Pictures for the Nation: Conceptualizing a Collection of 'Old Masters' for London, 1775-1800

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Campbell, Kristin
Collections History , Robert Walpole , John Boydell , Eighteenth-Century London , Noel Desenfans , Dulwich Picture Gallery , Joshua Reynolds
This thesis addresses the growing impulse towards establishing a public, national collection of Old Master pictures for Britain, located in London, in the last quarter of the eighteenth-century. It does so by identifying the importance of individual conceptualizations of what such a collection might mean for a nation, and how it might come to be realized for an imprecisely defined public. My thesis examines the shifting dynamics between private and public collections during the period of 1775 to 1800, repositioning notions of what constituted space for viewing and accessing art in a national context, and investigates just who participated in the ensuing dialogues about various uses of art for the nation. To this end, three case studies have been employed. The first examines the collection of pictures assembled by Sir Robert Walpole and their public legacy. The second explores the proposal for a national collection of art put forth by art dealer Noel Desenfans. The third examines the frustrated plans of Sir Joshua Reynolds for his collection of Old Master pictures. Through the respective lenses provided by the case studies, it is demonstrated that the envisioning of a national gallery for Britain pitched competing perspectives against each other, as different kinds of people jockeyed for cultural authority. The process of articulating and shaping these ambitions with an eye towards national benefit was only beginning to be explored, and negotiations of private ambitions and interests surrounding picture collections for the public was further complicated by factors of social class and profession. This thesis demonstrate that the boundaries of participation in matters concerning art for the nation were not fixed regarding Old Master pictures and the value placed on them in late eighteenth-century London.
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