Research Forum report, June 2007
Danu Reid’s and MacKenzie Bennett’s presentation:

Sir Robert Witt: Collector and Patriot




Sir Robert Witt, Witt Scrapbooks, Witt Library

As Research Assistants this year, we researched the various pursuits and achievements of Sir Robert Witt in the years 1929-1932, three of the busiest of his life and the years in which the Courtauld Institute was founded. Sir Robert Witt is best remembered for his library of pictures and reproductions, which is an invaluable resource for students, scholars and collectors to this day. Apart from the formation of the library, Witt was also heavily involved in numerous other activities in the art world. To name just a few, he was a trustee of the National Gallery, the Tate, Chairman of the National Art Collection Fund and highly influential in the organization of several successful art exhibitions, in London, around the country, and abroad. Witt’s numerous responsibilities make him a challenging character to research, for he was so committed to so many differing projects at one time. The sheer nature of Robert Witt’s personality prevents any form of pigeon holing, for he was a man who was characterized by his multiplicity of activities, his differing talents, and his enthusiasm for and dedication to all projects which aided the dissemination of art and education. Yet I would like to highlight two of Sir Robert Witt’s overriding and most consistent priorities.


Firstly, Witt was strongly supportive of art education, both in academic institutions and in the public arena. His encyclopedic library was intended to aid students and collectors alike. Exhibitions in London and the provinces were created to educate the general public about art. Education was a consistent theme in all of Witt’s endeavors.


Witt Scrapbooks, Witt Library


Secondly, during this period Witt was determined to preserve and improve the collections of art within Britain. During this period numerous works of art were sold to America, a development that was greeted with outrage by the press. Witt was Chairman of the National Art Collections Fund (NACF), which was created to buy works of art for the nation. Witt also supported British artists and raised publicity for certain vulnerable objects, such as the Portland Vase. Thus, art education and maintaining collections of the nation were two priorities evident in all of Witt’s activities, and I would ask you to bear these in mind throughout this presentation.

During our research, we studied the Witt Scrapbooks, which contained press releases about Witt, his public speeches and his personal correspondence. We have examined the card indices that Witt used to record his own collection of drawings.


We have also been able to study the Duveen archives, a unique collection of records that provides a comprehensive overview of the Duveen family business. We shall start this presentation by discussing what Witt is most remembered for, his library.


The Witt Library in the years 1929-1932


Lady Witt, 20 Portman Square Library, Witt Scrapbooks, Witt Library

The Witt library was formed out of the private collections of photographs and reproductions, which Sir Robert and Lady Witt both started collecting when at Oxford. Later, in their first flat, they devoted a cupboard to the collection, then, in their next house, a small room. Eventually the entire house at Portman Square became devoted to the collection, which was open to all ‘collectors, critics, dealers, writers of biographies and monographs, students and artists.’ The collection was formed from works from photography publishing firms, such as Anderson, Braun and Bruckman, as well as illustrations from sale catalogues and public galleries. Thus, the library included reproductions of both public and private works.


Journalists and critics were most impressed by the arrangement of the library, which famously allowed, ‘any photograph required to be placed on the table for study in a matter of some thirty seconds’. The library was arranged by school in the first instance, and in the second, under the name of the artist placed alphabetically.


French painting section, Witt Library

Artists who were particularly well represented, such as Cezanne, were further subdivided into various types of painting, such as portraits, landscapes and still-life. As early as 1920 the Witt’s published a list of those artists represented in the library, and the volume included particulars of the nationality, birth and death dates of the artist in question. This was replaced by a further supplement in 1926, due to the increase in size of the library. In the same year Gordon Roe described the library’s growth as ‘an amiable Frankenstein…which has stretched its tentacles downstairs, and up, and into Sir Robert’s bedroom…’


By 1928 there were 300,000 reproductions in the library, a number that was enlarged to 400,000 by 1930. Many of these new reproductions were gifts from various individuals, and Lady Witt reported that a substantial number were from American collectors. Lady Witt explained in an interview with the Lady’s magazine ‘The Queen’ that, ‘the scope of the library has been lately much enlarged by the more intimate connections with America, which have arisen since we paid a very delightful visit there in 1923. We got into close touch with many great American collectors, and came to know the works in their private collections, as well as their fine public galleries’.


