Creating a National Collection #2 – Researching the Relationship

14 Apr 2021

Hello! I’m Susanna Avery-Quash, the Senior Research Curator in the History of Collecting at the National Gallery. I look after pre-1900 objects in its ‘History Collection’ and am responsible for activities associated with its research strand, ‘Buying, Collecting and Display’. My research and publications focus on the study of important historical art collections, trends in artistic taste, and the historical art market.

One of the most exciting projects I’m currently involved with is the Gallery’s partnership with Southampton City Art Gallery, arising from an Art Fund Curatorial Traineeship supported by the Vivmar Foundation – I am the lucky curator assigned to mentor Jemma Craig, the trainee leading on this project. We were tasked with investigating the important, if little-known and certainly unique, intertwined histories of both institutions, which arose because Robert Chipperfield, the founder of Southampton’s art gallery, stipulated in his will that all future purchases made using his financial bequest should have the blessing of the director of the National Gallery. I had collaborated with Plymouth City Art Gallery over an exhibition in 2012 about Plymouth-born Charles Eastlake, the Gallery’s first Director (1855-65), so I was thrilled to have the chance to explore how later National Gallery directors (since 1929) helped Southampton’s art gallery to develop into the leading national collection it is today.

Having quickly realised the depth and breadth of the relationship, Jemma and I proposed that, to accompany the exhibition, we could write a catalogue which might double-up as an institutional history of sorts.

We discovered the correspondence between colleagues in London and Southampton in the Gallery’s archives, which was matched by identical material at Southampton, supplemented there by paperwork to do with Southampton’s city council, the body with ultimate responsibility for the art gallery. Jemma and I decided to let the protagonists tell their own stories, which explains why our book is peppered with many evocative direct quotations. To bring our story up to date, we conducted oral interviews and had email exchanges with past and present staff at both institutions, a particularly collaborative and joyful part of the research process.

This image shows the National Gallery Library after refurbishment. The Library is part of the Research Centre.

The archives have revealed many interesting aspects to the historical partnership, including the fact that National Gallery directors have been united in an ambition to make Southampton the greatest public art gallery in the South of England. They constantly reiterated that if ambitious art (even if perhaps less immediately easy on the eye) was purchased, it would raise the profile of the institution and attract national and international visitors.

Another element to emerge is the different personalities and tastes of National Gallery directors: we were not surprised to find that Augustus Daniel, depicted in previous publications as rather lazy, often sent a deputy to Southampton, or that Kenneth Clark, who for his own private collection bought only figurative art, discouraged Southampton from buying any abstract paintings. That omission was made good, however, by his successor, Philip Hendy, from the 1950s, in line with his encouragement of public engagement with modern British art that he had pioneered during his time as Director of Leeds City Art Gallery.

Archival material relating to Southampton City Art Gallery’s collection and portrait of Gallery Founder Robert Chipperfield painted by Leonard Frank Skeats

A third aspect to the relationship traceable through the correspondence is how with the appointment of curators at Southampton, starting with the gifted (George) Loraine Conran and Maurice Palmer, the relationship with London evolved into one of equals, with countless notes of congratulations from London about Southampton’s clever discovery and deft purchasing of eligible masterpieces.

Please come and visit the exhibition and read the book to find out more about how the wonderful paintings in Southampton were acquired, in large part through its special and abiding relationship with the National Gallery.

To learn more about Jemma, and hear how her traineeship is going so far, read the first in a series of blogs here – Creating a National Collection – Introducing Jemma 

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