these works feature in the exhibition 'Poussin to Seurat: French Drawing from the National Gallery of Scotland', which opens in Edinburgh on S February. Moreover, in a number of instances the acquired drawing relates directly to a painting in the collection--see, for example, Camille Pissarro's (1830-1903) atmospheric Figures at the Banks of the Marne, near Chennevieres (c. 1863-64; Fig. 2) and his major Banks of the Marne at Chennevieres, first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1865.
Complementary purchases such as the Pissarro may make obvious sense from a museum's point of view, but they are nonetheless the exception here. Overall, my approach to acquiring French drawings for the gallery has been fairly free-ranging, unfettered by too rigid a buying policy. It reflects an enthusiasm for the art in question closer to the passion of a private collector than to that of a museum 'completist'.
The last 30 to 40 years have seen the creation of a number of very distinguished private collections of French drawings around the world--one of which, that of Louis-Antoine Prat, was celebrated in the November 2010 issue of Apollo. Some of the world's great art museums have also been active in the field--in Britain, one thinks primarily of the British Museum and the Ashmolean Museum. And yet, a mere 23 years ago, the distinguished collector of French drawings Mathias Polakovits, who bequeathed his collection to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, was castigating French museums for their alleged lack of interest in the drawings of their native school. Polakovits' accusations caused considerable outrage and anger in French museum and government circles at the time, nevertheless his advice--namely, to 'buy French drawings'--was surely correct. It is a school not only rich in quality but also, certainly by the 19th century, bursting with activity, offering rich pickings to collectors in all price ranges.
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Traditionally, the Italian school has occupied prime position in the affections of drawings collectors, with the masters of the Renaissance and Baroque periods understandably viewed as representing the summit of Western draughtsmanship. At the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh, primarily through the efforts of former director-general Sir Timothy Clifford and the shrewd 'finds' of curator Aidan Weston-Lewis, the Italian holdings have been cleverly augmented with drawings by such illustrious artists as Leonardo, Raphael and, most probably Titian. I, on the other hand, have pursued a more low-key, sustained policy of regular additions to the French collection, my aim at the outset being to build upon three major acquisitions made by my distinguished former colleague, Keith Andrews, Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the gallery from 1958 until his retirement in 1985. During the last few years of his keepership, Andrews, having correctly decided that the French collection needed improvement, made three spectacular acquisitions: Ingres' portrait drawing of Mademoiselle Albertine Hayard (1812), Nicolas Poussin's preparatory drawing for his painting A Dance to the Music of Time (c. 1634-36; Wallace Collection, London) and Seurat's Study of a Boy for the figure in the centre of his great Bathers at Asnieres (1884; National Gallery, London).
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In those days, prints and drawings had a surprisingly generous annual purchasing allocation of 100,000 [pounds sterling] per annum, taken from the Galleries' overall purchase grant of just over 1m [pounds sterling] . The latter figure has remained fairly constant in the intervening years, meaning that its value in real terms has diminished; furthermore, allocations to individual departments have been cut so as to leave more in the 'central pot' for major acquisitions. When one considers that under this centralised policy major works by Canova, El Greco and Titian and, in the modern field, spectacular items from the collections of Roland Penrose, Gabrielle Keiller and Anthony D'Offay have been acquired, the wisdom of marshalling the Galleries' resources becomes undeniable--especially as the prints and drawings collection has likewise benefited from the acquisitions of sheets by the major Renaissance masters as well as truly outstanding watercolours by Thomas Girtin and 3.M.W. Turner.
This focusing of funds has meant that the amount available for French drawings has been, to say the least, variable over the past couple of decades. Funds have had to be scrimped and saved. Uncertainty has been countered by persistence, frugality has encouraged imagination. This runs counter to the traditional perception of the different aims of the museum and private collector, aptly summarised in Louis-Antoine Prat's charming essay (to accompany the recent exhibition of his 19th-century French drawings at the Art Gallery of New South Wales), which underlines how museums' and private collectors' aims differ: 'But do I dare write that museums are there to assume this task of total and perfect representation, especially when it concerns their national art, whereas a private art lover, conscious of not being able to illustrate everything, should unashamedly affirm his or her own preference?'
The majority of the French drawings we have acquired for the National Gallery of Scotland have been chosen with a view to their being suitable, when required, for exhibition. They are not, for the most part, interesting 'scraps' destined purely for the print-room solander box, to be consulted only by the dedicated connoisseur (much as one values such hard-won expertise). Perhaps the most spectacularly 'finished' of them is Jeaurat's impressive Family in an Interior (Fig. 3), which depicts an imaginary ancien regime interior that combines the virtues of family life with the office of a successful father. In an excellent state of preservation, and indubitably the drawn masterpiece of this artist, it was purchased by the gallery in 1994, having first appeared on the art market two years previously. Since the early 1990s the gallery has spent just over 450,000 [pounds sterling] on French drawings, and the Jeaurat, at a little over 50,000 [pounds sterling] , remains the most expensive of these acquisitions. There is nothing like it in the collection, which otherwise has a relatively modest representation of the 18th century in terms of quality--for many collectors, desirous as they may be of the 'big names', the outright best of the second tier is infinitely preferable to the lesser efforts of the first.
