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UCL Art Collections holds some 750 paintings, mainly by British artists from the 17th century to the present day. The collection includes 19th and 20th century portraits of the founders of the university, eminent UCL academics and senior staff and a small group of 17th and 18th century portraits. However, the most significant part of the collection, both in terms of number of works and their importance, consists of work by students and staff of the Slade School of Fine Art.

The Slade was founded in 1871 with the aim of providing progressive art training based on the system of education in the French Academy with its emphasis on intensive study from the life model. From its earliest years the Slade awarded annual prizes for painting in categories such as figure (life) painting, head (portrait) painting and painting from antique casts. Although prize-winners were recorded in the College Calendars, sadly these early prizes were not kept by the school. With the appointment of Frederick Brown as Slade Professor in 1892 a new painting prize, the Summer Composition Prize, was introduced. Students were given a set title and expected to produce a large-scale multi-figure work over the summer vacation which would be judged publicly at the beginning of the autumn term. From 1897 a new attitude to collecting student work also emerged, standard sizes were set for the works and the Summer Composition Prize and the Figure and Head Painting Prizes began to be kept by the school. These formed a chronologically arranged collection of student work, and some of the best paintings were also hung around the walls of the Slade school. From 1955 the Boise Travel Scholarships also provided a source of student work.

Systematic collecting of prize works by subject category continued until 1966, but changes in art education practices around this period led to a revision of the prize system. The painting prizes became more varied and were no longer awarded consistently by subject category. Student interest in the prizes also waned and the school was faced with an increase in the size of works and the complexity of media used by students which caused difficulties in storing the works. The school also experienced competition from dealers who could pay more for student works than the Slade could offer in prizes. All these factors contributed to a gradual decline in the prize system and in collecting of student work, and there was a period from 1971 to 1975 when no prizes were awarded at all. Although prize-giving began again in 1976, collecting remained sporadic and only began systematically again in 1989 with the revival of the Summer Composition Prize. In recent years this has become a purchase prize selected from the end of year shows by the Slade Professor rather than students making a work specifically for the competition.

The Slade student prize collection was formed by selecting the work of artists before they began their professional careers. This collecting practice offers a unique perspective on British art in comparison with that offered by other public collections. Many of the most important British artists of the 20th century studied at the Slade and the prize collection includes examples of the work of Augustus John, William Orpen, Stanley and Gilbert Spencer, Dora Carrington, Edward Wadsworth, James Dickson Innes, Reginald John Whistler, Paula Rego, Euan Uglow and Michael Andrews, in many cases the earliest works by these artists in a public collection. In addition to these outstanding works by individual artists, the collection as a whole offers the unique opportunity to study these artists’ work alongside their lesser-known student contemporaries and gives an unparalleled insight into developments in art education between 1897 and the present day. The Slade collection is particularly rich in the work of women artists. The quality of their work, when seen alongside their better-known male contemporaries, raises significant questions about the extent to which the constraints imposed by domestic responsibilities and unequal access to patronage and exhibiting opportunities affected their ability to follow professional artistic careers once leaving the school.

In addition to the student prize works the Slade collection also contains examples of the work of Slade staff such as Henry Tonks, Frederick Brown, Walter Westley Russell, William Townsend and Patrick George and has been added to over the years by gifts of the work of Slade artists such as Stanley Spencer, David Bomberg, Reginald John Whistler, Jesse Dale Cast and Craigie Aitchison. While UCL Art Collections relies on donations to its purchase fund in order to buy works for the collection and limited funds usually restrict purchases to drawings, the support of funding bodies such as the Friends of UCL and the V&A/MGC Purchase Grant Fund has recently enabled us to buy an example of the work of Isaac Rosenberg. Former Slade students and their descendants are also generous in their gifts of work to the collection and several new gifts were made this year in time for inclusion in the catalogue.

