Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

A Man of 'Unflagging Zeal and Industry': Sir George Scharf as an Emerging Professional within the Nineteenth-Century Museum World

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

A Man of 'Unflagging Zeal and Industry': Sir George Scharf as an Emerging Professional within the Nineteenth-Century Museum World

Article excerpt

Sir George Scharf was appointed first secretary of the newly established National Portrait Gallery early in 1857, becoming director in 1882 and retiring shortly before his death, in 1895 (fig. 1). Applied by the Gallery's Board of Trustees when formally recording this event in their annual report, the phrase quoted in the title indicates the strength of Scharf's commitment to his duties over the course of a career that spanned five decades.1 As custodian of the national portraits, Scharf's remit encompassed every aspect of Gallery activity. Whilst he held responsibility for the display, interpretation and conservation of the collection in its earliest days, he also devoted a significant amount of time to research into the portraits.2 To this end, Scharf oversaw the establishment of an on-site research library of engraved portraits, periodicals, books and documents. Coupled with his meticulous investigations into works in private and public collections across Britain, this served as a vital resource for authenticating potential portrait acquisitions. In recording what he saw by means of densely annotated sketches and tracings, Scharf developed a procedure for the documentation, identification and authentication of portraiture, which continues to inform the research practice of the Institution.

In this article I first scrutinize Scharf's attitude towards the execution of his official duties and argue that his unremitting efforts resulted in the creation of a set of professional standards, serving as a template for specialized research to be adopted and carried forward by his successors. In so doing, I consider Scharf's specific engagement with new developments in art historical scholarship as practised by contemporaries in Britain and Europe over his lifetime. That is, rather than summarizing Scharf's scholarly output or contribution to the canon of art history, I examine his implementation of a more rigorous, evidence-based approach to research, which underpinned the nascent discipline. Secondly, I contend that despite a singular dedication to his cause Scharf was not working in isolation. Instead, he benefitted from the immediate expertise and access offered through interrelated circles of contacts. I outline the extent of Scharf's social and professional networks and map the physical sites of communication with leading scholarly, artistic, and museum-world figures. I reflect upon the degree to which these connections ensured the success of his work for the National Portrait Gallery, whilst also investigating his own position of influence within this sphere. In conclusion I consider Scharf's role in the professionalization of art museum practice that gained momentum in the later 1800s, a period that saw the emergence of a range of clearly defined, independent, professions.3 I further propose that a generous spirit of exchange and collaboration, which characterized interactions between Scharf and his colleagues, positioned these individuals collectively at the forefront of advancements in their scholarly and professional fields during the second half of the nineteenth century.4

The Scharf sketchbooks

From the moment George Scharf assumed his duties at the National Portrait Gallery, in October 1857, the diligence and enthusiasm with which he pursued what was to be his life's work is notable. Though his curatorial reputation had been sealed by way of his endeavours in sourcing and hanging the 'Ancient Masters' at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of the same year, it was to the development of a collection of authentic British portraits representing the history of the nation that he focussed his energy for the rest of his career.5 Essential to the acquisition of expertise in this field was Scharf's ongoing programme to document portraits pictorially, either those investigated by the Board at Trustees' meetings, or those held in private collections across the country. He filled over 50 Trustees' sketchbooks (TSBs) with closely annotated drawings of portraits brought to the Gallery for inspection or encountered during expeditions paid for by the government (fig. …

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