Seminar on Collecting & Display

Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet St London, WC1 E
at 6pm January 7th 2019, Pollard Seminar Room, N301, Third Floor

‘To mould a great museum collection’: Robert Langton Douglas (1864-1951) and the transatlantic art trade

Imogen Tedbury, Assistant Curator of the Picture Gallery and Art Collections at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Robert Langton Douglas is sometimes considered an idiosyncratic dealer, perhaps owing to his colourful and multi-faceted career as, variously, chaplain for the Church of England in Italy, scholar of Renaissance art, captain in the war office during WW1, agent for the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1909-1920) and Director of the National Gallery of Ireland (1916-1923). He began to deal in Sienese painting, the field which he fondly called his ‘own school’, before purposefully expanding his expertise to encompass a broad range of Old Master paintings, drawings, sculpture and decorative arts. He had long cherished an ambition to be a museum director and saw the role as one of ‘moulding’ or ‘shaping’ great collections. Yet later in his career, he argued that dealers could also shape collections as they were empowered by the choice of which institutions to approach and thus responsible for their stock’s resting place.

Utilising unpublished archival resources and drawing on the physical examination of paintings that passed through his hands, this paper re-examines the strategies used by this key but neglected dealer. As an agent he took as little as 5% or expenses in acquiring works for his museum clients. He sometimes gifted smaller artworks to museums, to cultivate relationships and seal transactions. Douglas also worked closely with his own restorer to present paintings as ‘untouched’ treasures from ‘sunk’ British collections, an ironic but shrewd response to market demands. As the history of collecting, display and restoration intersect, it is hoped that this case study will stimulate discussion around the roles that dealers can play in ‘moulding’ or ‘shaping’ museum collections, as well as their lasting impact on artworks’ physical histories.

Imogen Tedbury is an art historian interested in the longer lives of artworks, from the time of their making to their more recent histories. Her research explores the intersections between the history of taste and the physical history of art, with a special focus on medieval and Renaissance art in the long nineteenth century. The scholar-dealer Robert Langton Douglas forms a special subject of her research. She received her AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD from the Courtauld Institute of
Art and the National Gallery. This project explored the collecting, reception and display of early Sienese painting in Britain. She has received grants from the Getty Research Institute, the ICMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where she was a J. Clawson Mills Fellow in the Robert Lehman Collection. She is the Assistant Curator of the Picture Gallery and Art Collections at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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