In Pursuit of Art: Charles Eastlake’s Journey from Plymouth to the National Gallery

(Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, 22 September – 15 December, 2012)

Three years ago Plymouth celebrated the career of its most famous artistic son, Sir Joshua Reynolds, the founder and first President of the Royal Academy, in a major exhibition (Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Acquisition of Genius). The life and career of another artist associated with the city, Sir Charles Lock Eastlake (1793-1865), is less well known, but Eastlake, too, was historically important, rising in his turn to become President of the Royal Academy and also Director of the National GalleryThe exhibition was curated by Susanna Avery-Quash, Research Curator in the History of Collecting at the National Gallery, who has recently published The Travel Diaries of Sir Charles Eastlake (National Gallery/Walpole Society, 2011), as well Art for the Nation: The Eastlakes and the Victorian Art World, (National Gallery, 2011; co-authored with  Julie Sheldon ) and curated a small exhibition,  Art for the Nation: Sir Charles Eastlake at the National Gallery (National Gallery, 27 July – 30 October 2011).

Gerolamo dai Libri, The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, 1510 to 1518 © The National Gallery, London

The Plymouth exhibition showed a select collection of exhibits and was designed to review Eastlake’s career and highlight his local connections in his early years, especially his Plymouth patrons and his art training there and  in London from two Plymouth-born painters, Samuel Prout and Benjamin Robert Haydon. Eastlake’s activities as a painter of landscapes and subject pictures in Italy in the 1820s and, more extensively, his work for the National Gallery made up the rest of the exhibition. Eastlake was responsible for building up the National Gallery collection and a great many of the masterpieces permanently on display there today were acquired by him in the 1850s and 1860s. Unlike many of his contemporaries he championed the idea of building up a collection that was not merely strong aesthetically but also historically, including examples of so-called ’primitive’ painting from the early Renaissance, for example.  With an annual purchase grant from the government of £10,000 he travelled across continental Europe, primarily but not exclusively in Italy, ferreting out pictures from owners who often had little affection for their ancestral collections. At Plymouth, five examples of these works were on display: Jacopo Bassano’s Good Samaritan, Gerolamo dai  Libri’s Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, Giovanni Battista Moroni’s L’Avvocato ,  Jacob van Ruisdael’s Waterfall in a Rocky Landscape and Gerard ter Borch’s Portrait of a Young Man. In addition, JMW Turner’s Margate (?) from the Sea, acted as a reminder of Eastlake’s 40-year friendship with the artist and the arrangements made by the National Gallery for the Turner Bequest after his death in 1851.

The general public is rarely given the opportunity to reflect on the ways in which major collections, such as the National Gallery’s have come into existence.  This exhibition revealed Eastlake’s connoisseurial strengths when seeking out works by the old masters but more importantly it stimulated visitors to think of the National Gallery in future as a collection whose history is fascinating in its own right, both in and of itself and as a reflection of 19th-century debates about the value of art and the social and educational functions of a major art collection.