Initially Sir Robert and Lady Witt ran the library themselves, with the occasional help of volunteers, and their son, John. However, by 1928 the size and scope of the library required five full time staff. Witt was keen to publicize the various functions and uses of the library, in person and in the press. In 1928 Witt wrote that ‘the practical usefulness of the library came out in connection with the Flemish exhibition which was so popular at the Royal Academy last winter. The meetings of the Selection Committee were all held here. It was an easy matter to go through the photographs, taking out those of pictures in English private collections and selecting from among them what should be requested for exhibition’. The library was thus crucial to another of Witt’s artistic aims; that of organizing and publicizing large scale exhibitions. Art dealers also used the library to validate, research or confirm sales.


Witt recalled the visit of one ‘eminent dealer’ who ‘asked to look up a picture he was thinking of buying for four thousand pounds. With a caution born of experience in these days of copies and forgeries, he asked to be allowed to see all the photographs of the artist in question, in order to judge whether the picture offered to him was really by the artist…within five minutes we had satisfied his requirements and he left with the remark: “I am not going to buy that picture! I have found in your library a photograph of what is clearly the original in a French provincial gallery.”’


Witt stressed the influence of the library, by describing how it had a tangible effect on the art market as well as its value as a unique scholarly resource for all researchers of art history. In 1932, Sir Robert and Lady Witt bequeathed the library to the recently founded Courtauld Institute of Art, where it remains in use to this day.

There was some discussion that the library might be left to a museum or gallery but the opening of the Institute, which Sir Robert Witt was highly involved in and supportive of, proved to be a more fitting final destination for the library. The Witt’s declared that until Sir Roberts’ death they would remain responsible for the maintenance and expansion of the collection. The close proximity of the Witt’s home at 32 Portman Square to the Institute at 20 Portman Square ensured that this situation was convenient for the staff and students of the recently opened Institute. Moreover, the Witt’s also provided an endowment for the future development of the collection.


Meanwhile, the library had become famous beyond Britain, and international praise of the library (particularly found in German and French publications) increased British patriotic pride in the library. The Yorkshire Evening News asserted in 1929 that, ‘London has always been the world center for reproductions. The hobby was started by Rev James Granger who collected 14,000 engraved portraits in the eighteenth century’. The international reputation of the Witt library led to two duplicate libraries being set up, one in Japan and one in New York. In 1920, Helen Frick requested Sir Robert’s help in setting up a library of reproductions similar to his own. While using her father’s famous collection of art treasures, and Sir Robert’s guidance, the Frick Art Reference Library was established, and is still in use today.


Frick Library, Witt Scrapbooks, Witt Library

Another venture was undertaken by the Botticelli scholar Yukio Yashiro in the late 1920s. Yashiro was so impressed by the Witt library that he determined to set up a similar one in Japan, and succeeded in gaining funding for the building. He wrote to Witt in great excitement in February 1927…

‘Ever since I returned to Japan, I have been continually emphasizing on the necessity of establishing a Witt Library in Japan…I hope you would consider this institute as an offspring from your wonderful idea of the Witt Library, and herewith I specially ask you that you would help me for its healthy development’.

Although this library initially enjoyed success, it appears to have declined during the war and is now simply a part of the National Museum of Modern Art. However, the establishment of the library in Japan and the Frick library in America is a testament to the international influence and high standing of the Witt library.


Witt and the Dutch Exhibition at Burlington House


Burlington Magazine, January 1929, Review of Dutch Exhibition, Witt Scrapbooks, Witt Library

Although the library was one of Witt’s most consistent concerns, he was also involved in the organization and formation of numerous exhibitions. Due to constraints of time we have decided to specifically focus on two of the most successful of these exhibitions: the Dutch exhibition of 1929 and the Italian Art exhibition of 1931. Witt was a key player in the organization of both of these exhibitions, and both the private and public records of the Dutch exhibition testify to both Witt and the art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen’s influence. Although the personal aims of these men were very different, they both played vital roles in ensuring the success of the Dutch exhibition.


