Bringing British art out of the shadows

Sir Edwin Manton, an American-based insurance executive, has donated £7 million ($11.2 million)

Sir Edwin Manton, an eighty-eight year-old American-based insurance executive and Constable collector, has emerged as the mystery donor who is giving £7 million for the Tate Gallery of British Art at Millbank. His gift is the largest single donation ever made to the Tate. It also represents the most important private donation for the visual arts in the UK during the 1990s.

Edwin Manton was born in Essex in 1909, and after moving to Paris in 1927 he left for New York in 1933. He started as a casualty underwriter with American International Underwriters Corporation and rose to become its president and later chairman. Sixty-four years after joining, he is still attached to the firm, as a Senior Advisor. His shareholding in the company is now worth a huge sum. Despite his age, he still leads an active life and usually visits London every year. He lists his recreations as “walking, art, formerly cricket and hockey”.

The £7 million donation for Millbank is only part of Sir Edwin’s support to the Tate. He has also promised the Tate a bequest of a further £5 million. No decision has yet been made on how this sum will be spent.

In 1986 he made a private contribution towards the £3 million needed to save Constable’s “Waterloo Bridge”. Now he is making the gift of a newly discovered Constable, “The glebe farm”, which emerged in America two years ago and will be transferred to the Tate after Sir Edward’s and his wife’s deaths.

We can also reveal that Sir Edwin was the anonymous donor who established the American Fund for the TateGallery, set up eleven years ago to buy US works of art for the Tate. Sir Edwin endowed the Fund with shares worth $6.5 million (then around £3.6 million), with the income to be used to buy American paintings and sculptures. The American Fund currently yields nearly $400,000 per annum. It is managed by three trustees in New York: Lady Manton, art historian Professor Allen Staley and lawyer Henry Christensen III.

Philip Guston’s “Monument” was the first painting acquired, in 1991. Four purchases were made the following year, works by Robert Therrien, Ashley Bickerton, Bruce Nauman and Donald Judd. Further acquisitions comprise works by Louise Bourgeois, Universal Limited Art Editions, Ellsworth Kelly (“Orange relief with green”, currently in the Tate’s retrospective) and, most recently, Robert Motherwell’s “Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 132”.

Five years ago Sir Edwin decided to make the major gift for the Tate’s Centenary Development at Millbank. According to Nicholas Serota, “Sir Edwin hopes his donation will help bring British art out from under the shadow of foreign art.”

The donation played a key role in the gallery’s Lottery application, emphasising that the Tate would almost certainly be able to raise the necessary partnership funding. The total cost of the Millbank project is £31 million, and last February it was awarded £18,750,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Along with Sir Edwin’s £7 million, £1,069,000 has already been raised from other donors (including £133,000 from the Annenberg Foundation). This leaves £4,163,000 million to go, and the Tate is confident that it will reach this sum by the end of the year.

Altogether, Sir Edwin’s various donations and bequests to the Tate amount to around £16.5 million. In June 1994 he was awarded a knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, “for charitable services to the TateGallery”. Although the award was recorded in the Buckingham Palace announcement, its significance was missed by the press.

The Art Newspaper asked Sir Edwin about his relationship with the Tate Gallery.

Why are you giving such a large donation to the Tate?

I knew the Tate in the 1920s, before I left for America. I used to visit the gallery as a boy and I still remember a print of a Tate picture that we had at home, “The doctor” by Luke Fildes. Later when I bought Constables I received a great deal of help from Leslie Parris, the Deputy Keeper of the British Collection. Although I have lived abroad for many years, I’m still a patriotic Englishman. I feel I owe Britain something. Giving to the Tate is also tax-efficient in America.

Do you feel the Tate has been overshadowed by the National Gallery?

Yes, the Tate was originally the “child” of the National Gallery. The Tate developed into a major institution, but this did not seem appreciated. There was not a healthy relationship between the two galleries at the time I began to consider helping the Tate. But relations are much better today.

What made you decide to support the Millbank development?

I was talking with Professor Allen Staley of Columbia University, and he described the Tate’s British pictures as a “hidden” collection—because there was not enough space and there were so many works in store. I thought I should do something about this.

Are you also a collector?

I love British watercolours of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There are a few Turners in my collection, including one oil, a sketch of Plymouth. I am not sure exactly how many Constables I have, maybe fifty–watercolours, drawings and a few oil sketches. I was born near Constable Country, at Earls Colne in Essex, so it is partly nostalgia. It was in 1945 that I started buying, just before the end of the war. The first one I bought turned out not to be a real Constable, but a German imitation. Now I usually won’t buy a Constable without Leslie Parris telling me that it’s a good one.

Do you still collect?

Yes, even more so. I’m a compulsive buyer. It’s better than spending money on bottles of Scotch. Whenever a Constable comes up, I always hear about it. But of course I have two major competitors [David Thompson and Paul Mellon].

What will eventually happen to your Constables?

“The glebe farm” is going to the Tate. It’s much too large for me to hang. I have not made any decision on the other forty-nine or so and am discussing the matter with my lawyer. I might well leave the Constables to a foundation which would loan them for public view. My grandchildren could then see what grandpa spent his money on.

You’ve lived in New York for over sixty years. Are you still an Anglophile?

Yes and I am still a British citizen.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 73 August 1997