The David and the Goliath of art collections join forces: the National Gallery in London loans nine works to Southampton

A new exhibition opening this week at the Southampton City Art Gallery features nine works from London’s National Gallery as part of the latest phase of a partnership that dates back more than 90 years. The exhibition combines important pieces from the London gallery with key works from its regional counterpart (Creating a national collection: the partnership between the Southampton City Art Gallery and the National Gallery, LondonMay 28-September 4).

The paintings featured in dialogue include two works by Thomas Gainsborough: Doctor Ralph Schomberg (circa 1770) from the National Gallery and George, Lord Vernon (1767) of Southampton. The National Gallery has also loaned works by Claude Monet, Salvator Rosa, Paula Rego and Maggi Hambling. The joint exhibition is part of Southampton’s bid to be Britain’s City of Culture 2025

Maggi Hambling’s Portrait of Archie MacDonald (1980-81) is also on loan from the National Gallery © Maggi Hambling © National Gallery, London

The two English galleries share a relationship that goes back decades. Its genesis lay with Councilor Robert Chipperfield, who donated his collection of 137 paintings, on his death in 1911. This formed the basis of the new collections at the Southampton Art Gallery. Crucially, Chipperfield also stipulated that the director of the National Gallery should be appointed adviser for all future purchases made using his trust fund.

Gabriele Finaldi, the current director of the National Gallery, summarizes in the catalog how the relationship developed: “Galvanized by the vision of the National Gallery – that it could become the most important art gallery in southern England – various gifted and ambitious curators in Southampton first worked alongside [National Gallery directors] Kenneth Clark and later Philip Hendy and other directors to turn Southampton’s collection into one of the most comprehensive in the UK.

Clark was the key to the partnership. “He was responsible for drafting the first formal collection policy in 1936, appointing [Southampton City Art Gallery’s] first curator [George Loraine Conran] as well as overseeing major acquisitions such as Edward Burne-Jones Perseus series,” writes Southampton councilor Satvir Kaur in the catalog.

Paula Rego’s witches at their incantations after Salvator Rosa (1991) © The artist © The National Gallery, London

In a letter sent to Councilor George Waller in 1936, Clark outlined four areas which he believed should form the basis of the gallery’s acquisition policy based on an estimated annual income of around £1,200–1,500. These included “an extensive and continuously growing collection of modern oil paintings” and “a collection of watercolors and drawings [which] could be obtained very cheaply”.

His suggestions have been taken up in their entirety. Initially, the collection was displayed in the city’s central public library, until the gallery as it stands today, designed by Ernest Berry Webber, was opened in April 1939.

Clark’s Reasons to Buy Perseus and Andromeda by Burne-Jones in 1934 – including the prospect of increased visitor numbers – are described in the catalogue, which is co-authored by the exhibition’s curators, Jemma Craig, curatorial intern at the National Gallery, and Susanna Avery-Quash, Senior Research Curator at the National Gallery. “Always sure of his convictions, [Clark] announced that it was a “good time to buy”, recommending that an offer in the region of £3,500 was fair, even though the series had been valued much higher during homologation at £6,000” , they say.

Sofonisba Anguissola’s The Artist’s Sister in the Garb of a Nun (1551) is in the collection of the Southampton City Art Gallery © Southampton Cultural Services

Clark also oversaw the purchase of the only painting by Italian artist Sofonisba Anguissola in a British collection, The artist’s sister in a nun’s habit (1551). Bought for £60 in 1936 from London dealer REA Wilson, it was attributed for years to the artist Titian. Another key acquisition of the same year facilitated by Clark is that of Camille Pissarro View from the road to Versailles, Louveciennes (1870), purchased from Madame Katia Granoff in Paris.

The relationship between the two institutions continued to flourish in the 1950s under Southampton’s second curator, Maurice Palmer, and Philip Hendy, director of the National Gallery from 1946 to 1967. “During the Palmer-Hendy era, the collection of “Southampton’s art was enriched with examples of Italian Baroque art, 17th century Dutch landscapes and works by leading 19th century British artists including JMW Turner and Thomas Gainsborough,” reads a wall text.

Monet’s Church at Vetuil (1880) was purchased by the Southampton City Art Gallery in 1975 © Southampton Cultural Services

The relationship pivoted in 1975 when the Southampton venue bought Monet’s The church of Vetheuil (1880) for £56,284. There was subsequently a new emphasis on contemporary art at the regional gallery, with input from then National Gallery director Michael Levey, who was appointed in 1973. The external advisory role for purchases passed informally to the Tate, which remains “national adviser” for the collection to this day.

The two institutions have nevertheless worked in partnership through the current National Gallery curatorial internship program 2019-2021. A showcase of the exhibition also highlights the discussions between the restorers of the two galleries over the years. The two conservation teams produced X-rays and infrared reflectograms of some of Southampton’s important major works, including the 17th century piece. Holy family by Jacob Jordaens, which was analyzed in 1976.