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The Cecil French Bequest

Posted 6th March 2018
Watts Contemporary Gallery

The Cecil French Bequest

Find out more about the collection behind our latest exhibition, A Pre-Raphaelite Collection Unveiled: The Cecil French Bequest, opening today at 11am.

Cecil French (1879-1953) was born in Dublin and came to England study at the Royal Academy, intending to become an artist. A passionate follower of the symbolist movement in British art, French admired Burne-Jones, who died in 1898, and the qualities of mystery coupled with careful figure-drawing that characterised much British art at this period. Although he did exhibit in London, French never became a professional artist. He wrote poetry, under the influence of his friend and fellow Irishman W B Yeats, as well as some art criticism. But neither did he become a recognised writer. Instead he lived quietly on Station Road in the London suburb of Barnes, slowly building up a very distinguished collection of the art he loved, by later Victorians, and those modern British artists who had maintained the values of their British predecessors, rather than being seduced by French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.

Cecil French remains himself a mysterious figure – someone who devoted his life to a romantic cause, championing a kind of art against which the tide of history seemed to have turned. For example, when the Tate Gallery organised an exhibition of the work of Edward Burne-Jones to mark the centenary of his birth in 1933, it was scarcely visited. French indeed came to despise the Tate, which he perceived as having turned its back on true British art in favour of the European Modernism it had also started to collect and display. When the collector died in 1953, he made careful plans for his treasures, working with an advisor whom he completely trusted, Rowland Alston.

Alston (1895-1958) was the Curator of the Watts Gallery. Like French he had aspired to be an artist, but following service in the First World War (during which he was badly injured at the Battle of the Somme) he had come to Compton in Surrey to work with Mary Watts, the widow of the greatest of all British Symbolists, and one of French's own heroes, George Frederic Watts (1817-1904). Alston ran the museum created in Watts' honour until his death in the late 1950s, when he was succeeded by Wilfrid Blunt. Alston and French were both guardians of a Victorian artistic legacy out of fashion during their lifetimes. French's will stipulated that his collection all be given away to British galleries, entirely at the discretion of his friend. He also left legacies to his gardener, to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and to a young man named David Gould (1922-2004) who, along with Gould's wife, French had invited to share his London home. Gould, who also became a distinguished connoisseur, was one of the original experts featured on the BBC's Antiques Roadshow programme. To him, French left Watt's painting Uldra, which is now part of the Watts Gallery collection. Explicitly cut from the will was of course the Tate: French made clear nothing was to go there.

Alston tried to allocate French's works to places which had some sort of connection with them. He therefore placed many of the works by Burne-Jones with Fulham Council (today the LBHF) because the artist himself had lived there from 1867 until his death, and his large house, The Grange, then still stood on the North End Road. (Sadly The Grange was however demolished in the early 1960s, around the same time that Watts' London home, Little Holland House on Melbury Road in Kensington, met the same fate.) Other pictures went to regional museums across England, and a large number of drawings to the British Museum. Two works allocated by Alston to the Watts Gallery, by Burne-Jones and Albert Moore, were sold in 2008 to help raise funds to save the Watts Gallery building, at that time in serious danger of having to close permanently. Although an extremely difficult decision to make, in this case The Cecil French Bequest can truthfully be said to have helped save the gallery devoted to an artist the collector revered.

See A Pre-Raphaelite Collection Unveiled: The Cecil French Bequest at Watts Gallery until 3 June.