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Why have there not been more female art collectors?
[ Essay )
The art collection of esteemed art-world figure Muriel Wilson becomes the latest to join our ‘collection of collections’.
Let’s take a look at some of the more prominent historic female art collectors, explore the significance of their collections, and consider why there have been relatively few.
We are delighted to have been bequeathed over 40 works from the collection of Muriel Wilson (1933 – 2018), including modern and contemporary artworks by celebrated artists such as Michael Andrews, Eduardo Paolozzi, William Nicholson, Richard Long and Laura Ford. The star of the show however, is an early self-portrait by British Pop artist Sir Peter Blake – an intimate snapshot of unrequited love in the form of a Valentines card he created for fellow artist Pauline Boty. We acquired this work through the Acceptance in Lieu Scheme, and you can read more about it’s fascinating story here.
Wilson’s collection is currently on display as part of A Life in Art: The Muriel Wilson Collection until Sunday 7 June.
Who was Muriel Wilson and how did she amass such an impressive collection?
Muriel Wilson was a key figure in the British art world, who was much admired by the artists whose careers she supported.
Simon Martin, Director, Pallant House Gallery.
From studying at the Courtauld Institue of Art (1951-54), Wilson spent her life immersed in art. Her impressive career encompassed the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the Whitechapel Art Gallery, the Arts Council Gallery and the role of Curator, and eventually Director of Visual Arts, at the British Council. Wilson was passionate about introducing overseas artists such as Anish Kapoor to UK audiences whilst simultaneously promoting the work of British artists abroad – most notably taking Richard Long to the Venice Biennale in 1976. Alongside her then-husband, architect Colin St John Wilson, they amassed quite the art collection!
Historically, why have there been fewer female art collectors ?
The term ‘patronage’ is inherently gendered and, in nearly all cases, female patrons worked within the limitations of patriarchal societies.
Dr Sheryl E. Reiss, Frieze
Women have been collecting and commissioning art since antiquity – if we rewind over 3000 years to Pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut, she commissioned a number of portrait statues, among other things, which now reside in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art! Historically, patronage and art collecting has been the preserve of the elite, which might explain why there have been relatively fewer women collectors. Hatshepsut was a queen, so she certainly wasn’t short of a bob or two – but historically, women of independent means have been relatively few and far between. It is for the same reasons that there have been fewer women artists throughout history.
Let’s fast forward to the 20th century and take a look at some of the more prominent female collectors…
Gertrude Stein (1874 - 1946)
In proportion to its size and quality, it is just about the most potent [collection] of any that I have ever heard of in history.
Henry McBride, art critic.
After making Paris her home in 1903, Stein became renowned for hosting a Paris Salon where the leading lights of Modernism – artists such as Pablo Picasso, writers such as Ernest Hemingway, and poets such as Ezra Pound – would gather. Along with her brother Leo, they formed an art collection renowned for its historical importance. By 1906 they had amassed works by a staggering number of artists including Pierre Bonnard, Paul Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec! She gained mainstream attention after the publication of her memoir ‘The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas’. Definitely one to add to the reading list.
Gwen (1882 - 1951) and Margaret Davies (1884 - 1963)
One of Britain’s most sensual and least known art collections was built by teetotal Methodist spinsters with extraordinarily bold taste.
Andrew Graham Dixon, Telegraph
Now recognised as the most influential collectors of Impressionist and 20th century art in Wales, the Davies sisters began collecting art while travelling Europe in 1908. Their inexplicably little-known collection includes numerous Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings alongside works by modern artists such as Josef Herman, Oskar Kokoschka, Augustus John, Stanley Spencer and Eric Gill!
The sisters were independently wealthy women, the granddaughters of Victorian industrialist David Davies, with a social conscience. In their desire to give something back, they bought Gregynog Hall – a huge mansion in Wales and set up an arts centre there. They donated the total 260 works to what is now the National Museum Wales.
Learn more about the Davies sisters here.
Peggy Guggenheim (1898 – 1979)
Having plenty of time and all the museum’s funds at my disposal, I put myself on a regime to buy one picture a day.
Born in to the wealthy New York Guggenheim family, Peggy was a bohemian socialite and art collector. Between 1938 and 1946 she collected art from across Europe and from America – her collection, unusually, embraces Surrealism and Cubism, as well as Abstract Expressionism. Peggy may not have had the intellectual reputation of Gertrude Stein but she knew what she liked and she was a generous patron. She focused time, energy and money on artists such as Jackson Pollock who may never have achieved recognition without her support.
In just eight years, Peggy Guggenheim changed the face of 20th century art.
John Walsh, The Independent
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is one of the most important museums in Italy for 20th century European and American art, and is one of the most visited attractions in Venice.
Pallant House Gallery is known for its ‘collection of collections’ which not only tells the story of Modern British art but also the story of individual collectors and their interests and tastes. Muriel Wilson’s collection joins that of other female collectors at the Gallery, including criminal psychologist Elizabeth Burney; Claire Neilson the patron of Paul Nash; and the textile designers Enid Marx, and EQ Nicholson. By continuing to acquire collections amassed by women, the Gallery aims to redress historical imbalances and tell the wider story of 20th century art in Britain, including the stories of collectors.