Buying for the Gallery

John Poynter, Mr Felton’s Bequests (Miegunyah Press, 2008), $89.95

When the National Gallery of Victoria acquired—courtesy of Mr Alfred Felton—Giambattista Tiepolo’s Banquet of Cleopatra for the sum of £31,375 in 1933, there was a commotion in Russia as well as Melbourne. Many Russian émigrés—some of whom had had valuable collections confiscated to enrich the imperial Hermitage Collection in St Petersburg—saw the sale as emblematic of its dissolution and perhaps an end to their hopes of ever recovering their own treasures. One such émigré, Mr A. Goukassow, wrote from Paris to the Times in London in despair: “We consider it our duty to our country and its history to record a most emphatic protest.”

The Banquet of Cleopatra—originally earmarked for the British Consul in Venice—had been redirected by the efforts of Francesco Algarotti, a wealthy Venetian wit, intriguer, friend of Voltaire and confidant of Frederick the Great, to the court of Saxony, and subsequently acquired by a woman every bit as resourceful as Cleopatra herself—Catherine the Great. It was one of the finest prizes ever acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria, but it would be the subject of much rancour—purchased as it was in the teeth of a paralysing depression.

The generosity of Mr Felton, whose 1904 will had left the National Gallery of Victoria £378,033—almost $28 million in 2000 values—and the gallery’s spending of his windfall from that time to the present day is diligently traced and delightfully amplified in John Poynter’s book, Mr Felton’s Bequests. Poynter’s exhaustive research, assembled with clear affection and laced with wit—a rare enough event in art writing—has resulted in the story of a man whose fortunes parallelled those of the colony he voyaged to in 1853.

The twenty-one-year-old Felton found a city bristling with the tents of fortune seekers on their way to the gold diggings. He had arrived at just the right moment, for the bright flare of commerce, fed by rampant speculation, would subside to a flicker in the depression of the 1890s. Poynter takes the reader to the heart of this new and bustling colony, with its savage acuities, its hubris and its charitable imperatives, and thus provides a compelling history of the colony itself, before delivering to the reader a compelling account of how Felton’s money would be spent.

Felton, who never sat on a committee in his seventy-four years, asked in his will for one to be established to administer the funds for the purchase of art work, but his desire for securing “joint and harmonious action” among this committee and the trustees would prove to be a forlorn hope. There were quarries pursued, interminable and irascible debates about purchasing priorities, and simmering irritations which occasionally calcified into lifelong animosities.

By 1861 Felton was listed as a “wholesale druggist” selling Chlordane (a mixture of opium, morphine and chloroform) and “Felton’s Quinine Champagne”. Ultimately his business partnerships would expand—mirroring the colony’s rising fortunes—to embrace manufacturing, importing and the largest pharmaceutical company in Australia. He lived a well-ordered bachelor’s life, mostly in boarding houses around St Kilda. His habits were harmless enough. He wore knitted kneecaps, he ate whiting for breakfast every day of the year and chicken for dinner, and insisted on sleeping with his head to the north. He was particularly fond of his phonograph, and encouraged friends to attach rubber listening tubes to their ears to hear La Bohème.

His travels did not necessarily inform his taste in painting, although he was a keen observer of human nature, noting in 1870 that the Americans he had met had “hard practical natures” and a “stupendous materiality”. The paintings on his collection—mostly traditional and romanticised landscapes—were pedestrian and unadventurous, reflecting the taste of the period as much as any personal inclinations.

At the time of its announcement, Felton’s bequest exceeded the combined acquisition funds of London’s National Gallery and the Tate, and it elevated the National Gallery of Victoria into a buying league of international museums it would never again be in a position to compete with. Like a lottery win, large and unencumbered sums of money cause a rush of blood to the head, and so it was with the National Gallery of Victoria. That lumbering creature, the committee—or committees in this case—set its sights on grand purchases but were inexperienced where the international art market—with its uneven scholarship and sure-footed dealers—was concerned and a number of unremarkable and frequently overpriced works were purchased. Some, such as a Rembrandt Self-Portrait, a Watteau, a van Eyck Madonna and Child, a Goya and a Reynolds, proved to be overly optimistic attributions.

From its inception the bequest was dominated by elderly men who, as the saying goes, knew little about art but knew what they liked. One hapless London-based adviser after another was disabused of his good intentions, in a manner best compared to Aesop’s fable “The Old Man, the Boy and the Donkey”. The carping began with a Pissarro purchased in 1905 and climaxed with the demurral over Delacroix’s Les Naches in 1955. This prize went to the Metropolitan Museum.

Nonetheless, some master works survived their deliberations: the aforementioned Tiepolo, a complete first edition set of Goya’s Los Caprichos, thirty-six of William Blake’s illustrations for the Divine Comedy, works by Van Dyck, Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, Poussin, Turner, Gainsborough, El Greco, Géricault, two bona-fide Rembrandts; and later: works by Manet, Monet, Cézanne, Matisse, Bonnard, Van Gogh, Vlaminck and Balthus.

Without doubt, the bequest’s golden years were those between the wars when their London adviser Frank Rinder was providing excellent advice on the purchase of paintings. But the trustees were also busy buying manuscripts, furniture, porcelain, glassware, silverware, fans, robes and petticoats, jewellery, items of toilette, snuff bottles, handkerchiefs and miniatures. The acquisition in 1970 of an eighteenth-century brocaded silk taffeta English gown—just three years before Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles made its way to Australia—provides a window on their longstanding predilections.

Poynter has clarified some oft-repeated errors about Felton—his place of birth (East Anglia) and his place in the pecking order of the family (sixth), but his detective-like zeal has led him into exhaustive and occasionally unnecessary inventories. This is always a temptation for the scrupulous scholar: what to enlarge upon, what to jettison—and this is the only equivocation about this impressive book, written with both passion and clarity. Those interested in the fortunes of the National Gallery of Victoria, and indeed its relationship with the London art world, will find this a bracing story

Leave a Reply