The Dorothy Scharf Bequest of British Watercolours

The bequest from the late Dorothy Scharf of fifty-one British watercolours, including eight by Turner, is the most significant single addition to the Courtauld’s distinguished collection of works on paper in more than twenty-five years. With the help of family funds, Miss Scharf, who died in 2004 and was the granddaughter of a professional art dealer, assembled her collection over a period of some forty years, buying mostly from, or with the advice of, a small number of dealers, including Agnew’s, Leger and Spink. Andrew Wyld, until recently the director of Agnew’s watercolour department, described her as ‘one of the most astute and demanding collectors I have dealt with during thirty-five years of art dealing. I developed a great respect and fondness for this forceful duo: the elderly and frail Mrs Scharf, behind the wheel of an enormous Mercedes, chauffeuring her daughter, and often pictures on approval, back and forth from St John’s Wood to the West End; Dorothy, always eager to see what was new in, often insisting on a pre-breakfast meeting in order to be sure of a parking space, and first chance at a new acquisition.’ Possibly she was drawn to the Courtauld through the affiliation of her uncle, Alfred Scharf, a professional dealer, who lectured at the Institute between1933 and 1934.

J. M. W. Turner, Margate Pier, c 1845, watercolour, detail

The collection covers the period 1750 to 1850 and includes most of the major practitioners of this so-called ‘Golden Age’ of British watercolour painting, notably Richard Parkes Bonington, John Constable, J.S. Cotman, J.R. Cozens, Thomas Gainsborough, Thomas Girtin, Thomas Jones, Edward Lear, Samuel Palmer and Francis Towne and Richard Wilson. Of exceptional quality, the compositions by Turner include the atmospheric Seelisberg by Moonlight and vibrant Margate Pier, both dating from the 1840s, the latter previously owned by John Ruskin and the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Watercolours are an area of serious scholarly activity on the Gallery’s part, with the recent exhibition of works from the Spooner Collection and a proposed Turner exhibition in 2008. The quality and scope of this generous bequest greatly enhances the collection and broadens this area of study.

Dr. Joanna Selborne – Curator of Prints