The University of Liverpool has acquired a collection of oil paintings since its inception. At a basic level this is manifest in the series of portraits of chancellors and vice-chancellors dating back to 1903. Indeed, this series underlines the University’s tradition of acquiring and commissioning art which is still practised today. Until the 1960s acquisition was piecemeal, often the result of gifts and bequests. Whilst most of the material came from private ownership, a small part of the Collection, acquired from the Liverpool Royal Institution in 1881, had been on public display in the City since 1817, before the University itself was established.
In 1966 the University created the Fine Art Advisory Committee (FAAC) under the chairmanship of Dr B. L. Rathbone. The Rathbone family was a major force in the establishment of the University, and has presented a number of key items to the collections. The Committee was effective in procuring art for the new buildings the University constructed and also succeeded in establishing a public art gallery on campus in 1977. This closed in 2007, the collections moving to the Victoria Gallery and Museum, a new public facility developed within the University’s first headquarters.
The holdings of oil paintings are not a comprehensive survey of western art, in part due to the variety of benefactors and shifts in purchasing policy. Nevertheless, the Collection includes fine works by important artists and is an interesting contrast to the other public collections on Merseyside.
The majority of the oil paintings are British, beginning with some portraits after Anthony van Dyck, of local interest due to their subjects. Among the best known works from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are pictures by Joseph Wright of Derby and J. M. W. Turner. The Wright of Derby holdings include a fine, sublime landscape of Snowdon by Moonlight, whilst the Collection also includes Turner’s The Eruption of the Soufrière Mountains in the Island of St Vincent, 30 April 1812 (1815). George Morland, Nathan Fielding and the marine artists Nicholas Matthew Condy and Samuel Walters are also represented.
From the late nineteenth century onwards the most important paintings include works by artists such as Richard Ansdell and Hubert von Herkomer. One of the more unusual works from the early twentieth century is a decorative scheme by the mural painter Mary Adshead. This early commission was to create a jungle scene for the Professor of Architecture, Charles Reilly, which covered the walls of his dining room.
Lucian Freud’s Paddington Interior, Harry Diamond (b.1924) (1970) represents the most important British painting of the twentieth century in the Collection, and is a sister painting to the large-scale, earlier portrait of the same subject in the Walker Art Gallery, National Museums, Liverpool. This work was acquired before the establishment of a professional curatorial service for the Collection, and was undoubtedly the FAAC’s finest purchase. A similarly important purchase was Euan Uglow’s Nude, 12 Vertical Positions from the Eye, a John Moores’ Exhibition prize-winning painting in 1972.
The Collection grew in the 1960s through the expansion of the University’s estate. The extensive building programme in the period created numerous new spaces in need of art. The FAAC was able to use small percentages of the construction budget to acquire material. In the case of the Electrical Engineering Building in particular the result is a fascinating snap-shot of British art circa1965. This practice is still continued today.
Artists from the Liverpool area are extensively represented in the Collection, including Gerard Chowne, Nicholas Horsfield, Dorothy Adamson, George Mayer-Marton, Millicent Emily Ayrton, Clement McAleer, Arthur Ballard, Stanley Reed, George Wallace Jardine, Jack Coburn Witherop, Sam Walsh, Adrian Henri, Peter Corbett and Tom Palin. Many of these are graduates of the Liverpool School of Art, and this forms a particular focus for collecting activity, recently effectively linked to the special exhibition programme. These Liverpool related holdings complement other collections, particularly those of the Walker and the Williamson Art Gallery & Museum.
As has already been noted, portraiture is an important element of the Collection in recording the eminent figures in the history of the University. The best known group of portraits are those by Augustus Edwin John (who taught in the University ‘Art Sheds’ between 1901 and 1902). The University also owns portraits by William Strang, Henry Marvell Carr, Frank Thomas Copnall and William Charles Penn.
The most important non-British group of pictures in the Collection are three early oil paintings by John James Audubon, American Turkey, Hawk Attacking Partridges and Otter Caught in a Trap. These were painted in 1826 during Audubon’s visit to Liverpool while he was finding patrons for the publication The Birds of America. Together with the drawings and watercolours on display in the Audubon gallery, this comprises the largest holding of John James Audubon’s original work in this country.
The other foreign paintings include mainly landscapes, either by Dutch or Italian painters of the seventeenth century. Collected by Matthew Gregson and forming part of the Gregson Institute (created for public benefit and education), these works were given to the University by Isobel Gregson in 1906. Also of note is a small bequest of Greek, Cretan and Russian icons from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, made to the University by Professor Roaf in 1986.
The University is fortunate in being able to constantly improve its Collection through purchases and by benefiting from gifts and bequests. Recent key acquisitions include a major work by Maurice Cockrill (now Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools), made in 1979–1980 shortly before he relocated to London, and a work originally commissioned for Johnsons PLC by Edward Halliday.
Finally, we are most grateful to The Public Catalogue Foundation for all their work in relation to these paintings. This excellent initiative will greatly improve access to these holdings, will encourage research of the Collection and will enable many more people to enjoy the works than was previously possible.
Matthew H. Clough, Director
Text source: PCF / University of Liverpool
This description was originally written for a catalogue.
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