The British have been famous art collectors for centuries. The first systematic art collectors in the British Isles appeared in the 16th century with Henry VIII. By 1800, collecting and trading art had evolved into a profitable business. British monarchs and wealthy members of the elite saw the opportunity and grasped it. From then on, collectors, antiquaries, and art enthusiasts competed fiercely to acquire antiquities, European paintings, and more.
This collecting golden age reached its end with the development of large national museums. Collectors could no longer compete with the vast resources of state institutions. Nevertheless, the legacy of the previous centuries lived on. Many private collections ended up in state, regional, or private museums. Others were dispersed, while others remained intact as the property of wealthy families.
Today, the collecting activity of the British past is highly controversial. On one hand, many romanticize the figure of the collector-connoisseur who seeks the thrill of high aesthetic pleasures. On the other hand, many see these collectors as plunderers of other’s cultural heritage. This last view emphasizes the colonial and imperial character of many British collections.
12. Henry VIII: The First Of Britain’s Famous Art Collectors
Henry (1491-1547) is mostly remembered for his decision to establish the Church of England in 1535. The motive for this move was personal. Henry’s first marriage resulted in no heir, so the king decided to get a divorce. The Pope annulled his petition to marry again and thus Henry decided to break away from the Catholic Church. As the leader of the newfound Anglican church, he had the power to divorce and marry as he pleased. By the end of his life, he would have gotten married six times.
Henry VIII is the first in a line of famous art collectors. In 1538 he copied Francois I’s Fontainebleau Palace with his Nonsuch Palace to house his art collection. Though little evidence remains of the palace, we must imagine it filled with art; mainly paintings and sculptures. Aside from Nonsuch Palace, Henry had a series of royal palaces. They were all filled with tapestries (he owned 2450) as well as silver and gold plates.
Henry’s painting collection consisted mainly of portraits of the royal family. Holbein the Younger painted the king’s most famous portrait but just like most of his collection, it is now lost. Thankfully, there were many copies of the original portrait like the one above. Henry VIII also collected weaponry and armor as signs of his military might as well as classical sculptures.
11. Richard Payne Knight: A True Dilettante
Richard Payne Knight (1751-1824) was the apogee of the 18th century antiquarian and amateur scholar. From a young age, he received a classical education which developed into a lifelong interest in ancient art. As a young adult, he traveled to Italy in 1772 and 1776 and began forming his collection of antiquities.
In 1787, Knight came under the spotlight for his book An Account on the Remain of the Worship of Priapus. There, he examined phallic symbols and representations from ancient civilizations concluding that art, religion, and sexuality are intertwined. Knight perceived these symbols as rooted in mystical cults of the ‘generative process’ with often orgiastic celebrations.
In the conservative environment of 18th century Britain, Knight’s work was deemed to become controversial. His claim that before Christianity, the cross often represented the phallus, appeared especially provocative to the religious establishment. The author, however, appeared to enjoy the controversy and defended his position.
Knight kept writing books on ancient art and history. With Charles Townley, they published the Specimens of Ancient Sculpture In 1809. There, the two collectors explored the history of sculpture from small idols to monumental Greek and Roman temple sculptures.
As an art collector, he held a significant collection of drawings including works by Raphael, Caracci, Rembrandt, and Rubens. He also possessed many sketches by Claude. Unlike other art collectors, Knight’s collection of ancient art specialized in small objects; mainly bronzes, coins, and gems. These were linked with his study of ancient religion. The English aristocrat was looking for religious symbols and themes which were more commonly found on smaller artifacts. A great part of his collection ended up in the British Museum.
10. George III: Art Collector And Patron
George III (1738-1820) began collecting art already when he was the Prince of Wales. He truly entered the collecting scene when he bought the collection of Consul Joseph Smith. Smith was a British diplomat in Venice and had a large collection of paintings, medals, books, and gems. His collection also included works by Michelangelo, Raphael, Domenichino, Carracci, and the paper museum of Cassiano dal Pozzo.
George was a great patron of the arts employing artists like Johan Zoffany and Benjamin West. Additionally, he founded the British Royal Academy in 1768. His son George IV took over and expanded the royal collection after his death.