The Duveen archives contain highly illuminating documentation that reveals how the Dutch exhibition was organized as well as the influence and shared concerns of Sir Robert Witt and Sir Joseph Duveen. MacKenzie will discuss Duveen and Witt’s relationship in greater detail later, but I would like to give a brief introduction to Sir Joseph Duveen, one of the most successful art dealers of the twentieth century. Duveen was born in Holland and his family moved to Hull, England at the turn of the century. Originally, Delft pottery formed the cornerstone of the Duveen family business, which would eventually take several of Duveen's uncles to New York and to Boston. It was in New York that Duveen's Uncle Henry established the first in a series of relationships with wealthy American industrialists to whom he would sell decorative works of art. These clients formed the backbone of the family business, introducing the Duveens to additional clients along the way. The Duveen archives reveal the number of important works lent by the Duveen brothers to the exhibition, such as this collection of Rembrandts.


List of loaned works to Dutch Exhibition, Burlington House, 1929, Duveen Brothers Records

The Duveen brothers were also extremely successful at persuading several of their wealthiest American clients to lend their pictures for the exhibition. This is an extract of one of their most persuasive letters, which was sent to several of their most important clients, such as Joseph Epstein. The flattering tone of this letter offers an insight into some of the reasons for the Duveen Brothers’ fantastic success in the 1920s and 30s.

‘My Dear…

You are doubtless aware from the notices in the public press that an Exhibition of Dutch masterpieces is to be held…The Dutch authorities have agreed to lend the best examples from their museums…King George V has also consented to contribute several of his masterpieces, and in addition to loans from other countries there will be a large contingent from America, from such important collections as Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan, and Mr. Andrew Mellon…

This Dutch exhibition will undoubtedly be the outstanding art event of the season. It has therefore occurred to me that in view of this you might feel inclined to contribute the loan of your fine………….

Of course we will, at our expense, insure your picture against all risks from the time it is taken down until the time it is rehung in your home’.

The mention of other important contributors, the implications of status and prestige and, most importantly, the promise of insurance persuaded several American collectors and Duveen’s own clients to part with their art works for the duration of the exhibition. Moreover, it is probable that Duveen made such an effort to secure important works for the Dutch exhibition because it represented art from Duveen’s home country.


An examination of the card indices used by Sir Robert Witt to record his own collections revealed that Witt, like Duveen, was generous in the loaning of his own works to the exhibition. Considering Witt was famous for his collection of Dutch drawings, and had frequently preached the importance of individuals and institutions lending works, his lending of drawings is scarcely surprising. The exhibition increased publicity of Witt’s collection of Dutch drawings, as an article in The Studio of 1929 reveals.


The Studio, August 1929, ‘Drawings by Minor Dutch Masters in the Collection of Sir Robert and Lady Witt’, Witt Scrapbooks, Witt Library

However, information gleaned from the card indices indicates that Witt lent far fewer drawings to the Dutch exhibition than to the Flemish exhibition of 1927. Witt lent at least eleven drawings to the Flemish exhibition of 1927, yet we found that only three works owned by Witt were lent to the Dutch Exhibition of 1929, and were: Pietrez’s ‘A Peasant Woman’, a study by Jacob de Wit and two studies by Jan Lievens the Elder. At first this seems peculiar, as Witt’s collection of Dutch works was vast, and he was evidently happy to lend his drawings to exhibitions. Yet the scarcity of Witt’s drawings may have been because few of Witt’s drawings were by famous masters, of which the exhibition focused upon. With this in mind, the inclusion of famous works by Duveen and other prominent collectors meant that the exhibition committee might have considered Witt’s drawings by lesser masters not to be prestigious enough for the exhibition. An article from The Studio illuminates Witt’s collecting habits…‘the large collection of drawings formed by Sir Robert and Lady Witt is pre-eminently a students’ collection, for it has been the constant aim of the makers to bring together as many signed or otherwise documented works as possible…’ Indeed, ‘there are no drawings by Rembrandt and only one that properly belongs to his school, but there are interesting and important drawings by artists of Rembrandt’s time and country who remained unaffected by his influence’. Hence, it is clear that Witt did not collect drawings for their monetary value or fame, but instead collected a variety of works from differing locations and time periods in order to better aid and accommodate students, dealers and researchers.


