Southampton is most fortunate in possessing a magnificent city art gallery which arguably houses the finest public collection of fine art south of London. Southampton’s holdings of modern British art are nationally outstanding. In 1998 the Government ‘designated’ the Permanent Collection as having pre-eminent national significance. Most city museums and galleries are Victorian in origin but Southampton’s City Art Gallery first opened its doors as late as 1939. That the Gallery’s curators and advisers were able to establish a high quality collection, now of international reputation, within a few decades is remarkable and the Gallery’s story is both unique and fascinating.
In 1911, Robert Chipperfield, a local pharmacist, Southampton councillor and justice of the peace, laid the foundations for an art gallery in Southampton. In his will, he clearly stated his ideas concerning the provision for visual arts in Southampton:
‘My fervent desire is, and my executors aim shall be, the furtherance and encouragement of Art, in the town of my adoption – Southampton. I therefore bequeath the whole of my collection of oil paintings, watercolour drawings and engravings to my Executors for the public exhibition in Southampton … I authorise my Executors to build an Art Gallery which shall be free to the Public, as soon as funds will permit, and also establish a Southampton School of Art, which shall be worthy of the name.’
Without Chipperfield’s trust fund and his sensible stipulation that money could only be spent after consultation with the director of the National Gallery, the collection would not be what it is today. At first, the Gallery was without a curator or a building and it was Lord Clark, in 1936, who advised on future policy for the Gallery and took an active role in purchasing pictures and building up a permanent collection. Another Southampton councillor, Frederick William Smith, also bequeathed a separate trust fund to the city exclusively for the purchase of paintings to be administered by a Purchasing Committee composed of representatives from the Tate Gallery and Royal Academy as well as important local organisations such as the University and Chamber of Commerce. Since Robert Chipperfield and Frederick William Smith laid the foundations for visual arts provision in Southampton, the permanent collection has grown to over 3,500 works of art and the Gallery is visited today by some 60,000 visitors per year.
The income from the two bequest funds, when combined with financial support from organisations such as the National Art Collections Fund and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council Purchase Grant Fund, enabled the Gallery to make many important large scale acquisitions critical to the development of the collection, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s. It was during this time, for example, that the National Art Collections Fund and the MLA Purchase Grant Fund assisted the Gallery with the purchases of Wilhem Muhlfeld by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and The Dunes near Haarlem by Jacob van Ruisdael. In more recent times, the Art Fund and MLA have assisted with the purchase of works by leading British artist such as Rachel Whiteread, Michael Craig-Martin, Antony Gormley, Barry Flanagan, David Nash, and Lisa Milroy (not all of these paintings are necessarily in oils, acrylic or tempera and therefore are not included in the present volume). The Art Fund and MLA have also enabled the collection to develop by facilitating numerous donations of key works. In 1980, the Gallery accepted the work Madonna and Child by Giovanni Bellini from HM Government in lieu of tax through the MLA, then known as the Museums and Galleries Commission.
An important bequest of paintings was made to the Gallery in 1961 by Arthur Tilden Jeffress (1905–1961) a London gallery owner and art collector. The curator at the time, Maurice Palmer, together with the director of the Tate Gallery selected 99 paintings from the estate including eight paintings by Graham Sutherland, four works by John Piper and the Gallery’s highly regarded early Lucian Freud, Bananas. Southampton is also uniquely privileged to own four works by the Belgian Surrealist artist Paul Delvaux through the Jeffress bequest.
In 2002 the Gallery received a magnificent bequest of 220 works of British Modern art from Dr David and Liza Brown. Dr Brown, as a Tate curator, was the Gallery’s acquisition’s advisor (appointed for his knowledge of contemporary art) from 1976 until his retirement in 1985. Through Dr Brown’s advice the Gallery soon established a new contemporary art collection of international reputation, not usually synonymous with a local authority governed art museum. Dr Brown’s legacy for the Gallery is immense and was further enhanced by his generous new bequest fund for the purchase of works of art made post 1900 for the permanent collection.