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'Cheap' purchases can also be fulfilling, as occasionally it is possible to pick up a big name for a bargain. So it proved with Francois Boucher's (1703-70) premiere pensee for The Rape of Europa (Louvre, Paris), which he painted for the special concours of 1747 devised by Charles Le Normant de Tournehem to reinvigorate the French school of painting, then under critical attack for a perceived decline in quality. The drawing, which had been for many generations with a family from La Rochelle, was offered up for auction in 1992 at Phillips in London, where it failed to find a buyer. A private sale was then negotiated at a very reasonable price for a drawing of great interest, whose original purpose was first correctly identified by Alastair Laing, curator for the National Trust and an indefatigable scholar of the dix-huitieme and Boucher.
One of the great pleasures in the drawings world in recent years has been the annual Salon du Dessin, which takes place every March in Paris. The Salon has proved to be a good source of French drawings for the National Gallery of Scotland, and I well remember indulging at one event in some good-natured rivalite with my friend Martin Royalton-Kisch, then engaged on a similar buying mission on behalf of the British Museum. The fruits of Martin and his colleagues' efforts were well illustrated in the exhibition 'Clouet to Seurat: French Drawings from The British Museum', shown at both the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the British Museum in 2008-06.
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After a preliminary tour of the exhibits on the Salon's opening night, the heat is on to make a choice--to match available funds to what is on offer, to suffer the frustration of a moment's indecision resulting in losing a 'coup' to a rival, to feel the elation of a successful purchase (perhaps followed by what Louis-Antoine Prat has referred to as 'some form of doubt or sadness'). As a sensory and intellectual experience, it is the collector's very own 'little death'.
Naturally, friendship plays a part in some of these choices. It was M. Prat who one year directed me towards the Christian Symbolist Charles-Marie Dulac's (1865-98) haunting, mystical Jesu Sol Justitiae (1894; Fig. 5), a drawing which still gives me enormous pleasure and embodies Franciscan ideals of landscape illustrating passages from scripture--in this instance the analogy is between Christ and the Sun. Even more spectacular and unusual is Louis Roguin's A Jewish Woman of Algiers (1863; Fig.l), in which the pregnant model, seen in profile, appears understandably weighed down by an enormous headdress--known as a sarma--some 60 to 80 centimetres tall and made of filigree metalwork. A contemporary account lists the difficulties of wearing 'these long tubes', which 'force those who wear them to sit sideways on seats which run up against the wall.' Stupidly, I was hesitating about buying this drawing until Sir Timothy Clifford, who by then had retired from the Galleries, urged me to snap it up. He was right, of course, and this little anecdote serves to underline a fundamental truth of informed collecting--namely, that one's first, intuitive reaction to a work is nearly always the right one! The accumulated visual knowledge of the collector already carries within it the brain's reasoning--too much analysis and prevarication merely countermands the data that your intelligence has already kindly prepared for you.
Any collector worth his or her salt will tell you to rummage high and low: the more one looks, the more one finds. Sadly, my administrative duties have often precluded the extensive searching at which others excel. How I envy my Parisian friends and colleagues, who have the rooms and constant delights of the Hotel Drouot within easy walking distance! But whereas the rapid reactions required by the auction house are not always possible for me, I can more readily--and unhurriedly--peruse the delights of a dealer's stock. Two particularly satisfying purchases, both involving drawings which had been with their vendors for some time, were made in this way: Pierre-Alexandre Wille's (1748-1837) rambunctious A Tavern Brawl, with its enticing mixture of Caravaggesque subject, Greuzian sentiment and engraver-like line, acquired from the well-known Galerie de Bayser in Paris; and Girodet's nervously elegant Study for Racine's Phedre (1798; Fig. 4), plucked from the stock of a well-known New York dealer and now treasured as one of the greatest Neoclassical drawings in our collection.
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One advantage that museums enjoy over private collectors is the official donation. In Britain, this means that the Treasury can accept works of art in lieu of tax and allocate them to public museums. So it was that we recently received a fine and early double-sided sheet by Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), Sketches of Individual Figures, from the estate of the painter Eliot Hodgkin. This acquisition is admirably described by Christoph Martin Vogtherr of the Wallace Collection, in his catalogue entry for the drawing as it features in 'Poussin to Seurat'. Dr Vogtherr also 'gave' us another Watteau in being the first to correctly identify another sheet, previously languishing in our collection under the attribution 'after Watteau', as an authentic oil counter-proof relating to the artist's two versions of his great composition The Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera (1717 and 1721).
In an interview with George Goldner, the distinguished drawings collector Jean Bonna recently remarked that collecting is 'a "disease" that is very difficult to cure'. It is a contagion that should continue to spread throughout our museums even in these cash-strapped times, for stagnating collections can be symptomatic of an underlying institutional malady leading to lethargy and a gradual wasting away. Furthermore, as fanciful and self-indulgent as this may seem, curators also need to grow and be stimulated. The final beneficiary, after all, will be the public, who will take ownership of these acquisitions and study and enjoy them, whether in the hallowed confines of our print rooms, in the more accessible context of the myriad exhibitions that travel the world or, increasingly, thanks to the wonders of technology, via the worldwide web.
WRITER Michael Clarke
Michael Clarke is director of the National Gallery of Scotland.
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|Title Annotation:||FEATURE: FRENCH DRAWINGS|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2011|
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