Witt frequently commented on the ‘art’ of collecting, which he viewed as a very organic process. He urged members of the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society in 1929 that ‘as you go on collecting, you will want to revise and discard…the art of collecting is to weed drastically and, as you grow in experience, your taste will develop and change and become finer…’ This quote has a highly educational tone.


 Witt encouraged all people to collect, and to learn about art through exchanging, selling and buying all sorts of pieces, regardless of trends or fashion. Thus, it seems highly likely that Witt’s collection of drawings were formed by his own ever changing tastes, and his desire to own as many pieces as possible, rather than any direct correlation with the exhibitions which he was organizing at the time. The sheer number of Witt’s personal collection of drawings means that they can also be viewed in the same light as the Witt Library: an attempt to present a wide ranging and almost encyclopedic collection of drawings rather than a narrow and perhaps more valuable collection. It is also likely that Witt was limited to collecting drawings by lesser-known artists due to financial constraints. He certainly did not have the wealth of some of Joseph Duveen’s clients.


Despite the scarcity of works lent by Witt, he certainly had a strong influence over the content and design of the exhibition. The Duveen Archives reveal Witt’s contributions and assertions at several committee meetings held in the autumn and winter of 1928. Witt argued at two meetings in 1929 that a substantial amount of room should be made for the Dutch Primitives, as these paintings had the most appeal to the British public. Moved by the financial burdens of the exhibition and the expectations of the public he insisted that, ‘the public on whose attendance the exhibition depended would expect to see Dutch primitives, and thus at least two rooms should be given over to them’. Witt thus demonstrated his knowledge of the public’s expectations, and responded accordingly. He explained in the introduction to the Dutch Exhibition Catalogue that ‘this exhibition seeks to show this art at its highest point by the work, for the most part, of its greatest masters…The sacrifice of many of the charming little masters in the interests of the Great is inevitable where space and time are likewise limited’.


Witt’s aims for exhibitions were quite different to his ambitions concerning his collection and library. The financial outcome of the Dutch Exhibition was especially dear to Witt’s heart, as the profits of the show were to go to the NACF and the corresponding institution in Holland, the Rembrandt society. It should also be noted that although the major London exhibitions focused on ‘great masters’ as crowd pleasers, Witt was also committed to smaller scale provincial exhibitions. For example, Witt strongly supported and publicized the Young British Artists Exhibition of 1931, which exhibited recent works by British artists (those under forty). Later that year he organized another exhibition of works recently sold by the British Artists’ Exhibition, to fully reveal the nation’s current tastes in contemporary art. Both he and Joseph Duveen organized exhibitions outside London, in Manchester, Liverpool, Hull, and countless other cities and towns. Witt aimed to make art available and interesting to all.


Yet it was the international success of the Dutch exhibition, and the showing of famous works such as Vermeer’s ‘Laughing Girl’, that Witt used to publicize the need for free exchange and lending between museums and collectors. At this point neither the National Gallery nor the British Museum were allowed to lend works abroad, a limitation which Witt was strongly opposed to.


Sir Joseph Duveen


Though Joseph Duveen was an active committee member for the Dutch and Italian exhibitions, assisting in the acquisitions of loans for both shows, he was first and foremost a businessman determined to please his wealthy clients. He maintained tight control over his precious business, and his clients who included J. Pierpont Morgan, Andrew Mellon, Frick, and H.E. Huntington, all of whom were of the utmost importance to him and to his business. Duveen was keenly aware of each man’s unique tastes in art and took advantage of their trust in his abilities as a dealer.


Though Duveen dealt in Old Masters exclusively, he himself collected the works of contemporary English artists and is said to have attended exhibitions held at the English Art Club in London. Moreover, Duveen’s interest in British art surpassed his personal taste and fueled his desire to develop the British Artists Association of which Sir Robert Witt and Samuel Courtauld were both a part. The Artists’ Association was intended to popularize British art and to increase its popularity via group exhibitions held throughout Great Britain, the continent, America and beyond…by 1930, 6 exhibitions had been held in the British Isles, 7 on the continent, 1 in Argentina and 1 on board the Berengaria ship.


