News Issue No. 7 Spring 1999
Geoffrey Agnew and the Friends of the Courtauld Institute
My father Geoffrey Agnew founded the Friends of the Courtauld Institute in 1969. He himself had no formal education in the history of art, though he had read history in the Cambridge tripos. At that time this was not expected from an art dealer and in the art market slump in the early 1930s, it probably seemed more important to get on with earning a living. On the other hand, my mother, Doreen Agnew, went on from London University where she also studied history, to a post-graduate course at the Courtauld in its earliest years, an unusual education for someone of her background. It was therefore for my father both as a gesture towards the academic study of art history from which he had never benefited and as a tribute to my mother who had, that he involved himself so deeply in the foundation of the Friends.
To begin with, he recruited to the new organisation personal friends, his clients at Agnews and colleagues in the auction houses and in the trade. A committee was formed to run the Friends affairs, intended to represent the diVerent sections of the Friends as a whole. This included the directors of three national museums - Martin Davies from the National Gallery, Norman Reid from the Tate and John Pope Henessey from the Victoria and Albert - as well as Patrick Lindsay from Christies. A Sothebys representative joined soon after its foundation, a role subsequently taken on by our present chairman Tim Llewellyn. The most eminent member from the trade was Jim Byam Shaw who after a distinguished career in the drawings department of the British Museum, had become a partner in Colnaghis. His dual experience was of enormous benefit, but his deafness did mean that much of the committees deliberations had to be repeated, the second time at a greatly increased volume! From the start the Friends stressed support for the Witt, Conway and the Book libraries since these were, and are, the interface between the public and the Institute.
In the early days, the librarians were regularly summoned to committee meetings to report on their activities, a system which clearly made them very nervous and sometimes left the lay members of the committee rather bemused. The founding honorary secretary was the invaluable and charming Jane Benson who ran the Friends and the committee with the proverbial iron hand in a velvet glove. When the move to Somerset House was decided upon, she took up the even greater challenge of managing the appeal in which she was enormously successful.
My involvement with the Friends goes back over twenty five years. My earliest impression of the committee meetings held in the Portman Square house was the stark contrast between the beautiful Adam architecture and the amazingly ugly utilitarian furniture, so surprising for an institute with an aesthetic purpose. My particular interest has been in the financial aspects of the Friends work. To begin with, we relied on the generosity of a small number of individual and corporate members. Within a few years the financial situation was transformed by the sale of microfiches of the photographs in the Witt Library to selected art-historical institutions around the world. As a result it was possible to set up an endowment fund, the income from which still provides an important part of the Friends grant to the Institute. The management of this was undertaken by the merchant bank Hill Samuel, now part of the Lloyds TSB group. It has been most satisfying to me to see this endowment grow steadily over the years, thus enabling the Friends to contribute a regular income for the invaluable work of the Institute. In addition I would like to express my personal thanks to both our loyal friends who have continued their support over the years and our members who have joined in recent years for enabling us to increase our contribution to the Institutes growing needs.
Julian Agnew -Treasurer
Friends of the Courtauld Institute