9. Sir William Hamilton: Famous Collector of Ancient Vases
Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803) was a valued member of the Society of Dilettanti but not amongst the richest aristocrats. Interestingly, he was one of those art collectors, whose passion leaves them worrying about their financial standing.
Hamilton was not simply a collector of antiquities but also one of the first scholars of ancient art. He published multiple treatises and took part in conversations about ancient history. He even became the protagonist in a famous painting. There, he is depicted showing other members of the Society of Dilettanti his vases while drinking wine.
His devout interest in ancient vases upgraded vases in Britain from minor to major collectible items. The years that followed his death saw the rise of ‘vase-mania’ as collectors competed for the new precious commodity.
Amongst Hamilton’s most notable acquisitions was the Portland Vase. Except for vases, he also collected gems, bronzes, sculptures, and various other collectibles. Unlike his contemporaries, he did not exhibit his collection openly. Instead, he kept everything in his ‘Lumber Room’ which looked a lot like a cabinet of curiosities. Goethe saw the room in 1787 and wrote that:
Sir William showed us his secret treasure vault, which was crammed with works of art and junk, all in great confusion. Oddments from every period, busts, torsos, vases, bronzes, decorative implements of all kinds made of Sicilian agate, carvings, painting, and chance bargains of every sort, lay about all higgledy-piggeldy.
(Jonathan Scott, The Pleasures of Antiquity, page 172)
During the last years of his life, he faced major financial difficulties. He spent his time fishing, going to auctions he could no longer afford, and visiting the British Museum. There lies his former collection of vases.
8. Charles I: Collecting Italian Old-Masters
King Charles I (1600-1649) understood the potential of a royal collection for power projection. The inspiration to form a gallery came to him during his visit to Madrid in 1623. There he realized that there were better ways to decorate a royal palace than old-fashioned portraits. From this visit, Charles returned to England with paintings by Titian and Veronese.
Unlike other contemporary art collectors, he saw the importance of Italian paintings where he focused his attention. By the end of his life, he had amassed one of the largest collections of Italian Old-Masters of his time. Though he died as an unpopular king, he managed to secure a place in history amongst famous art collectors.
Charles’s collection included works by Raphael, Leonardo Da Vinci, Anthony van Dyck, Holbein, Caravaggio, Titian, Mantegna, and others. He also possessed a collection of approximately 190 busts and over 90 statues of the Roman and Greek civilizations. While he exhibited his paintings within his palaces, his sculptures were carefully displayed in sculpture gardens.
Following Charles’s death, the collection was sold and scattered around the world. Nevertheless, we can still experience the collection as it would have looked on the walls of Whitehall Palace. How? Thanks to a virtual project called The Lost Collection of Charles I.
7. Thomas Howard: The Father Of Virtue In England
Thomas Howard (1586-1646) the 14th Earl of Arundel was a courtier for King James I and Charles I. He was by far one of the most famous art collectors of his time and a true connoisseur. His main collecting rivals were George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, and King Charles I.
Arundel was a pioneer in art collecting. In many ways, he shaped the aesthetic perception of the aristocratic class for years to come. Arundel promoted the idea of the collector aristocrat and patron of the fine arts. It is no coincidence that Horace Walpole, the influential politician, called him “the father of virtue in England.”
Arundel had organized a network of artists and art dealers in Europe. He was also a patron of many great artists like Inigo Jones, Daniel Mytens, Wenceslaus Hollar, Anthony van Dyck, and Peter Paul Rubens. This way he was able to acquire high-quality artworks.
6. George IV: Despised King, Celebrated Collector
King George IV (1762-1830) is not a controversial figure. Pretty much everyone agrees that he was one of the worst English kings of all time. In fact, he has been voted as the most useless English monarch in a poll by English Heritage.
Why? Well, he married his mistress in secret and prevented his legal wife from attending his coronation. He was spending extravagant amounts of money for his entertainment during extremely difficult times for his people. The public hated him to the point that even the newspapers of the time celebrated his death. What is more, he was called “the Prince of Whales” because he was mortally obese.
