Prince Albert had quite the curatorial character, something expressed through the fervor of his collecting habits and especially when outfitting an estate. In the management of art works belonging to the royal households, Albert proved himself to be meticulous, a factor which Lucy Whittaker examines when writing on his ‘systematic approach to art and frames’1. A close relationship was maintained between Albert and Ludwig Gruner2, artistic adviser, which equipped him with the skills of curatorship: for instance, Albert took it upon himself to find suitable frames for his early Italian paintings and catalogued these as entries under Richard Redgrave, the surveyor of pictures3.
The Picture Gallery in Buckingham Palace by Louis Haghe in 1853
Together, Albert and Gruner stretched to undertake the research, rearrangement and reframing necessary to overhaul the Royal collections. This endeavour found its first fruition in the rehanging of the Picture Gallery in Buckingham Palace in 18514, which was overseen by the Prince to come to a new arrangement: the approach taken here was systematically orchestrated; Albert’s careful selections extended to his design of a cabinet in the Royal Library where miniatures could be viewed on sliding drawers, grouped compositional frames and the writing of inscriptions to accompany specific works5.
Prince Albert and family at Osborne
Whilst Buckingham Palace was seen as the ‘headquarters of taste’6 in this period, Osborne House functioned as a Gesamtkunstwerk7 where Albert could continue to conscientiously catalogue, clean and display his art collection, as well as choose where to hang the paintings, a duty which had before been reserved for private surveyors. This enabled the Prince to enter into a discussion on the housing and display of collections, where art could be synthesised and evaluated on the basis of each picture’s respective merits.
This concern for standardised display perhaps stems from Albert’s Germanic background and the advances in art historical scholarship grown there; indeed, such convictions were also being practised by Sir Charles Eastlake at Britain’s National Gallery8 in the development of pictorial arrangement and classification. The methods of systematisation and uniformity that would enter into galleries and museums of the Victorian period had already been evidenced in German galleries, where progress in the field was making connections between artistic schools and ages, as seen pioneered by the Berlin Royal Gallery9 who displayed their paintings in this manner.
In many ways, it was a German ideology and those sentiments shared by Albert that informed The Art Treasures of Great Britain exhibition held at Manchester in 1857. Here, the innovative presentation and interpretation of fine artworks (a category which had been absent from the Great Exhibition of 1851) had a formative influence on art collections in the public domain, thus feeding into the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery and the later Victoria and Albert Museum. Prince Albert had advised the Committee behind the proposal that:
If the [exhibition]… were made to illustrate the history of Art in a chronological and systematic arrangement, it would speak powerfully to the public mind, and enable, in a practical way, the most uneducated eye to gather the lessons… and would present to the world a gallery such as no other country could produce…10
Albert’s thoughts on curatorship owed much to founding director of the Royal National Gallery in Berlin and scholar Dr Gustav Waagen11, a key figure in the art historical debate whose teachings formed the basis of the value Albert placed on art. Indeed, Albert’s patronage proved valuable in these advances when he advised organisers on examples of paintings to borrow, circling around a more coherent form of gallery display which would embrace the principles of comprehensiveness, survey and scientific approach.
Roger Fenton (English, 1819-1869) ‘Manchester Art Treasures’ 1857
Connoisseur George Scharf implemented this scheme12, paving the way for a fuller view of the history of art through the inclusion of the Italian and Northern ‘primitives’ in the ‘Old Masters’ stretch. The broadening of the canon was reflected in the exhibition’s methodology: the vast space was used to present paintings chronologically and grouped by nation. To illustrate this, those of the Italian school ran the length of the south aisle and were mirrored by paintings credited to Northern artists of the corresponding period in such a way that would demonstrate ‘the contemporaneous existence of opposite schools’13
The Nave of the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition Building (Illustrated Times, 11 June 1857).
Haskell summarises this ‘comparative approach’ when writing that it ‘invited speculation as to causes: national character, local traditions, religious faith and race became matters of concern’14; I agree that by allowing paintings to become the focus of public discussion in an art historical sense, this would further develop the educative line taken by Victorian museums.
1Whitaker, ‘Preparing a handsome picture frame to pattern chosen by HRH The Prince’: Prince Albert frames his collection’
2J. Marsden, Victoria & Albert, Art & Love, Mr Green and Mr Brown: Ludwig Grüner and Emil Braun in the service of Prince Albert (London: Royal Collection Trust, 2012), pp. 2-3.
3Avery-Quash, Introduction, pp. 3-8.
4Whitaker, ‘Preparing a handsome picture frame to pattern chosen by HRH The Prince’: Prince Albert frames his collection’.
6Avery-Quash, Introduction, pp. 3-8.
8‘Sir Charles Lock Eastlake’, The National Gallery [n.d], https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/directors/sir- charles-eastlake [accessed 2018].
9C. Duncan, Civilising Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums (Routledge, 2005), p. 44.
10E. A. Pergam, The Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857: Entrepreneurs, Connoisseurs and the Public (Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2011), p. 250.
11‘Waagen, Gustav Friedrich’, Dictionary of Art Historians [n.d.], https://dictionaryofarthistorians.org/ waageng.htm [accessed 2017].
12P. Cottrell, ‘Art Treasures of the United Kingdom and the United States: The George Scharf Papers’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 94, No. 4, 2012, pp. 618-640.
13F. Haskell, The Ephemeral Museum: Old Master Paintings and the Rise of the Art Exhibition (Yale University Press, 2000), p. 86.