A Complete Portrait of Arthur Jeffress opens 24 September

16 Sep 2021

This fascinating exhibition tells the story of Arthur’s Jeffress’ complex and colourful life, 60 years after his death, alongside a large selection of paintings from this significant bequest to Southampton City Art Gallery. Opening 24 September 2021 – 22 January 2022.

Arthur Tilden Jeffress (1905–61) was an art collector and dealer who lived lavishly in beautifully decorated homes in Hampshire, London and Venice. He was gay and tragically committed suicide in Paris in 1961. 99 works from his collection were bequeathed to Southampton City Art Gallery in 1963.

One of the key paintings is the portrait by his friend Graham Sutherland, painted in 1955 when Jeffress was fifty years old. The sittings took place in the garden of Jeffress’ legendary house in Venice. Jeffress allowed many myths about his ancestry and wealth to build up around him. He was rich, but not fabulously so: his house in Venice was lovely but no palazzo; he was born in Acton to American parents. Yet because he had a flamboyant gondola with two gondoliers, he became famous in Venice. Tragically, his reputation has often been based only on his homosexuality and on his suicide in 1961.

He developed his links with Southampton when he bought a house in the 1930s near Winchester and lived there with John Deakin, later to be Francis Bacon’s favourite photographer. If Southampton had been bequeathed the paintings a few years earlier or later, it would have been a very different selection. Jeffress was both collector and dealer so his collection continuously changed but the Sutherland portrait would always have been there, alongside a full-size portrait of Napoleon by Baron Gerard which took pride of place in the entrance hall to his Hampshire residence. The Tate was given his favourite painting of Alexander the Great’s funeral; the artist Eden Box was given his magnificent late Monet. In 1947, Jeffress lent Southampton the first ever work by Jackson Pollock to be seen in Britain, yet he loathed all forms of abstract painting.

Last year a full-length biography about his astonishing life – A Life in Art – was published, written by Gill Hedley who worked at the City Art Gallery in the 1980s. Hedley who worked as an advisor on the exhibition said “ I have spent a very long time researching the many lives of Arthur Jeffress, especially through archival material shown here for the very first time, and it is a pleasure to present a complete portrait of this fascinating and complex man.”

Councillor Spiros Vassiliou, Cabinet Member for Communities, Culture & Heritage, Southampton City Council said: “This tragic but captivating story is told alongside the incredible art given to Southampton City Art Gallery after Jeffress’ death. The paintings are as diverse as the man himself and it’s well worth a visit to understand such an important character in the development of the city’s nationally significant collection.”

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