Rembrandt, Two Old Men Disputing, 1628, 72 x 60 cm, NGV. Bought by the Felton Bequest in 1936
Alfred Felton was born at Maldon, Essex, to an ordinary working family. Felton sailed to Australia in 1853, intending to try his luck in the Victorian goldfields but as a trader, not as a miner. Instead he set up in business in Collins St Melbourne, as a commission agent and dealer in merchandise, and by 1859 he was a successful importer.
In 1867 Felton went into partnership with Frederick Grimwade and founded Felton Grimwade and Co., manufacturing chemists. As the business grew over the years, the partners acquired interests in associated, but diversified industries.
Felton never married and lived rather modestly. Nonetheless he truly loved art and the bachelor flat in the Esplanade Hotel St Kilda, in which he spent his last twenty years of his life, was crowded with books, pictures and decorative art pieces.
When Alfred Felton died in 1904, he had no descendants. So in his will he established a bequest, with half the funding going to non-art charities and the other half to be used to acquire and donate art works to the National Gallery of Victoria. In the end, his estate was £378,033, a huge sum of money in Edwardian times. On top of that, the Gallery was allowed to choose works from Felton's personal art collection. The remainder were publically sold off, the proceeds being added to the Bequest.
Rupert Bunny, Endormies, c1904, 131 x 201 cm., NGV Melbourne. Bought by the Felton Bequest in 1911.
When the trustees couldn't be in Europe themselves, they felt they could appoint a London-based artist or dealer to spend Felton money carefully and wisely. The first important overseas-based advisors were Frank Gibson (an Australian expat artist in London) and Sidney Colvin (Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge).
Ann Elias showed that the artist George Clausen was given an allocation of money from the Felton Bequest to spend in London. By July 1906 Clausen had spent the £1,951 on 13 paintings and 22 drawings, including some small French works (eg Corot) and mostly contemporary British works. He reported enthusiastically that drawings by Burne-Jones, Lord Leighton, Ruskin and others would be of great value to students, and that the paintings he had acquired would make the Gallery's collection representative of the best work of the times.
The National Gallery of Victoria finally had a reliable acquisition fund, but one aspect I had never heard of before concerned Russian collections. In the years after the Melbourne gallery had gained its Felton resources, the October Revolution occurred in Russia. The Bolsheviks sold a significant part of collections from museums like The Hermitage; these works were snapped up by the Melbourne gallery. Timing is of course paramount, in all things.
A group of five august men sit on the Felton Bequest committee, making decisions. Felton himself said merely that “the Felton Bequests' Committee must be satisfied that the works purchased were of educational value, and would raise and improve public taste”. One assumes that blood has been spilled over the last century, in deciding how to use the money available for purchases. One committee member might have his heart set on Josef Hoffmann silver, icons of the Vienna Workshops. Another might want European Old Master paintings. A third might be holding out for modernist sculpture.
I am assuming there was always anxiety in Melbourne about how to spend the Felton fortune. We know the committee members were sometimes super-cautious, even when fine works were available. For example, Pondering Art showed that there was a very tense relationship between the Felton Bequests Committee and the Council of Trustees, further complicated by their relationship with the director of the gallery, Bernard Hall. When the stunning Rembrandt work called Two Old Men Disputing 1628 came on the open market in 1934, the gallery almost missed it because of procrastination and boardroom power games.
And just as WW2 was breaking out in 1939 there was the possibility of buying major modern works by Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Seurat and Bonnard. Yet the NGV, with the vast Felton resources at its disposal (an annual income of £23,000 in 1939), managed to acquire only one Van Gogh and one small Derain. The other paintings must have appeared to be too modern and too racy for the Felton directors.
You cannot please all of the punters all of the time. But sometimes the Felton directors were so ridiculously cautious that they lost out on very special works of art that had come onto the open market.
Alfred Felton, in older age
Some examples of the NGV's successful Felton purchases can easily be located in other blogs. To see the Dossi painting of Lucrezia Borgia c1518, see the Melbourne Art Network Blog. To see the Fantin-Latour still life, Dahlias, read Nineteenth –Century Art Worldwide Blog. For Frederick McCubbin’s The Pioneers 1904, see Rompedas Blog.
These Felton purchases are the core of today's collection. As a result, in May 2008 the NGV newsletter reported that the Victorian gallery was the 19th most visited gallery in the world! Pretty impressive for a nation that had only 22 million people in 2008.
The best book on The Felton Bequest was written by Ursula Hoff and published by the NGV in 1983. A more recent addition has been MR FELTON'S BEQUESTS, written by John Poynter and published in 2004 by Miegunyah Press.
Delft earthenware jar, c1670, 32 x 27 cm diam., NGV Melbourne. Bought by the Felton Bequest in 1939