The University of Hull Art Collection is unusual in three respects. It was started from scratch by the University (rather than with the gift of an already existing private collection); it specialises in just 50 years of art in Britain; and it was formed on the basis of an endowment of just £200 a year.
In 1963 the University decided to develop a collection with its own distinctivecharacter, to bring our students into contact with real works of art. With the minimal resources available it was realised that this could only be done, in the words of the proposal, ‘by concentrating on the unfashionable and inexpensive’. It was therefore decided to specialise in the then largely neglected area of art in Britain from 1890 to 1940. The remarkable man responsible for this bold initiative was Dr Malcolm Easton, the first Honorary Curator. A bequest from the local philanthropist, Thomas Robinson Ferens, provided the £200 a year to buy works, even then a very slight foundation on which to build a collection. Easton was tireless in raising additional funds and seeking gifts and, by 1967, when the Collection moved into its two purpose-built galleries in Sir Leslie Martin’s newly built Middleton Hall, he had acquired some 70 works.
What originally seemed a rather risky venture has proved a triumphant success and we now have a collection that has achieved national importance and an international reputation. Today the University of Hull Art Collection is small but outstanding. It includes works by, Philip Wilson Steer, Samuel John Peploe, Stanley Spencer, Wyndham Lewis and Ben Nicholson. It is particularly strong in works by the Camden Town Group artists, including Walter Richard Sickert, Harold Gilman, Charles Ginner and Spencer Gore; and Bloomsbury artists Vanessa Bell, Roger Eliot Fry and Duncan Grant. The Collection also contains an exceptional representation of sculpture, drawings, prints, cartoons and costume designs produced in the period, but which fall outside the remit of this catalogue.
The great strength of our Collection is that it is so focused and coherent. We have resisted expanding the period, feeling it would dilute these qualities, and it enables us to represent less well-known artists alongside the major figures. We have defined our Collection as ‘Art in Britain’ rather than ‘British Art’ because we have always taken the view that it should include the work of foreign artists who, while working in Britain, made a significant contribution to the National school. Among such artists we have examples of the work of Lucien Pissarro and Théodore Casimir Roussel. Indeed Pissarro’s Blossom, Sun and Mist, Chipperfield, Hertfordshire was the first work acquired by Easton for the Collection. The gallery also has a sculpture by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.
The Collection’s star pieces are perhaps Stanley Spencer’s Villagers and Saints, originally painted for a chapel project in his native Cookham, and Samuel John Peploe’s Interior with a Japanese Print, our sole work by a Scottish Colourist. Our most reproduced work is probably Vanessa Bell’s Conversation Piece, portraying some of the leading literary figures of the Bloomsbury Group. Our most borrowed work for major exhibitions is Christopher Nevinson’s He Gained a Fortune But He Gave a Son, depicting a war profiteer, modelled by the Sitwell’s celebrated butler Mr Moat.
The Collection has benefited from the generous support of bodies like the Gulbenkian Foundation, the Government’s Grant-in-Aid system administered by the Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund, the National Art Collections Fund, and the Contemporary Art Society. However, most important has been the generosity of numerous private individuals, particularly, in the early days, the artists themselves or their relatives who were sympathetic to the faith we were showing in this period of British Art. Lady Kathleen Epstein, wife of the sculptor Jacob Epstein, was particularly helpful, as was Pamela Diamand, daughter of Roger Fry.
Perhaps our biggest single gift of works by a number of artists came in 1980 from Professor A. G. Dickens, the well-known Reformation Historian. He was a local Hull gentleman who became Professor of History and a Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University. Dickens went on to become Director of the Institute of Historical Research in London. While at Hull University, he had been inspired by the Collection and started collecting in that period himself. When his wife died he presented two dozen of his best works to the Collection in memory of her. In 2005, Brian Pettifer presented his impressive collection of some 58 maritime paintings which are displayed at the University’s Maritime History Institute in Blaydes House in Hull’s Old Town. We also benefit enormously from the contributions of the Friends of the Hull University Art Collection, established in 1988. They provide essential support for both purchases and special projects.
Beyond the core Collection the University has a number of portraits of its distinguished officers, which include Sir William Menzies Coldstream’s portrait of Sir Brynmor Jones (1903–1989), Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hull (1956–1972). The buildings of our campus are enhanced by a collection of post-1940 works, many presented by the Contemporary Art Society or by the artists themselves. These have recently been augmented by a policy of acquiring fine art prints by contemporary artists.
The core Collection in the Middleton Hall is open to the public during the week. Also on display are two important collections of Chinese ceramics, on long-term loan from Dr and Mrs Peter Thompson of Hong Kong. One is an important collection of seventeenth-century works. The second provides choice examples from the Tang to the Qing dynasties (c.618–1850). Regular loan exhibitions are also shown.
John G. Bernasconi, Director
Text source: PCF / University of Hull Art Collection
This description was originally written for a catalogue.