Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

'A Desire for the National Good': Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks and the Curatorship of Renaissance Decorative Art in Britain, 1840-1900

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

'A Desire for the National Good': Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks and the Curatorship of Renaissance Decorative Art in Britain, 1840-1900

Article excerpt

In 1847, while still an undergraduate at Trinity College Cambridge, Augustus Wollaston Franks wrote to the trustees of the British Museum requesting permission to publish an account of the impressions from the monumental brasses preserved in the Museum Print Room.1 The letter marks the beginnings of a career spent devoted to the study and enhancement of the Museum collections. Spanning the second half of the nineteenth century, the period between Franks's appointment as a museum officer in 1851 and his death in 1897 witnessed a burgeoning culture of exhibition and display, the establishment of new local, regional and national museum collections and the reshaping of the decorative art trade from the individual curiosity shop towards a systematised international art market.2 As a scholar, advisor and curator on the one hand, and an insatiable collector, donor and lender on the other, Franks provides a fascinating point of intersection within the intricate networks of private and public art collecting that occupied this emerging cultural realm. While Franks's biographical history, and the role he played within the British Museum's institutional history have been the subject of recent studies, the following discussion seeks to focus in on Franks's influence on the concept of curatorship, and to consider how his relationships and associations with fellow curators, collectors and connoisseurs helped define and reinforce the idea of the modern museum professional.3 Firstly by examining Franks's approach to curating at the British Museum, and secondly by investigating his place within the contemporary antiquarian milieu, this article will argue that Franks's appointment in 1851 marks a shift away from the culture of the amateur collector towards a more distinct and systematic approach to curatorship.

Born into a wealthy, privileged family in Geneva in 1826, Franks occupied both the aristocratic and plutocratic social spheres that were to shape the art market in the second half of the nineteenth century. His mother was the daughter of Sir John Seabright, a Baronet with estates in Worcestershire and Hertfordshire, while his father descended from a family of bankers. He was also heir to a long line of collectors, and Franks was already displaying symptoms of what he termed 'the collecting disease' by the time he went up to Cambridge in 1845.4 His engagement with medieval art, spurred on by participation in the Cambridge Architectural Society, the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, and the Cambridge Camden Society, manifested in his early accumulations of brass rubbings, a subject leading to his precocious interest in the Museum's impressions of monumental brasses.

At the time of Franks's letter to the trustees in 1847, however, the collections of European medieval and Renaissance objects at the British Museum were still in their infancy. Two years later, Edward Hawkins, the keeper of antiquities, declared 'our collection of medieval antiquities is very small indeed; that is to say, things later than the fourteenth century,'5 and the department's acquisitions and displays concentrated on classical and Egyptian objects. Yet a growing interest in medieval and Renaissance decorative art amongst private collectors, antiquarians and ecclesiologists had led to calls for the Museum to move into this area of collecting, pressure compounded by an awareness of the expanding collections at the Louvre and Royal Museum in Berlin and fears of Britain being left behind in the race for objects.6 In 1850 a gallery assigned for the adequate display of medieval and Renaissance works of art was finally completed, and Hawkins appealed to the trustees for an additional officer to oversee the collections.7 Franks had graduated just a year earlier, but was already well established within the antiquarian community.8 He was playing a central role in the Archaeological Institute, arranging its collections and organising events, and had served as secretary for the tastemaking exhibition of Works of Ancient and Mediaeval Art at the Society of Arts in 1850, the first public exhibition of such material in Britain. …

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