Southampton City Art Gallery and the National Gallery, London have today announced a major new exhibition which will explore (for the first time) the 92-year partnership between them, and the role the National Gallery has played in the evolution of Southampton’s collection.
Creating a National Collection, The Partnership Between Southampton City Art Gallery and the National Gallery, London, which will run at Southampton City Art Gallery, will include outstanding works from Southampton, alongside loans from the National Gallery.
The exhibition will include paintings by Monet, Gainsborough, Maggi Hambling and Paula Rego, to tell the story of the long and unique relationship enjoyed between these two institutions. COVID‐19 regulations and guidelines permitting, the free exhibition is due to open to the public from 28 May to 4 September 2021.
The historical links between the two galleries are significant, but little known. This relationship was established when Cllr Robert Chipperfield (1817–1911), whose bequest in 1911 led to the creation of the collection and the Art Gallery in Southampton, ensured that future acquisitions would be of national calibre.
Chipperfield stipulated that all purchases using his trust fund should be considered in consultation with the Director of the National Gallery. Kenneth Clark, newly installed in that role in 1934, took a particularly active interest in advising Southampton on acquisitions and wrote its first formal collecting policy in 1936, which essentially remains in place today.
Clark and his successor, Philip Hendy, supported the work of the first two curators at Southampton – (George) Loraine Conran and Maurice Palmer – to build up the collection and its public profile. Until 1975, the Art Gallery’s acquisitions were undertaken with advice from the National Gallery, leading to the accumulation of significant clusters of Western European paintings. Taken together, these allow Southampton to tell the story of Western Art from the Renaissance to the present day, in a way that few other UK regional galleries can match.
The two institutions have worked in partnership as part of the current 2019–21 National Gallery Curatorial Traineeship programme, supported by the Art Fund with the assistance of the Vivmar Foundation, with Curatorial Trainee, Jemma Craig, leading on a project to explore this dynamic and ongoing collaboration. The Curatorial Traineeship programme was jointly established by the National Gallery and Art Fund in to address the need to maintain and develop collections expertise, in particular in relation to historic European paintings.
The resulting exhibition – Creating a National Collection – is the first to explore the relationship and influence the National Gallery has had on the evolution of Southampton’s collection. Early purchases under National Gallery guidance included works by 19th-century European painters including Eugéne Louis Boudin (1824–1898), Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) and Joaquín Sorolla (1863–1923), as well as earlier European paintings by Caesar van Everdingen (about 1606–1678) and Sofonisba Anguissola (about 1532–1625), and acknowledged Old Masters, such as Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678).
Significantly, early support from the National Gallery also led to Southampton’s acquisition of works by acclaimed early 20th‐century British figurative painters, including Henry Tonks (1862–1937), Walter Sickert (1860–1942) and other Camden Town Group members. This was an important first step to building what is now considered one of the finest collections of 20th‐century British art in the UK outside of London, and one of the core reasons the collection holds Designated Status, awarded by Arts Council England to collections of national significance.
Central to the exhibition of 58 works are a series of carefully chosen pairings of works from Southampton and the National Gallery’s collection which cover key moments in the history of Western European art. The pairings include works by Cesare da Sesto (about 1477–1523), Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), and Claude Monet (1840–1926). These juxtapositions highlight the diverse riches in Southampton’s collection and reveal the quality of its holdings through comparison with works held in the national collection.
By the mid‐1970s, the rise in prices for historical paintings meant that Southampton could no longer afford to purchase works by Old Masters, but the gallery continued to make a mark, acquiring comparatively affordable works by up‐and‐coming modern British artists. The new interest in 20th- and 21st‐century British art allowed Southampton City Art Gallery to be a pioneer in the field, as well as build a collection which narrates a broader history of art in the Western European tradition than is possible at the National Gallery – whose collecting remit stops at about 1920. This change in focus meant that the National Gallery was no longer able to provide specialist advice to Southampton on its modern and contemporary acquisitions, so the advisory role passed to Tate; Tate remains the ‘national adviser’ to this day.
Southampton has, however, continued to maintain strong links with the National Gallery, developing its traditional partnership in new directions, not least through ongoing loans and conservation projects. The current curatorial traineeship is the latest expression of this longstanding alliance.
The exhibition concludes with works in Southampton’s collection by artists that have taken part in the National Gallery’s schemes with contemporary artists; including the first and last of its Associate Artists, Paula Rego, and George Shaw, respectively, as well as its first Artist in Residence, Maggi Hambling, and the 2020 Artist in Residence Rosalind Nashashibi. Two more pairings of works by Rego and Nashashibi from Southampton and London underscore mutual interests in the institutions’ support for contemporary artists working in the UK.
The exhibition is accompanied by a significant publication which explores in detail, for the first time, the character of this remarkable part of Southampton City Art Gallery’s history, using untapped historical archives and new oral histories.
Creating a National Collection is curated by Jemma Craig, National Gallery Curatorial Trainee, supported by the Art Fund with the assistance of the Vivmar Foundation, and Dr Susanna Avery-Quash, Senior Research Curator, History of Collecting, at the National Gallery.