Mayor Cllr Minnie Scott Russell
An art gift from the past that can help the future
A rarely seen collection of art that was left in a generous bequest to the borough of Fulham in the 1950s is the subject of a new exhibition, with all the proceeds going to a charity that seeks to raise awareness of depression among young men.
The Cecil French Bequest
Cecil French was a Dublin-born artist who trained at Royal Academy Schools in London and settled in Fulham. When he died in 1953, he left a collection of 53 pictures by late-19th and early-20th century British artists to what was then called the Metropolitan Borough of Fulham (now the London borough of Hammersmith & Fulham).
The works included 26 paintings and drawings by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-1898), a painter out of fashion back then but now widely considered to be a great artist. The same could be said of the bequest as a whole – in the 1950s works from the Pre-Raphaelite, Post-Romanticism period were not considered to be of great value.
Burne-Jones: Wheel of Fortune
Subsequently, the paintings and drawings were left hidden away in a basement in Leighton House, a small museum in Holland Park.
A few years ago, when the largely forgotten bequest was newly discovered, it was valued at over £10m, including one 1897 painting by John William Waterhouse, Mariana in The South, that was given a £3m price tag.
This is where the Mayor of Hammersmith & Fulham, Councillor Minnie Scott Russell can take up the story:
"Two years ago when the new administration took over the Town Hall, an old councillor came up to me and said what are you doing about the Cecil French bequest?"
"What was that? Oh, it's your Pre-Raphaelite paintings!"
"So we called up Leighton House and said have you got something called the Cecil French bequest?"
"We went to see them and they were laid out on a table in the basement and it was the most thrilling moment. There are 26 Burne-Jones and some very important pictures."
Beauty Never Fails
Over the years, individual paintings from the bequest have been loaned out to exhibitions in New York, Paris and one will soon be going to a museum in Tokyo.
However, this exhibition, entitled Beauty Never Fails, held in the stately rooms of the renovated Fulham Palace, will be the first time that the bequest has been shown in its entirety.
One reason why the paintings have never been shown together is, the Mayor explains, that some of them do require costly renovation work, which the council is unable to afford.
"I want people to see it, so that people know that some work is needed on these pictures," says Mayor Cllr Scott Russell. "The curators are very anxious because they're not in their tip-top, best condition. So this is a unique exhibition in that way."
"The Royal Academy said that this is the most significant exhibition of its type for the last 50 years in London. We have also had a visit from Sir Denis Mahon, aged 98, who is one of the world's most well-regarded art historians and he came to have a look"
"We are absolutely thrilled to have them here."
Charlie Waller Memorial Trust
And this exhibition is more than just a case of fulfilling her Mayoral duties.
In 2006, at the age of just 21, Minnie Scott Russell's son, Hector, took his own life after a struggle with depression. All the proceeds raised from the show will benefit a charity founded in his memory, the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, which seeks to increase awareness of the dangers of depression, particularly among young men.
"I am very concerned about the way young men suffer from depression. People always say young men: Why don't you talk about young girls? But suicide is the biggest killer of young men. Girls can threaten it, you get a bit of a warning, but guys just do it," she says.
"Life is just too complicated sometimes for such sensitive people and they hide the fact they are depressed so it is very difficult for a mother to know how to mend a broken mind."
A gift for the future
On the website to help promote the exhibition, people are being asked to offer their suggestions for what Hammersmith & Fulham should do next with the collection. The insurance costs and funds needed for renovation means that it is now prohibitively expensive for it to be kept in public hands.
Fulham Palace in Bishops Park, SW6
One idea is to lease the works to large corporations based in the borough, such as Coca-Cola or L'Oreal, with the understanding that they will be available for public viewings one day a month.
However, Mayor Cllr Scott Russell would prefer to sell the collection and set up a bursary with the proceeds helping aspiring artists in Hammersmith and Fulham.
"I think we should sell them. Otherwise they just go back to Leighton House to be put in the back room. I think we could start a bursary for talented artists to further their education in art or perhaps to commission some art for outside spaces."
"The proceeds would only be for arts and culture. It would be using the money to enhance the lives of people living in Hammersmith & Fulham. These pictures belong to them."
It seems fitting that this generous gift from one Fulham resident over 50 years ago will continue to benefit the people of the borough for many years to come.
The exhibition, Beauty Never Fails, is at Fulham Palace until 1st June. Tickets cost £6, Concessions £5, Under 12s get in free.
last updated: 13/11/2008 at 17:00