Thursday, October 1, 2009

Cecil Higgins Art Gallery

The Cecil Higgins Museum, as it was formerly known, opened its doors to the public on 25th July 1949. It had been created by the philanthropic brewer, Cecil Higgins (1856-1941) to house his collection of ceramics, glass and objets d’art ‘for the benefit, interest and education of the inhabitants of, and visitors to, Bedford’. As a shrewd businessman he realised that public museums were vulnerable, and to protect his collection he left a very complex will, which stipulated how the museum was to be organised. He also left a considerable trust fund, to be used for museum purposes, but principally for acquiring works of art (which included Decorative and Applied). While the collection of ceramics and glass was of the finest quality (each had been selected by James Kiddell of Sotheby’s), the collection lacked any notable paintings, save a few 18th century oils and a small collection of miniatures. The Art Gallery Board made the important decision to collect English watercolours in 1951. By the terms of Cecil Higgins’ will, all acquisitions have to be approved by a ‘recognised artistic authority such as ….the Victoria and Albert Museum’ and in 1951, the then Director of the V&A, Sir Leigh Ashton, nominated Graham Reynolds, then Deputy Keeper of the Department of Engraving, Illustration and Design, to approve all watercolours and drawings for acquisition. Graham Reynolds remained an advisor until 1955 when he was succeeded by two leading authorities in their respective fields who were to shape and expand the collection significantly; Edward Croft-Murray (1907-1980) of the British Museum and Ronald Alley (1926-99) of the Tate Gallery, from 1957.

The period between 1952 and 1964 were the most productive in terms of collecting watercolours. Over 500 were acquired in twelve years. The Gallery was able to achieve this by the availability of watercolours from private collections in the post-war years and the generosity of Cecil Higgins. Edward Croft-Murray and Ronald Alley each brought their knowledge, vision and taste to the growing collection. Their collecting was divided - Croft-Murray to works made pre-1850 and Alley to post-1850. The Gallery owes a great deal to their dedication and skill, for they were to develop one of the finest post-war collections outside London. That the collection is strong in the greatest painters of every generation is one thing, but that it is also representative of artists who were once popular and influential in their own day and less so at the time of acquisition, is due to their expert scholarship.

Edward Burne-Jones, Cupid Delivering Psyche, 1867.
(c) Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery

In 1971, the collecting policy switched to the decorative arts, with the purchase of a large number of pieces from the Handley-Read Collection. The Cecil Higgins Art Gallery now holds over 200 pieces from the collection of Charles and his wife Lavinia, Handley-Read. Charles applied, in 1950, for a post at the Tate, after being rejected he reacted by ‘making a small museum of my own’. They began to form a collection of Victorian work at a time when few scholars and collectors took the period seriously, sometimes tracing the descendants of the architects and designers and buying directly from them. After initially making modest additions to his collection, a number of inheritances in 1964-5 meant that he could accelerate his buying. The Royal academy exhibition Victorian and Edwardian Decorative Art The Handley-Read Collection in 1972 displayed their entire collection, sadly Charles and Lavinia did not live to see it, dying tragically in October and December 1972 consecutively.

From 1988, the focus returned to collecting prints, this time concentrating on the 20th century.
The print collection now numbers over 400 pieces, including work by some of the finest British artists as well as internationally renowned figures such as Picasso, Lichtenstein and Dürer. The collection charts styles as well as print processes, from Whistler’s delicate etchings to Edward Bawden’s magnificent linocuts.

Albrecht Dürer, Adoration of the Kings, 1511
(c) Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery

Cecil Higgins Art Gallery is currently closed for major redevelopment, to provide more space in which to exhibit and interpret the works in this important collection. Exhibitons from the Cecil Higgins Collection and touring shows are cureently being held in Bedford Gallery.

The layout of the site

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