Witt Scrapbooks, Witt Library


In all likelihood, Duveen saw the British Artists’ Association exhibitions as an opportunity to cultivate commercial interest in the British art market. Thus, an increase in the appreciation of British art would encourage buyers to become budding collectors adding yet another facet to the burgeoning family business. However, Duveen took a financial risk by organizing the British exhibitions, and according to the Yorkshire Post of May 28, 1930 ‘works were sold straight from the shows and Duveen spotted the expenses’. Arguably, Duveen’s ‘investment’ in the British art market required a long-term commitment that he was willing to make.


The Hull Times, January 31, 1930, Sir Robert Witt featured at center, Witt Scrapbooks, Witt Library


Witt was more than willing to take advantage of Duveen’s generosity and he happily presided over the opening of the Artists’ Association exhibition held at the Ferrens Art Gallery in Hull, which was Duveen’s birthplace. Witt was quoted in the Hull Daily Mail as proclaiming, ‘buy pictures, decorate your houses, and ignore the advice of critics and friends…buy the pictures you like’. This of course is quintessential Witt, encouraging the masses to wield their individual tastes and buy the pictures that they themselves like. One hears faint echoes of Witt’s ‘how to’ books created for novices of art appreciation. Moreover, as both Witt and Duveen knew, a public interested and inspired by art would buy art, build collections and give these works to the British national museums. This result would of course serve the interests of both men.


Duveen was also actively involved in the preservation and advancement of the collections held at the Tate and National Gallery. He funded several projects before the grandiose Duveen Rooms at the Tate opened to the public in 1926; a glorious sign with Duveen’s name on it was made by the English sculptor Eric Gill. Duveen was made a trustee of the National Gallery in 1930, the same year in which the Duveen wing at the National Gallery opened—coincidence, I think not. An article from the East Anglian Daily Times, January 10, 1930 described the opulent Duveen Wing as ‘three rooms decorated with a pale grey-green damask, specially designed and woven for the purpose’. This kind of lavishness was part and parcel to Duveen’s well-crafted public reputation.

However, as is probably obvious, Duveen’s professional endeavors were occasionally at direct odds with the interests of the NACF Fund, and thus, Witt. Duveen’s infamous sale of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy to H.E. Huntington in 1921 is a prime example of Duveen’s complicated interests. Blue Boy, purchased from the Duke of Westminster and immediately sold to H.E. Huntington for $728,800, caused a scandal. The painting was exhibited in the National Gallery one last time before it was to be sent to California. It was here amongst public demonstrations organized in Trafalgar Square that the nation mourned its passing. After Blue Boy left the UK, it became a rallying source for museum officials and the NACF, who were trying to keep important works of art in the country. The fear of America literally stealing works off the walls of UK galleries had become exceptionally strong as collectors like Huntington had seemingly endless disposable incomes, essentially enabling them to buy anything that Duveen could get his hands on.

Though one would imagine that criticism of Duveen’s involvement would be rampant in the newspapers, it is actually quite difficult to find amongst the clippings in the Witt Scrapbooks.


The Daily Chronicle, Witt Scrapbooks, Witt Library


Even in a stirring article written by Sir Frederick Kenyon of the British Museum in which he bemoans the loss of Blue Boy, no mention is made of Duveen’s part in the acquisition and sale of the work. The ‘country’ is blamed and Duveen is absolved of his transgression.


Arguably, Duveen’s recurrent donations to both the Tate and National Galleries and his ever frequent ‘bailing out’ of numerous noble families through the purchase of their family estates kept him in the public’s good graces. Records of prospective sales and the process of ‘scouting’ for collections to buy amongst English country homes, exhibitions and museums are included time and again in the Scout’s books in the Duveen Brothers Records. A particular example of a Scouts Report from The National Gallery of Edinburgh of works owned by the Marquess of Midlothian includes particularly candid comments about the collections. As seen here, they were often coyly descriptive:

*A portrait by Sir Henry Raeburn was described as ‘most attractive’.

