Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

George Scharf and Improving Collection Care and Restoration at the National Portrait Gallery

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

George Scharf and Improving Collection Care and Restoration at the National Portrait Gallery

Article excerpt

When George Scharf (1820-95) was appointed as secretary of the newly founded National Portrait Gallery in 1857, he was thirty-six and already had extensive experience as a draughtsman, lecturer and, most recently, exhibition organiser at the Art Treasures exhibition at Manchester in 1857.1 [Fig. 1.] He was later designated as the Gallery's director. His appointment brought him three collection challenges: housing the collection, protecting it from damage and deterioration and, if necessary, restoring individual works of art. What distinguishes the work of a curator such as Scharf from that of an exhibition organiser or an art critic is the need to take ongoing responsibility for the care of a collection and its public display. This paper examines Scharf's learning process when it came to the treatment of works of art and places him in the context of the developing role of the museum professional in Victorian England.

In the century before the Portrait Gallery was founded, a series of collections had opened in London: the British Museum in 1759, Dulwich College Picture Gallery in 1817, the National Gallery in 1824, Sir John Soane's Museum in 1837 and the future South Kensington Museum, later the Victoria and Albert Museum, in 1852. These institutions were in the public eye. On his appointment to the Portrait Gallery, George Scharf will have been only too aware of the recent Royal Commission into the management of the British Museum and the even more recent parliamentary committee into the controversy surrounding the cleaning of pictures at the National Gallery.2

By the 1850s the distinction between artists, picture restorers and curators was hardening into three separate professions.3 Charles Lock Eastlake at the National Gallery and Richard Redgrave at the South Kensington Museum began as artists and became curators.4 George Scharf's background was as a skilled draughtsman. They were leaders in the first generation of professional museum curators working with pictures. They did not expect to undertake picture restoration themselves.5

What differentiated the work of curators of public galleries and museums from the management of other collections, whether those of royalty, the aristocracy, collegiate institutions or city companies, was the degree of public accountability. Such accountability took varied forms: to government through regular reporting and parliamentary scrutiny, to a body of trustees who would oversee the work of the director and staff, and to the wider public, particularly those visiting the collection or making donations of works of art. The National Gallery used its annual report to parliament to provide a summary record of restoration work but the Portrait Gallery did not follow suit until 1887. In the aftermath of the National Gallery cleaning controversy, the ongoing interest of public and press helped encourage higher standards in the museum profession, including in picture restoration and in collection care more widely.6

Housing and protecting the collection

The first concern for curators was in housing their collection. The British Museum, the National Gallery and the South Kensington Museum greatly expanded their exhibition spaces as their collections grew in the nineteenth century, and numerous great public galleries and museums were built outside London.7 As to the National Portrait Gallery, in the space of forty years it saw four homes, a cramped Georgian town house in Great George St, Westminster (1858-69) [Fig. 2], the Royal Horticultural Society's old exhibition building on Exhibition Road, South Kensington (1870-85), the Bethnal Green Museum (1885-95) and finally the present purpose-built galleries in St Martin's Place, designed by Ewan Christian, which opened in 1896. South Kensington provided cleaner air but the building was deemed unsuitable after a fire in an adjacent gallery [Fig. 3]. Bethnal Green (now the Museum of Childhood) was claimed to be an unsafe environment for works of art: the iron roof with its glass skylights gave little protection against heat and cold, and it suffered from leaking and condensation. …

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