Posted 15th May 2018
The Cecil French Bequest: A Pre-Raphaelite Collection Unveiled
Until Sunday 3 June, Watts Gallery - Artists' Village is showing a fabulous collection of artworks by Pre-Raphaelite and other Victorian artists that have hardly ever been seen together since they were collected by an eccentric Irishman in the early twentieth century. The exhibition is titled A Pre-Raphaelite Collection Unveiled: The Cecil French Bequest.
Cecil French (1879-1953) was a classic case of someone born at the wrong time. A passionate lover of the finely-worked, romantically melancholy art of Edward Burne-Jones and the later Pre-Raphaelites, he lived most of his adult life in London at a time when the leading museums and collectors were turning their backs on everything Victorian to embrace the challenging Modernism emerging from the Continent. Starting off himself as an artist, but soon resigning that ambition, French was able to pick up paintings and drawings by the artists he loved for very little money, bringing them back to his modest suburban residence in Barnes. He gradually built there a serious collection featuring artists such as Fredric Leighton, J. W. Waterhouse, Lawrence Alma-Tadema and, of course, his beloved Burne-Jones.
Cecil French remains a shadowy figure, well-known to the more traditional art-dealers of London, and to a few of the leading artists, but a man whose tastes placed him outside the mainstream concerns of the professional art-world of the age. When he came to make his will in the early 1950s, French wished to leave his collection to museums where the art would be appreciated – which meant anywhere but the Tate Gallery, which, he felt, had lost the plot in chasing after Picassos and the like. He turned for help to another art expert whose life was bound up with the Victorians, Rowland Alston, the Curator of the Watts Gallery at Compton in Guildford, where the legacy of the great Victorian Symbolist, George Frederic Watts was preserved, against the odds.
To Alston, French entrusted the division and donation of the collection, and clusters of works were duly dispatched around the country, with the largest slice set aside for what is now the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. The rationale was that this was where Burne-Jones had lived for many years at the Grange, a house that had been a great social and artistic centre in the 1880s and 1890s and which then still stood on the North End Road. Although there were hopes to revive it as some kind of museum, perhaps along the lines of the Watts Gallery or Leighton House Museum, sadly the Grange was demolished in the early 1960s.
For generations, the Cecil French Bequest at Hammersmith and Fulham has remained essentially homeless. Watts Gallery Trust has now collaborated with the Borough Council to have a selection of the works conserved and displayed at the Watts Gallery, allowing all to enjoy them and share in the extraordinary story of Cecil French.
You can visit A Pre-Raphaelite Collection Unveiled: The Cecil French Bequest at Watts Gallery – Artists' Village until Sunday 3 June.
Dr Nicholas Tromans
Previous Brice Curator at Watts Gallery - Artists' Village