Despite everything, King George IV is one of the most famous art collectors Britain has ever seen. He collected almost everything; from metalwork, textiles, and furniture to ceramics and paintings. He had a weak spot for French Boulle furniture and Sèvres porcelain. He even acquired Napoleon’s cloak.
George IV was extremely fond of 17th century Dutch and Flemish painters. He is known for spending lavish amounts for paintings like Rembrandt’s The Shipbuilder and his Wife. Furthermore, he was a great patron of British artists whose paintings he used to fill the walls of Windsor Castle. Most notably, he commissioned works from Thomas Lawrence, Joshua Reynolds, George Stubbs, Thomas Gainsborough, David Wilkie, and Richard Cosway. His collections today are exhibited at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle.
5. Henry Blundell And The Largest Collection Of Antiquities
Henry Blundell (1724-1810) was a virtually uncontested collector of antiquities. His collection of ancient art was by far the largest of its kind in Britain. However, Charles Townley, whose collection was smaller but of higher quality, overshadowed.
Blundell and Townley were the most famous art collectors of their time and good friends. Blundell paid well to expand his collection but Townley was playing smart buying only certain high-quality pieces. Essentially, what Blundell lacked was the deep knowledge of ancient art. This meant that, although he could buy anything he desired, he was not always making good choices.
His first acquisition was a small statuette of Epicurus bought in 1776 during his Grand Tour to Rome with Townley. This opened his appetite for antiquities and shortly after he bought a block of 80 marbles. By the end of his life, he would have acquired marbles from all over Italy. Besides, this was the golden era of dealers of antiquities who ravaged Italian sites making enormous profits.
Blundell’s lack of knowledge and genuine interest in his collection is evident in the case of his Sleeping Hermaphrodite. Blundell acquired the statue but did not feel comfortable with its otherness. He then hired a sculptor with directions to ‘restore’ the sculpture into something more compatible with his taste and ethics. As a result, the Sleeping Hermaphroditus was transformed into a Sleeping Venus.
In any case, Blundell enjoyed the prestige and respect that came with the largest collection of antiquities in Britain. He housed his collection in his grand country house in Ince Blundell. There he built a Garden Temple and a Pantheon-like building to display his marbles.
4. Thomas Hope: Exhibiting Taste
Thomas Hope (1769-1831) was born in Amsterdam but descended from a Scottish family of wealthy bankers. He worked in the family business in Amsterdam which was his source of income. He traveled to Italy, Egypt, Greece, Turkey, and Syria as a young adult. In 1795 his family fled Amsterdam because of the French invasion and settled in London. There, Thomas began seriously collecting antiquities and art.
In 1800 he became a member of the Society of Dilettanti and bought part of Sir Hamilton’s late vase collection. By the end of his life, he would possess a plethora of sculptures, Greek vases, and paintings of contemporary artists. He housed his collection in his house in Duchess Street in London. Hope filled the house with Neo-Classical and Egyptian furniture following his personal taste. Each room exhibited different collectibles and followed different styles. There was even a sculpture gallery and rooms filled with vases.
In 1807 he bought a house in Deepdene in Surrey and began decorating and filling it with antiquities. In his new sculpture gallery, he placed a statue of Jason by Thorvaldsen and a Venus by Canova amongst multiple other marbles.
Hope truly believed that his taste in art was more refined than everyone else’s. He even said that he had done more to obtain his aesthetic judgment than any other person living! His house decorations were radically eccentric and ridiculed by many. However, many saw the beauty in them. His eccentricity, arrogance, and unique taste earned hope a place amongst Britain’s most famous art collectors
3. Thomas Bruce: Amongst Britain’s Most Famous Art Collectors or Greatest Plunderers?
Thomas Bruce (1766-1841), the 7th Earl of Elgin from Scotland is a special collector case. Elgin was serving as an ambassador in the Ottoman Empire when he visited Athens (then under Ottoman rule). Visiting the Acropolis and seeing its state, he saw a business opportunity. By 1806, Elgin had extracted the so-called Parthenon marbles and shipped them to Britain.
