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Watts Gallery to sell pre-Raphaelite paintings

Money is needed to ensure the long-term survival of the institution set up by Victorian artist G.F. Watts

The Art Newspaper can reveal that the Watts Gallery, in Surrey, is to sell two pre-Raphaelite paintings to raise £1 million. The money is needed for an endowment fund, to ensure the long-term survival of the gallery set up by Victorian artist G.F. Watts. The pictures are Edward Burne-Jones’ four panels of The triumph of love (1871) and Albert Moore’s Sleeping woman (Jasmine) (1880).

The two works came to the Watts Gallery in 1954, from a bequest by the artist Cecil French. His executors were given the responsibility of presenting nearly 150 pictures to public collections, with two of them being given to the Watts Gallery. At this point Victorian pictures sold very cheaply, and the two works might well have been worth around £1,000. The conditions of the French bequest means that there is now no legal restriction on their sale.

The Watts Gallery, nestling among hills in the village of Compton, just south of Guildford, was built as a gallery by G.F. Watts (1817-1904), to house his work. Completed shortly before his death, the building is now in fairly poor condition and the display and facilities are antiquated. It currently attracts 15,000 visitors a year, although the hope is that this can be increased to 25,000.

This month the gallery will be submitting a bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for £4-5 million, towards an overall development plan costing around £10 million, including an endowment. The existing endowment amounts to about £750,000, but the £1 million or so from the sale of the two paintings will increase this to the level which is needed to secure the long-term care of the collection.

Gallery chairman Richard Ormond told The Art Newspaper: “This has been a difficult decision and one which has taken considerable soul searching. After looking at every possible solution, we have come to the conclusion that the sacrifice of two non-Watts paintings is the least damaging way we can safeguard the core collection.” The Burne-Jones and the Moore are the most valuable non-Watts works.

The core comprises paintings and sculptures by G.F. Watts and his second wife, the ceramics artist Mary (his first wife was the actress Ellen Terry). Significantly, last June the gallery bought Watts’ portrait of the family of collector Alexander Ionnides for £238,000, with £214,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund and £21,000 from the National Art Collections Fund.

Discussions have already begun with the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, with a view to getting their support for the sale of the two paintings to other public collections. The Watts Gallery is an accredited museum under the MLA system, and is therefore subject to its guidelines on deaccessioning.

The difficulty, however, is that few UK galleries have the resources to even attempt to buy the Burne-Jones and the Moore. The most obvious possibility is the Tate, although there is also the National Gallery and Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery (which has a fine collection of Pre-Raphaelites).

In the case of the Tate, there is an additional difficulty, since Cecil French recorded in his will that no works should be given to it in order “to express disapproval of its direction in recent years under John Rothenstein and the Hon. Jasper Ridley”. French’s comments are probably not now a legal bar, and in any case the gallery is very different from what it was like more than half a century ago.

If no UK public collection steps forward to buy the Burne-Jones and the Moore, they will be sold at auction later this year, and could go to a foreign buyer. Mr Ormond still hopes a “knight in shining armour” may appear, although he admits that all the obvious avenues have been explored.