As befits an educational institution, UCL also has a sizeable collection of portraits, mostly of former UCL staff, some donated, others purchased by subscription or commissioned by the college. One of the earliest paintings to be given to the college was Henry Howard’s portrait of John Flaxman which formed part of Maria Denman’s gift of John Flaxman’s studio collection of sculpture models in 1847. Portraits of senior officers of the college or eminent UCL academics who made ground-breaking discoveries in their fields such as Sir William Flinders Petrie and Sir Ambrose Fleming were presented by colleagues and students of the sitters. There was also a practice of commissioning college portraits from Slade staff and works by Philip Wilson Steer, William Coldstream, Claude Rogers, Patrick George and Yolanda Sonnabend are part of this tradition.

Over the years UCL has merged with several other educational and medical institutions, gaining their art collections in the process. The merger of UCL and University College Hospital Medical School in 1981 saw the transfer of a group of 17th and 18th century portraits by artists such as Peter Lely, James Jervas, James Northcote and William Beechey into the UCL Art Collections. When discussions about the scope of this volume were begun it was decided not only to include works formally accessioned as part of the UCL Art Collections, but also to widen the scope to include oil paintings held by UCL’s departments. These are mostly portraits of former departmental staff but also include works whose subject reflects the work of the department. These form a separate section at the end of the catalogue.

UCL’s painting collection has been managed relatively informally for most of its history. The collection was in the care of the Slade School until the formation of a separate History of Art department in 1965 when a lecturer in the department took on responsibility for the collection. In 1971 the first full-time curator was appointed; the collection opened to the public in 1981 and UCL Art Collections became a registered museum in 1990.

The catalogue entries and prize list appendices that form this volume have been collated from several different sources. K. Myers’ inventory of the painting collection in 1966 recorded all the student prize works in the collection and matched them to the Slade’s prize lists. This inventory has formed the basis of later cataloguing of the collection and has been invaluable as an aid to identifying prize works where any ambiguity in current records has existed. Former curators Mary Lightbown and Nicola Kalinsky accessioned the entire collection (including the non-prize and college portrait paintings) and created object record files, a paintings database and condition surveys for each work. During the photography for the Public Catalogue Foundation catalogue Christina McGregor and Helen Downes compiled sheets directly from the works listing all their inscriptions. Alice Allen provided details of recent prizes and scholarships from the Slade School’s archives. All these sources have been collated and cross-checked by Emma Chambers and Helen Downes in compiling the current catalogue entries. The appendices of Slade prizes to 1965–1966 have been drawn from K. Myers’ invaluable inventory, and appendices listing prizes from 1966–1967 and the Boise Scholarships from 1955 have been compiled by Emma Chambers from Slade prize ledgers and Slade archive files. However, changes in the format of record keeping from 1967, where often only the prize-winner’s name is given with no details of the prize-winning work or whether it was kept for the collection, have made it more difficult to match paintings to prize lists for this later period, and where there is uncertainty this has been indicated. Equally, college portraits and departmental collections were often acquired informally with minimal record-keeping, and it has not always been possible to provide even basic information about some of these works.

Helen Downes co-ordinated the copyright research which has been unexpectedly enjoyable, allowing us to re-establish contact with many of the artists whose work is held in the collection. Many artists have been extremely enthusiastic about the cataloguing project and we are very grateful for their support and assistance. The information in the catalogue is based on existing collections data but we are happy to be contacted by artists and copyright holders to update or amend any information which is incorrect.

Research on the painting collection and detailed cataloguing of works continues, but the publication of this catalogue marks an important first step in publishing images of all the oil paintings in the UCL collection and making basic information about them widely available and we hope that it will help to stimulate the use and enjoyment of the collection by researchers, students and the general public. The collection can be viewed by contacting UCL Art Collections to arrange an appointment.

Emma Chambers, Curator, UCL Art Collections

Text source: PCF / UCL Art Museum

This description was originally written for a catalogue.

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