In 1816, the marbles reached the British Museum. For the first time, the British public could see the authentic witnesses of the Athenian past. Also, the British State could now declare itself a protector and continuator of Classical Athens.
Elgin was neither interested in ancient history nor genuinely interested in collecting ancient art. Like most of his contemporaries, he saw in antiquities a path towards improving his social standing. It is no coincidence that many British intellectuals were genuinely shocked when they learned of Elgin’s actions. Elgin’s fame suffered greatly at first. Additionally, he was almost bankrupt trying to secure and preserve the marbles and he made no profit from their sale.
Lord Byron protested the destruction of the Athenian monument in his poems The Curse of Minerva and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Byron’s graffiti on a rock of the Acropolis the following lines referring to Elgin’s:
“Quod non fecerunt Gothi, fecerunt Scoti”
(what the Goths did not do, the Scots did)
So, amongst Britain’s most famous art collectors or plunderers? Two centuries after Elgin’s violent extraction of the Parthenon marbles from Athens, the answer is ambivalent. Amidst growing decolonization movements, the persona of Elgin appears problematic at best. In the British Museum, he is praised as an enlightened that rescued the marbles from Ottoman and Greek negligence. In Greece, he is a symbol of British cultural imperialism.
2. Sir John Soane’s Eccentric Collection
Sir John Soane (1753-1837) was a pioneer of the Neoclassical style and architect of the Bank of England. He gathered and fathered one of the most unusual collections of the 19th century in his house in London. Soane’s house in 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields is today the Soane’s Museum and is open to the public.
Soane’s collection was unusual in both its diversity and the way it was organized and displayed. The focus of the collection was architecture, but Soane also gathered paintings, sculptures, porcelain, bronzes, and manuscripts. Still, sculptures and fragments of columns and capitals formed most of the collection. The most prized item was the sarcophagus of Seti I. Like other art collectors, he was also a patron of many British artists (Henry Howard, Turner, Arthur Bolton, and others).
Although today the collection is celebrated and appreciated, this was not the case back in Soane’s time. The eccentricity of the collection which was unorderly spread inside the house was widely ridiculed. The lack of functionality and the claustrophobic rooms filled with objects were also seen as pretentious by most. By extension, many also found the art collector to be an eccentric old man.
A young architect employed by Soane encapsulates this sentiment perfectly. He said that he hesitated to work for Soane because of “his eccentricity of mind and irritability of temper occasioned me to reserve him as the desperate ultimatum of forlorn hope” (as quoted in Frank Herman’s, The English as Collectors). The same person also found the collection and the house as “a positive sense of suffocation in the plethoric compendiousness” and “a conglomerate of vast ideas in little” space.
1. Charles Townley: The Most Prominent Of Art Collectors
Charles Townley (1737-1805) has been called “the most prominent figure in the history of antique connoisseurship.” Not simply a connoisseur, Townley was one of Britain’s most famous art collectors. Even though he did not own the largest collection in Britain, he did own the best in terms of quality.
Townley was the stereotypical gentleman connoisseur of the time. He had embarked on three Grand-Tours to Rome but also to South Italy and Sicily. Townley’s collection was diverse but mainly focused on sculptures with the “Townley marbles” being his most prized items. The wealthy collector had a unique relationship with his collectibles. Reportedly, he was especially fond of a bust of Clytie which he called “his wife.”
Townley had a sculpture gallery at his house in London. There, he displayed his marbles in different rooms within his house, which was visited by other art collectors and friends. Townley’s marbles after his death ended up in the British Museum forming the basis of its collection.
The photo above was painted by German Classicist painter Johann Zoffany. The painting portrays Townley in his office surrounded by his marbles and friends. His most important sculptures are also visible. In the foreground is the Discobolus, Townley’s most famous acquisition. Above it are two boys playing a game called Knucklebones. This sculpture was identified as Polykleitos’s Astragalizontes (though this is just a hypothesis). The Townley Venus is in the center of the image right behind Townley. Alongside the bust of Homer and the Townley Vase, are sculptures of cupid, a sphinx, a faun, and a satyr. On the desk next to the collector is his favorite bust of Clytie.