The Master Collection: A Preview

For the first time in over twenty-five years, Folkestone Museum is delighted to present a preview of the Master Collection.  It includes a selection of engravings, drawings, and an unattributed chalk and charcoal drawing that may never have been displayed since the collection was formed in the 1800s.  A more comprehensive exhibition of the collection will take place later in 2017.

Background

The Master Collection is an exceptionally special portfolio of works on paper spanning over 300 years and encompassing compelling studies by Italian Old Masters such as Barbieri il Guercino (1591-1666), one of the leading artists of the Bolognese school, through to William Collins R.A. (1788-1847), father of the author Wilkie Collins.  It is unusual for a collection of this quality to be owned by a museum outside of a city and is testament to the amount of wealth that once flowed into Folkestone in the Victorian and Edwardian periods.

The collection was amassed by Thomas Man Bridge of Ealing (c.1809-1883) who travelled to Europe in the 1830s and 40s.  Bridge embarked upon what was known as a ‘Grand Tour’: a trip around Europe taken by upper class men and women of sufficient means as an educational rite of passage. The advent of rail and steamship travel in the 1840s gave rise to mass tourism and the tradition fell into decline. Folkestone was at the forefront of these changes with a steamboat to Boulogne and railway opening in 1843. Bridge settled in Folkestone in the 1860s and lived at Shakespeare Lodge on Sandgate Road until his death in 1883.  The collection eventually passed to Bridge’s niece Amy Bisset who married Charles Hoskin Master.  The Master family were generous benefactors of the museum and Amy Master donated the entire collection to Folkestone Museum and Art Gallery in 1924 in memory of her late mother.

Selected Works

Nine works have been selected for this preview, two of which are engravings by Albrecht Dürer, a hugely influential writer, theoretician, painter and graphic artist who gained renown for his mastery of the engraving technique.  The Holy Family with the Dragonfly (1495) features a small insect, probably a butterfly rather than a dragonfly, a symbol of transformation.  The Madonna with the Monkey (ca. 1498) depicts a chained monkey beneath the Madonna and Child scene.   The monkey is a symbol of profanity, greed, and gluttony, and its chaining is a reference to the prison of bodily pleasures.

Religious subject matter dominates numerous drawings in the collection, many of which are Italian in origin.  In the 17th century the influence of the Church played an important role in artistic patronage and Church commissions required extensive preparation, indeed Italian drawings of this period are frequently studies for much larger works.  A seated angel holding a shield, c.1609-1615, by Cristoforo Roncalli, il Pomarancio (1552-1626) is a preparatory drawing for the now destroyed fresco in the Basilica at Loreto in Le Marche, where seated angels would have surrounded an image of the Coronation of the Virgin.

The later 17th century unattributed red chalk drawing, A putto, his arms above his head, shows a more loosely drawn chubby male baby, demonstrating a more relaxed style of composition and the stylistic influence of il Guercino.  The ‘putto’ or cherub features in both religious and secular art and by the 17th century frequently came to symbolise the omnipresence of God.  The religious scene in the larger unattributed charcoal and chalk drawing may also have been a preparatory drawing for a large commission.  Little is known about this work and is included here as an example of the artworks in the collection which require further scholarship.

More is known about the three pen and ink studies. The circular drawing of Dorinda by Swiss decorative painter Angelica Kauffman depicts a scene from Guarini’s tragicomedy ‘Pastor Fido’ (1590).  Kauffman was one of only two female founding members of the Royal Academy and a close friend of Sir Joshua Reynolds P.R.A. (1723-1792).  The drawing depicts Dorinda on her deathbed; she is in love with Silvio but he has mistakenly wounded her.  Only as Dorinda is dying does Silvio fall in love with her and offers his own life, which she refuses to take.  The drawing may be related to a commission for the decoration of an interior or painted piece of furniture.  

A river landscape with two horsemen by Pietro Giacomo Palmieri (1737-1804) from the late 18th century again shows the influence of il Guercino.  Palmieri settled in Turin where he became the Professor of Drawing at the Academy.  This drawing is a particularly fine example of his landscape studies with dark wash accents on the foreground and the weather blasted tree, also typical of il Guercino drawings such as those in the Royal Collection.

A man drawing, another asleep has been roughly attributed to Agostino Carracci (1557-1602).  The Carraccis were an influential family of painters and contemporaries of Caravaggio.  Whereas Caravaggio cleaved to the principles of truth and gritty realism in painting, the Carraccis sought to represent an idealised version of beauty that was abhorrent to Caravaggio.

The final work, a mid-19th century hand-coloured lithograph Familgie di marinai, depicts a heart-warming Neapolitan scene of fishermen’s families playing in the shadow of their vessels in traditional dress.  The women are mending nets whilst the children play and infants suckle.  The print creates a fortuitous connection to the maritime history of Folkestone.  Such prints were commonly collected on tours of Europe and the Master Collection contains a large quantity of these lithographs which we will bring to light in future exhibitions.

International Exhibitions

Folkestone Museum and KCC have loaned The risen Christ appearing to the Virgin (ca. 1620)  by Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652) to the Museo del Prado in Madrid and the Meadows Museum in Dallas, Texas, where it currently features in the exhibition ‘Ribera, Master of Drawing’ until June 11, 2017.