The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) has missed the chance to purchase a magnificent collection of Morris material, disappointing many art patrons and historians in the UK. The Huntington Library in California is the new home for the most extensive private collection of Arts and Crafts material in the States, one which the V&A has had its eye for four years.
Architects Sanford and Helen Berger started their collection in 1965 with a signed copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer and over the past thirty-five years have gathered letters, textiles, wallpaper, carpets, tapestries, stained glass, pottery, socialist pamphlets by the nineteenth-century socialist reformer and designer William Morris. The collection is now estimated at $5 million.
One of the finest pieces is an 18 by 11 foot stained glass window. The Bergers lent thirty-three pieces to the 1996 Morris exhibition at the V&A, and the museum discussed buying the collection at that time with a combination of National Lottery money and private funds.
“The V&A was my first choice because our collection fitted in wonderfully with theirs,” says Mr Berger. “What attracted us was the idea that our sketches and preparatory material could be pawed over by scholars and compared with the finished products in the same museum.”
According to Mr Berger, Timothy Stevens, the head of collections at the V&A at the time, said he could see a “window of opportunity” through the advent of Lottery funding. Mr Stevens stayed with the Bergers in Carmel on his return from the opening of the Morris exhibition in Japan in 1997. However, according to Mr Berger, two years then passed without museum contacting them. In 1999 they were told that the $4 million deal was off.
Speaking to the Art Newspaper, the V&A was unable to confirm as to whether an application for lottery funding had been made, the official comment being that there was a degree of overlap between the holdings and although the museum would have liked to acquire certain pieces, this was impossible because the Bergers wanted to keep their collection intact.
Yet the Berger collection traces the history of the Arts and Craft movement more fully than any other with its archive of the Morris & Co. business from 1875-1940 and would have been a fitting addition to the V&A’s collection, all the more appropriate given Morris’s key role in the early acquisition policy of the museum.
The chairman of the Museum and Galleries Commission, James Joll, expressed surprise that the announcement of the acquisition by the Huntington was the first he had heard about the availability of the collection. The museums’s press office commented, “This is not the first, and will undoubtedly not be the last, occasion on which works of art that many consider should properly be at the V&A have by force of circumstances had to go elsewhere. The grant from government does not recognise the ever-rising price levels of the art market, nor the increasing rate at which heritage items are coming on to the market. This collection alone would have represented five to six times the V&A’s discretionary acquisition budget when it was first offered.”
Henry Huntington acquired all copies of Morris’s books and many of his manuscripts, and since his death in 1927 this Californian collection has grown. The Huntington Art Collection, set in botanical gardens in San Marino, mounted a William Morris exhibition in 1996-97, borrowing 197 pieces from the Bergers’ collection. The online library catalogue is currently only available to readers on site at the Huntington but off-site internet access is promised soon at www.huntington.org.