*An anonymous portrait from the French School was described as  ‘attractive and interesting’.

Witt Card Indices, Prints and Drawings Study Room, The Courtauld Institute of Art

*A Van Dyck portrait of the Duchess of Croy was described as  ‘woman-good looking’.

Duveen and Witt moved in the same circles, and the two eventually became close friends. Though Duveen and Witt’s relationship is evident in the letters of correspondence found in the Duveen Brothers Records, the closeness of their friendship is most apparent in the tone of the letters rather than in the vast quantities of them. By the late 1920s, Witt referred to Duveen in correspondence as ‘my Dear Duveen’ and ‘My Dear Joe’. In 1927, ‘my Dear Joe’ gave a drawing by John Hoppner to Witt.

This was discovered while looking through the Witt card indices held in the Prints and Drawings Study Room. Moreover, the friendly relationship between the two men is understandable, by the 1930s, Witt and Duveen were both involved with the National Gallery, the British Artists’ Association and of course the exhibitions held at Burlington House. In 1932, the final correspondences between Witt and Duveen are overtly sweet. These exchanges consist of mutual appreciation for one another. Witt’s long letter to ‘my Dear Joe’ is filled with thanks for his generosity, particularly towards The Courtauld Institute.   


Italian Exhibition at Burlington House


Sir Michael Sadler, Birmingham Gazette and Express, December 31, 1929, ‘Pageant of Italian Painting’, Witt Scrapbooks, Witt Library

Duveen’s support was vital in the organization of the Italian exhibition held at Burlington house in 1930. Of the six hundred paintings on view, half came from Italy, and the others came from Europe, British holdings and American collectors via Duveen. It seems probable that Duveen sent out a form letter, similar to the letter that Danu featured in the Dutch exhibition segment, asking his American clients to lend works to the exhibition. However, this was not an entirely simple matter. Duveen’s trusted friend and art appraiser, Bernard Berenson (B.B.), was known to liberally attribute Old Masters works sold by Duveen as well as others. According to Meryle Secrest in Duveen: A Life in Art, Berenson warned Duveen that Italian paintings owned by Americans should not be included in the show—the suggestion being that they would look ‘fake’ next to the authentic works placed alongside them. In the end, the American works were in fact included, and no mention was made of their precarious accreditation. Duveen fiercely guarded the interests of his clients, and would presumably never have risked tarnishing the reputations of his clients or their eminent collections.


In addition, Duveen’s participation in the Italian exhibition was yet another opportunity for him to scout for works of art to buy while his clients’ works appreciated in value because of their inclusion. A scouts list from the Duveen Brothers Records sheds light on the manner in which exhibitions were scoured by his staff. A list was compiled from the catalogue of the Italian exhibition and the scouts (here, anonymous) went through each work listing the owner and a small, but highly subjective description of the work. For example, entries from the scouts book’s include:


*Duccio Crucifixion ‘belonging to the Earl of Crawford. This picture has nothing to do with Duccio and is by some later master of no interest.’

Interestingly, this work, that had not interest to Duveen’s scouts, was purchased by the NACF, now called the Art Fund, on behalf of the Manchester Art Gallery in 1985. According to the provenance history provided on the Art Fund’s website, the Earl of Crawford was finally able to sell off the work to Christie’s in 1976. In another entry, the scouts describe a particularly savory Titian:


*Titian’s Virgin and Child, lent by Senator Luigi Albertini of Rome peaked the interest of the scouts who suggested ‘we believe it to be a  very typical work of the Master and we are working it’.


Francesco Pesellino, Annunciation, 15th century, tempera on panel, The Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London


And finally,

*Pesselino’s ‘The Annunciation’ lent by Major Gambier Parry, which is now held in The Courtauld’s collection was considered to be ‘of the very finest quality and most divine in colouring. It is a thing we should like to buy if possible but we understand there is nothing doing with this man’.



Clearly, the scouts were keenly aware as to the likelihood of purchasing a work…why bother if a painting is unattainable?


