The origins of Colchester Museums lie in 1846 when a museum collection was established in response to the Museum Act of the previous year. Works of art were collected from the start. This has resulted in a large art collection, in Essex terms, with particularly strong holdings of local topographic scenes as well as depictions of members of the local community, with relatively few examples being of wider artistic significance.
A major element within the collection is the paintings that were commissioned to furnish Colchester Town Hall, which opened in 1902 to the design of Sir John Belcher. The building is a fine example of civic grandeur and the paintings support this endeavour by commemorating the great and the good of the town. Artists including Harry Becker, Frank Daniell, Charles Head and John L. Reilly painted numerous portraits among which can be found copies of earlier works where the sitters were no longer alive. In subsequent years Colchester Borough Council has commissioned further portraits by such artists as Maurice Codner in the 1950s, and most notably, the local artist, Richard Stone. His portrait of the Queen from 1991 is one of the best-known images of the monarch.
Two further noteworthy paintings acquired for display in the Town Hall are portraits of Viscount and Viscountess Cowdray by John Macdonald Aiken that were given by Viscountess Cowdray in 1931.
There are only a few paintings earlier than 1800 in the collection. Flemish Village Merrymaking by David Vinckboons is perhaps the most important painting in the collection. There are two Flemish School paintings on copper, The Transfiguration and The Visitation from the New Testament. The early seventeenth century portrait of local magnate, Sir Thomas Lucas, attributed to Robert Peake, was purchased in 1993 with help from the National Art Collections Fund. There is also an interesting pair of mid-seventeenth century portraits of Sir Thomas Honywood and his wife, Hester. Included within the collection, although on loan from the Victor Batte-Lay Trust, is an intriguing painting of the Golden Horn at Constantinople. This exotic view has a Dalmatian in the foreground, which gives the painting its current name, The Spotted Dog. It has been attributed to Otto Hoynk and most probably found its way to Colchester through the trading links of a local family.
There are a number of well-known artists with strong local connections who are represented in the collection. First and foremost is John Constable through his portrait of the Reverend Thomas Lechmere Grimwood, Headmaster of Dedham Grammar School. The collection also holds Flatford Lock, the only securely attributed painting by the East Bergholt artist, John Dunthorne (1770–1844), who encouraged Constable in his early career. There is a fine portrait by John James Halls of his daughter, Julia. Willy Lott’s Cottage at Flatford by Roger Fry and The Garden in Winter by John Nash, a founder member of the Colchester Art Society, were both purchased in 1993. In 1998 The Acacia Tree, painted by Lucien Pissarro in the garden of the Minories in Colchester during one of his visits to his relations, was acquired. It joined St Lawrence Church near Southminster and Colchester from Sheepen Hill by the same artist, already in the collection. Also worthy of attention is the nineteenth century artist, John Vine, who, despite being born with only rudimentary arms and hands, became an accomplished painter whose speciality was animal portraits. The museum has two of his paintings of horses as well as portraits of Mr and Mrs James Cobb.
The museum is actively engaged in an initiative to build up a collection of prints by current and recent artists with local connections. However, there are no plans for active collecting of oil paintings as the cost, even when offset by grant-aid, would be prohibitive. The acquisition of paintings by gift, bequest and perhaps the occasional one-off purchase will continue.
Tom Hodgson, Curator of Social History
Text source: PCF / Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service: Colchester Collection
This description was originally written for a catalogue.
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