In December 1912 the banker, collector and National Gallery trustee Charles Benson met with Charles Fairfax Murray to go through the London gallery’s ‘desiderata list’. By identifying paintings of paramount significance in private British collections before the latter came on the market, acquisition policy would (so the thinking went) become active rather than reactive. Rival German museums such as those led by Wilhelm von Bode would enjoy fewer opportunities to bring their deep pockets to bear, preserving collections of art that were coming to be viewed in heritage terms. Benson felt Murray to be far more qualified than the gallery’s director, Charles Holroyd, to advise the trustees on such an important matter. But who was this Murray? The son of a Bow draper, Murray had spent the 1860s and 1870s as studio assistant to Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Hired by John Ruskin as a copyist, he settled in Florence, married and started a family. The correspondence published in this volume dates from the years 1875 to 1895, and illuminates the second phase of Murray’s career, built on his connoisseurial knowledge of western European art and talents as a dealer and adviser to leading American, British and other public galleries. 190 of the 323 letters in this collection are by Murray, the majority sent to Bode. Of the incoming letters, all but twenty-odd are from the National Gallery director Frederic William Burton. Only two replies from Bode survive. The correspondence with Bode’s predecessor at the Berlin Gemäldegalerie, Julius Meyer, is less extensive and less interesting. As the editor notes, other letters (particularly from Bode) have almost certainly been lost. Enough survives to ‘flesh out a substantial but until now barely visible component in the international network of informants, collectors and dealers established by Bode in building up the Berlin collections’. For all its extent, the Murray/Burton correspondence does not illuminate Burton’s twenty-year tenure at Trafalgar Square (1874–1894) to the same degree. Though Burton comes across as more active than the dopey caricature retailed by some of his trustees might suggest, otherwise we learn little new about his character or priorities. Thirty years his senior, Burton did not confide in Murray. Unlike Bode (a mere four years older than Murray), Burton did not draw on Murray’s extensive knowledge of the Sienese school, nor did he introduce Murray to potential clients. Burton came up with an excuse not to allow Murray to use his name when Murray offered his services as agent to the collector Francis Cook in 1877. It is unlikely, therefore, that Murray owed his introduction to the aforementioned Benson to Burton. It was Benson who came closest to supplying Murray’s own desideratum: that ‘“rara avis”, [a collector] who will really take advice [and] who has sufficient means to form a collection’. This volume’s main interest lies in the light it sheds on Murray’s ambivalent position, which serves to illustrate a period in which the desired shape of public art collections and the authority to administer them were contested among aristocratic collectors, practising painters, critics, dealers and that peculiar expertise which Benson saw in Murray, but to which neither could put a name. The ‘historical series of examples’ of Sienese painting which Murray failed to persuade Burton to acquire makes Murray sound like the advocate of ‘art historical’ collecting. Yet the venom Murray directs at the British Museum’s Keeper of Prints and Drawings, Sidney Colvin gives pause. In 1894 Colvin had sought to persuade one Gallery trustee that the age of the painter-cum-museum director had already passed: Burton had been qualified to serve as director ‘not because he paints in water-colours with his left hand, but because he gave a great part of his life in Germany and Italy to acquiring the true expert-training.’ Yet Murray put himself forward for the directorship precisely to ensure that the post went to Edward Poynter, another painter. Much of Murray’s expertise came from dealing, but this activity could be perceived as a disqualification: as one anguished letter to Bode demonstrates, Murray had to curtail his dealing temporarily while his application was considered. The sheer number of important works of art (predominantly Italian panel paintings, but extending to maiolica and Tanagra figurines) handled by Murray in these years lend this volume significance as a tool for provenance research. It is the deeper currents of profit, patriotism and patronage flowing beneath the ripples of this great rip-tide sucking treasures out of Italy, however, that constitute its true importance. Murray notes the effect of improvements in the technology of art appreciation: while higher-resolution photographs can make minor damage to panels look worse, lowering values, images of a previously unphotographed fresco fragment can have the opposite effect, attracting rival bidders: ‘it is the photograph which has partly caused this,’ he writes to Burton, ‘as many now go to see it who would otherwise have never heard anything about it’. Murray’s letters give us a flavour of the difficulties of extracting such works from the aristocrats, priests and rival agents who guarded them. ‘I am fuming & fretting with impatience at the slowness of people,’ Murray writes from Siena in December 1877. For four years Murray had been circling ‘the best coll[ectio]n of ancient pictures here the contents of which are entirely unknown,’ courting a priest with a connection to the reclusive family in question, only for the next man in the chain to come to ‘a tragic end shortly after - being assassinated’. Acquiring stock in Italy was a long game, but also cloak-and-dagger. Murray fences (metaphorically) with a rival agent, Stefano Bardini, resentful at having been ‘supplanted’ by the former ‘“con poca delicatezza”’. A failed poacher, Bardini turns gamekeeper, tipping off Venice customs to the imminent export of Ghirlandaio’s Procession to Calvary (National Gallery, ng1143). Murray ensures that ‘the “detectives” cannot come upon it’ by shipping the painting via a third party, mislabelled as ‘an old German picture’. Compared to these local rivalries the more familiar, international rivalry between London and Berlin for acquisitions is almost invisible: though Murray is in the midst of this rivalry, only glimpses of it appear in these pages, largely in what is not written. This volume is printed on cheap, flimsy paper. Its contribution to our understanding of the High Victorian European art market is, mercifully, a good deal more substantial. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Journal of the History of Collections – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 11, 2018
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