The Frick’s environs–Courtesy of Alexa Marshall
On Wednesday, April 27th, the ICAA joined the Frick in welcoming art historian Giles Waterfield for his “A Mirror to the Frick: The Collector Museums of Britain, 1870–1920“ talk. The lecture provided a profound narrative into the genesis of Britain’s most iconic private collections. Tailored from the scholarship of Waterfield’s latest book, “The People’s Galleries: Art Museums and Exhibitions in Britain, 1800-1914,” the lecture elucidated many of the experiences both unique and common amongst collectors and painted an elaborate picture of the era’s social and cultural climate.
Before launching into the topic of private collections, Waterfield detailed the conditions that gave way to such a flourishing culture. He described the collective motivations for establishing civic museums across Britain, taking the example of the city of Manchester: the community’s anxiety over a defective moral climate catalyzed the establishment of many of its cultural institutions. The endorsement of museums, public libraries and parks was meant to remedy the aftershock of the industrial era. Waterfield pointed out explicit efforts to encourage culturally enriching activities, showing an advertisement depicting men gathered around a library table on a Saturday evening. The ad was meant to prescribe such activities to the working class in lieu of other less socially productive pastimes like Waterfield’s example of “becoming hopelessly drunk at the bar,” a quip that garnered laughter from the audience.
This national initiative was matched by the proliferation of private collection galleries–Waterfield described the creation of some of the more notable collections, how they grew, gained repute, coalesced in character or in some cases fractured. Though private collections held less of an immediate social purpose than the civic galleries, they inherently provided an immense resource to the public and informally augmented the social standing of their owners. Waterfield called attention to themes of lesser social standing across a number of private collection owners, but warned against crediting their social illegitimacy for the pursuit of extensive collections. The motivation for creating such collections, according to Waterfield, appeared to be an intrinsic one: the sometimes obsessive act of collecting and consuming itself being fulfilling rather than the promise of prestige.
Grand Salon, Musée Nissim de Camondo, Wikipedia
Collectors still took pride in the public presentation and reception of their collections, meticulously curating tasteful gallery settings. The fine furnishings and personal touches that were part of a collections display reflected both the unique character of the collector and his knowledge of trends and fashions. In detailing the unique features of these singular collections and how they shifted with the political climate over time, Waterfield painted a complex and enriching picture of the many influences a private collection can have and, conversely, can be affected by.
Among its many strengths, the lecture was especially effective in providing a novel, socially informed lens through which to view the history of private collections and their present. Attendees were able to appreciate this new lens within the lectures immediate environment– the events immersion in the Frick Collection reinforced the essence of collection lineage that Waterfield so skillfully described.