Since 1975, the Gallery has concentrated on developing its collection of contemporary art since the 1970s and today has one of the most outstanding collections of contemporary British art outside London. The policy of collecting art within two years of its making means that the Gallery has a fine group of early works by key British artists who went on to win, or were shortlisted for, the annual Turner Prize. Of the British artists awarded the prize since its inauguration in 1984, the Gallery has fine examples of work by 12 out of 21 prize winners to date. The collection holds impressive works from the post-war era including Sutherland, Ayrton, Piper and Minton as well as a group of works by St Ives based abstract artists such as Terry Frost, Peter Lanyon and Roger Hilton. A key acquisition of this period is Miss Lynn a prize winning work from the Festival of Britain competition and a late masterpiece by Claude Rogers. However, a major gap in the collection is the absence of work by Francis Bacon.
The multitude of schools and art philosophies which blossomed during the period between the two World Wars, such as the social realism of the Euston Road School, Surrealism, the Seven and Five Society and Unit One are well represented through paintings and drawings by some of the major artists of the era. These include William Coldstream, Eileen Agar, Sir Roland Penrose, Ben Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Frances Hodgkins and the outstanding painting The Archer by Paul Nash. Although the collection contains only a small number of First World War worksLoading Timber at Southampton Docks by Christopher Nevinson and Percy Wyndam Lewis’s great war drawings are superb examples of the art of the period. Another great strength in this area are the four works by Stanley Spencer.
Of equivalent stature to the contemporary collection are the Gallery’s early twentieth century holdings. The Camden Town Group and associated artists form one of the richest and most representative collections of its type in the world. Of particular significance are Sickert’s self portrait The Juvenile Lead and Drummond’s Seurat-inspired In the Park (St James’ Park). These works are supported by outstanding paintings by artists such as Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Mark Gertler, William Roberts, Matthew Smith, Philip Wilson Steer and the Scottish Colourist John Duncan Fergusson. The Gallery is also well known for its fine range of paintings by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.
A second aspect of the original collecting policy was to build up a representative collection of nineteenth century paintings. The jewel in this crown are undoubtedly the ten works in gouache of the Perseus Series by Burne-Jones. Other Pre-Raphaelite works of note are The Afterglow in Egypt by William Holman Hunt and Cordelia’s Portion by Ford Maddox Brown. The collection also holds significant works by William Blake, John Martin, J. M. W Turner and a small drawing by John Constable from the earlier nineteenth century.
To complement the great strength of the British collection the Gallery is fortunate enough to have acquired a small but impressive group of French Impressionist paintings. These important works contextualise the British paintings of the same era and anticipate the later British Post-Impressionist movement. The Gallery owns at least one painting by each of the most widely recognised French Impressionist painters: Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Eugène Boudin, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissaro and also a superb bronze by Edgar Degas entitled Woman Putting on a Stocking.
The small collection of Old Master paintings acquired by Southampton through the early collecting policy are of remarkable quality. The developments of British eighteenth century painting are exemplified by such paintings as Joseph Wright of Derby’s outstanding Landscape, Gainsborough’s George Venables Vernon, Reynolds’ portrait of Cornet Nehemiah Winter and The Shipwreck by Philip de Loutherbourg. The greatest strength of the seventeenth century collection is the Dutch School. Works by Jan Davidsz. de Heem, Isack van Ostaade, Jan Hackaert, Philips de Koninck, Jacob van Ruisdael and Cesar Boetius van Everdingen are all superb examples and are complemented by contemporaneous French and Italian masterpieces such as works by de Mura, Trevisani and Ricci.
Only a few works from the Renaissance period are held by the Gallery but works by Cesare de Sesto, Bellini and Bril all serve to illustrate some of the major developments of this era. Sofonisba Anguissola’s portrait of her sister is the earliest known work by this artist and Goswijn van der Weyden’s impressive Flemish triptych is representative of the northern European school. The earliest work in the collection is Allegretto di Nuzio’s triptych The Coronation of the Virgin, which dates from the 1360s. This extremely well preserved altarpiece provides a remarkable and unique introduction to the history of European art which can be effectively traced to present day in Britain through the collection as a whole.
Tim Craven, Curator
Text source: PCF / Southampton City Art Gallery
This description was originally written for a catalogue.