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1872 Alfred Morrison's Purchases

Henry James regularly dismissed the Summer Exhibitions at the Royal Academy: “What a strange picture-world it seems; what an extraordinary medley of inharmonious forces.”1 Reviewing the 1872 Exhibition for Fraser’s Magazine, J.A. Froude similarly declared the whole show tended “toward a state of apparently hopeless mediocrity of excellence … Of what use is the Royal Academy at all in promoting and advancing real art.”2 The millionaire collector Alfred Morrison responded very differently, appearing to embrace James’ “medley”. He bought two very different paintings: Summer Moon (Fig. 1), Frederic Leighton’s sensual depiction of two sleeping girls, and H.W.B. Davis’ very large picture of stampeding cattle, called A Panic (Fig. 2), plus a sculpture by the same artist of a Trotting Bull.

The offer of a wide choice of subject matter appealed to many late Victorian nouveau riche collectors, unsure of their own taste and relying on the Academy to guide them towards quality art with lasting commercial value. Some of the visitors to “Show Sundays”, where artists previewed works in their studios before sending in to the Summer Exhibition, showed an apparent lack of discrimination, as they rushed from one studio to another, buying pictures with no apparent connection in subject or style.3 Much to their satisfaction, the walls of their homes resembled the “medley” on offer at the Academy.4

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Morrison’s approach to collecting was in fact rather different. He had the confidence of inherited wealth and a sophisticated knowledge of classical and European culture, from growing up surrounded by the collections of Old Masters and British art amassed by his father James Morrison of Basildon Park.5 He had been buying works at the Academy since 1864, and his purchases in 1872 reflected a personal and distinctive taste. The paintings and sculpture were chosen to augment much larger collections displayed at his country house, Fonthill, and his London home, 16 Carlton House Terrace, comprising furniture and furnishings designed by Owen Jones, luxurious objets d’art commissioned from the finest European craftsmen, thousands of pieces of Chinese Imperial porcelain, and important Old Masters. In one obituary, he was described as a Victorian “Maecenas”.6

What mattered to Morrison was his relationships with artists and craftsmen and the opportunity to commission, and even direct the production of, works of art. He had bought animal paintings by Davis from the Academy in 1864, and again in 1865, and he may have commissioned A Panic before the 1872 Exhibition. For Davis, not yet elected to the Academy, it would have been an enormous gamble to paint the largest painting of cattle in the world (it is sixteen feet long), without financial backing. Morrison’s confidence in Davis was well placed—the critical success of the painting led directly to Davis’ election as Associate later in the year.7

Morrison had also become the major patron of the Pre-Raphaelite landscape painter John Brett since buying Massa, Bay of Naples at the Academy in 1864. Morrison eventually owned nearly thirty pictures by Brett, buying at the Academy and from Brett’s studio.8 In 1872, Brett’s two paintings were hung badly, but he had held an exclusive viewing in his studio of all his available works before the Exhibition and Morrison bought five other paintings.

Brett, Davis, as well as Andrew MacCallum and the sculptor Thomas Woolner (who had six works in the 1872 Exhibition), were all patronised by Morrison and were members of the Savile Club, which was founded in 1868. The club was intended for men “widely differing from each other in occupation, tastes, accomplishments and interests,” and included members of banking families, academics, and writers as well as artists.9 For Morrison, who was a founder member, it was an environment in which he could develop relationships with his favourite artists outside the financial constraints of the studio and the Academy.  

Davis’ A Panic joined other animal paintings owned by Morrison and was hung by him in one of three top-lit galleries built at Fonthill. Morrison was also a breeder of prizewinning cows, horses, and sheep, and his liking for the genre confirms the observation of Gustav Waagen:

in no country is so much attention paid to the races of different animals as in England, and, although a mercenary reason may be assigned, in the case of horses, oxen, and sheep, yet a feeling for the beauty of these animals is also very general.10

By choosing Davis from among the many animal painters at the Academy, Morrison was also patronising an artist who had been compared, favourably, to Rosa Bonheur and Landseer; both the subject matter and the paintings themselves were sound investments.

Choosing a painting by Frederic Leighton, however, was a new departure. The two men were not well acquainted. Leighton was not a member of the Savile, and Morrison was not a member of the Athenaeum where Leighton regularly dined. There is no record of Morrison attending Leighton’s musical parties at his studio-house in Holland Park. The dealer Gambart had tried to sell Leighton’s Mother and Child to Morrison in 1865 but the offer was rejected.11 However, there is evidence that a personal connection was made between Morrison and Leighton shortly before the 1872 Summer Exhibition. Both men were guests of the novelist George Eliot and her partner G.H. Lewes at the Priory, Regent’s Park, where the dining room had been decorated by Owen Jones.

Perhaps Morrison went on to Leighton’s Show Sunday and saw Summer Moon before it was sent to the Academy. Reviews of the painting were all favourable. Sidney Colvin in The Cornhill Magazine was lyrical: this “lovely and solemn group of two women who lie coiled side by side draped in wine-colour and steeped in sleep.”12 And Morrison also owned sculptures of beautiful women, including a version of John Gibson’s Tinted Venus and two draped statues by William Wetmore Story. He clearly admired Summer Moon and hung it prominently in his library in Carlton House Terrace.

The pattern of Morrison’s collecting at the Academy would lead one to suppose Summer Moon would be the first of several works he would acquire from Leighton. However, there were no further purchases. Unlike Davis and Brett, Leighton had neither need nor desire to develop a close relationship with Morrison. It was through Davis rather than Leighton that Morrison received his first invitation to the Academy Dinner in 1878 and went on to become a regular lender to the Academy Winter Exhibitions.13

  1. Henry James, “The Picture Season in London”, Galaxy, August 1877, in John L. Sweeney (ed.), The Painter’s Eye Notes and Essays on the Pictorial Arts by Henry James (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 148.↩︎

  2. J.A. Froude, Fraser’s Magazine 6, no. 31 (July 1872): 28.↩︎

  3. See Caroline Dakers, The Holland Park Circle (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999).↩︎

  4. See Dianne Sachko Macleod, Art and the Victorian Middle Class: Money and the Making of Cultural Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). The collection of George McCulloch could be viewed as one such “medley”.↩︎

  5. For further information about James and Alfred Morrison, see Caroline Dakers, A Genius for Money Business Art and the Morrisons (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011).↩︎

  6. “Obituary: Alfred Morrison”, The Times, 27 November 1897.↩︎

  7. Wilfrid Meynell, The Modern School of Art (London: W.H. Howell & Co., 1886–1888), 73.↩︎

  8. Christiana Payne and Charles Brett, John Brett Pre-Raphaelite Landscape Painter (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2010).↩︎

  9. R. Martin Holland, The Savile Club 1868–1923 (Edinburgh: 1923).↩︎

  10. Gustav Waagen, Treasures of Art in Great Britain: Being an Account of the Chief Collections of Paintings, Drawings, Sculptures, Illuminated Mss;&c &c (London: John Murray, 1854), Vol. l, 381.↩︎

  11. Reference in Alfred Morrison’s address book, Fonthill Estate Archives.↩︎

  12. Sidney Colvin, “Pictures in London and Paris, 1872”, The Cornhill Magazine 26, no. 151 (July 1872): 41.↩︎

  13. See Royal Academy Council Minutes, 19 March 1878, Vol. 16, 1878–1879, in Royal Academy Library.↩︎

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