04 December 2010

Alfred Felton, Melbourne's art patron extraordinaire

I was sitting in the members’ lounge of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) this week, reading the history of the gallery’s amazing collection. Certainly the NGV is the oldest and the largest public art gallery in Australia, starting in 1861. But the city of Melbourne had itself had only been founded in 1835, so how did such a new city have such a successful cultural life?

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

Still, the Felton Bequest has been single handedly responsible for establishing the National Gallery of Victoria with an art collection of international significance. Over the past 100 years more than 15,000 art works have been acquired through the Bequest with a current total value of AUS$1 billion; this represents 80% of the finest artworks of the National Gallery of Victoria. In paintings alone, the Bequest has secured works that included Italian Renaissance artists, Rembrandt, Turner, Cezanne and van Gogh. The Felton Bequest has also been used to buy many masterpieces of Australian art.

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


Hermes said...

Fascinating self-made man but you intrigued me about the Russian sell-off, must look into that.

Hels said...

Interesting stuff.

Hoff said the Australian galleries wouldn't have known quickly enough what masterpieces were coming onto the market. So a series of distinguished people agreed to be Felton Bequest Advisers, resident in London. Starting in 1917, The London Adviser would certainly have known exactly what Hermitage art objects were up for grabs.

Andrew said...

I was a quite young visitor to the Victorian National Gallery when I noticed the Felton funding. Pretty cool that he lived his last years at the Espy. It is good that he is now well recognised.

Hels said...

I don't suppose Alfred Felton was a feminist-socialist-tree hugger, but he was not a rigid conservative in his own art purchases. Yet there were decades of uncertainty in the hearts and minds of the Felton trustees. Even vaguely modernist art (eg van Gogh) set off alarm bells in their minds before WW2.

Given it was public money, I suppose they had to be super cautious stewards of the Fund.

andrew1860 said...

It's amazing how one person can make a big deference and be the source of 80% of a museums fine paintings collection.

Hels said...


Melbourne always saw itself as a very cultivated, British city, 100% free of convicts. So our main state gallery was developed quickly and well, soon after Victoria separated from NSW.

But Alfred Felton made such an enormous contribution because of timing. When he died in 1904, his huge estate didn't have to be divided up between spouses, children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. The NGV's half of his estate could be fully dedicated to collecting art, right during the NGV's biggest expansion period.

If you are a worthy art cause, here is my suggestion. Become very close to an elderly man who has no family and no home of his own! Promise to name the gallery in his name, or the main lobby, or the entire city, if that is what it takes :)

Maths private tutor said...


Great information in this post and I think the Felton Bequests' Committee must be satisfied that the works purchased were of educational value, and would raise and improve public taste.

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Hels said...

Maths Tutor and Samual

Once a bequest is given, the owner no longer has control over how the money is spent. Thus it was to Felton's very great credit that he did not tie the Bequest up with an endless list of demands.

Felton only asked that the works to be purchased would be of educational value, and would raise and improve public taste. I think he would be delighted with the collection, if he could see it now.

Viola said...


Thank you for another fascinating post! I hope that Felton is haunting the NGV and pleased with his great contribution. I also hope that there is such a thing as a happy ghost.

Hels said...

I was rewriting my will one day and said to my adult sons to tell me which of my collections (paintings, porcelain, silver, furniture, books) they love.

They said, basically, than within a week of me shuffling off this mortail coil, they would take it all the Sotheby's and auction off the lot! So much for family heritage :(

Anyhow I hope the NGV wants my treasures, things that have taken my blood, sweat and tears for 40 years! Probably not. They want to select their own treasures.

H Niyazi said...

Interesting post Hels! One of the few things I can remember about first visiting NGV with my school in 1982 (when I was about 7) was the tour guide telling us "a lot of this stuff was left by Mr Felton"

Nice to hear the rest of the story after so many years!

Keep up the great work

Kind Regards

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Hels said...

H Niyazi and Budget Hotels,
isn't it terrific that something "sticks" from early childhood.

My natural inclination is that it is a great thing to take school children to galleries and museums, but I am never quite sure whether it is worthwhile or not. So thanks.

Hels said...

I have had another look at the available works of art rejected by the trustees of the Felton Bequest; they would fill a small gallery of their own.

Portrait of Lord Hampden (Gainsborough), Pastoral Landscape (Gainsborough), Portrait of William Nicholson (A John), Chloe (Lefebvre), two Renoirs etc etc

Melbourne University Publishing said...

Thank you for the reference to Mr Felton's Bequests by John Poynter

Alfred Felton, a bachelor of definite opinions and benignly eccentric habits, was one of the remarkable group of Melbourne merchants who dominated the economy of the Australian colonies in the decades after the gold rush. In 1904 he left his substantial fortune in trust, the income to be spent by a committee of his friends, half on charities and half on works of art for the National Gallery of Victoria, works which would raise and improve public taste. The Gallery suddenly gained acquisition funds greater than those of London's National and Tate galleries combined, and between 1904 and 2004, more than 15,000 items were purchased for it by the Felton Bequest.

Hels said...

Thank you... I would like the CAE library to have a copy of this book, if it is not already on the shelves.