Rowland Alston & The Cecil French Bequest

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Posted 26th May 2018

Rowland Alston and The Cecil French Bequest

'Cecil French's hatred of modern art profoundly influenced the terms of his will. “No work of art belonging to me", he instructed his executors, “is to go to the Tate Gallery, London."'1

Instead, French turned to another art expert whose life was bound up with the Victorian art world. Rowland Alston, then the Curator of the Watts Gallery at Compton in Guildford, became French's 'artistic adviser', and was given 'absolute discretion' to dissolve the collection within six months of French's death.

After French died, clusters of artworks were duly dispatched around the country, to places such as the Guildhall Art Gallery, the Birmingham Art Gallery, the York City Art Gallery and the William Morris Gallery.

But it was the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham that was to receive the largest portion of the collection. This was thanks to Alston's decision to honour the admiration French had felt towards one of his best-loved artists, Edward Burne-Jones, who had been a resident in that borough for many years. The Grange, Burne-Jones's home, had been a great social and artistic centre in the 1880s and 1890s and at that time still stood on the North End Road.

French had loved the work of Burne-Jones from an early age, and by donating French's collection to the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, Alston gave credence to contemporaneous hopes to revive the Grange as some kind of museum, perhaps along the lines of the Watts Gallery or Leighton House Museum; sadly though the Grange was demolished in the early 1960s.

Alston played a central role in the preservation of the Cecil French Bequest as it exists today. Now, some 65 years on, his work has been commemorated by the conservation and public presentation of French's remarkable collection at Watts Gallery – Artists' Village this spring.

Tom Cornelius

1. John Christian, 'A man out of his time: Cecil French and the Fulham Collection', Beauty Never Fails: Pictures by Sir Edward Burne-Jones and other Romantic artists from the Cecil French Bequest (Fulham Palace, 2008).