The Nottingham Guardian, December 24, 1929, ‘The Italian Art Exhibition’, Witt Scrapbooks, Witt Library


Witt too was of course very involved in the Italian exhibition at Burlington House. He served on the exhibition committee alongside Lady Chamberlain, Kenneth Clark, W. G. Constable, Joseph Duveen, and Roger Fry, in addition to several others. He lent several drawings to the exhibition including a Tintoretto entitled Nude Man, he gave a lecture entitled ‘Sidelights of the Exhibition’ on March 6, and he contributed to the accompanying exhibition catalogue. Witt’s introductory text in the catalogue provides a telling glimpse into his zeal for drawings…he suggests that ‘drawings are an essential element in any exhibition of Italian art, and the key to much that might otherwise be lost in the enjoyment of the pictures’. In an almost self-referential way, Witt emphasizes the importance of drawings as he sees it, and one can almost imagine Witt conceding to Vasari’s conception of disegno, the critical aspect of making art, the linchpin that conjoins the intellect and the hand as visible in drawings.


The accessibility of Witt’s introductory text was apparent to critics of the exhibition. In the Hamilton Advertiser, February 8, 1930 described Witt’s introduction as, ‘adapted to suit the audience—interestingly informative to lovers of art who are untutored in technique; who judge pictures according to their own preferences; and who adhere to their views despite the opposing opinions of painters and critics who are supposed by some to be better qualified to form appraisals’. Again, Witt’s mission to make art available and legible for the masses becomes apparent in his accessible approach to art viewing and art appreciation.


The exhibition was an overnight success with over 40,000 visitors in the first week and over half a million visitors during the entire run of the show. Because of its widespread appeal, the show was reviewed in newspapers throughout the country. A particular article in London’s Daily Telegraph on January 8, 1930 described the reactions of the Italian ambassadors to England upon seeing the show, ’the Italian ambassador…remarked that London was now living in a quiet Italian artistic atmosphere, and as an Italian he felt very proud of the daily tribute which was being paid to Italian art.’ Clearly, Italian-ness and all things Italian become in vogue that year. Even Witt, forever steady in his purchases, acquired 10 Italian drawings in 1930.


Though not directly involved with the organization or execution of the exhibition, the NACF was due to receive a share of the profits from the show. According to an article in the Birmingham Post, ‘the NACF could carry on its work with the monies made from ticket sales’. Thus, here, as in so many of Witt’s affiliations, an overlap occurs, he is able to bring art to the public via the exhibition while encouraging this public to engage in developing their own individualized tastes for art. Meanwhile, the NACF collects much -needed funds to rescue important works of art from the clutches of Duveen and his American clientele.


History of Art Society


History of Art Society, Witt Archives, Witt Library


Despite Witt’s obvious contributions to the art world, he was not always welcomed by other prominent writers and collectors. This is clearly demonstrated within the correspondence for the planned History of Art Society. We have included the History of Art Society in this talk because it was a direct precursor to the foundation of The Courtauld Institute of Art and it provides insight into the thought process and coordinative efforts of the English intellectual sphere of the 1930s. In addition, the innerworkings of the Society are vivid and fascinating, unfolding amongst numerous letters between some of the most influential people in the English art world at this moment.


The desire to create a society dedicated to the study of the history of art began gaining momentum amongst several English scholars, collectors and connoisseurs in 1929. The initial purposes of the society were to engage with the study of the history of art, to publish important art historical books and articles and to translate significant art historical texts from German and French into English. Moreover, according to the Society, their mandate was to put English people in touch with ‘recent thought in all that concerns the history and science of art’. Many scholars felt that England was lagging behind other countries on the continent that had well-established art historical curricula in universities.


The President of the Society, the Right Honorable Earl of Sandwich, was basically a guarantor of the Society, fundraising and arousing attention for the cause, while keeping the grumpy attitude of certain members of the Society at a minimum. Most of the organizational efforts were carried out by the Society’s Secretary, Kenneth Clark. The majority of the correspondence spans from 1929-1931, just prior to the opening of The Courtauld Institute. Witt was listed as a member on the Society’s founding statement, was then removed on subsequent statements, and then added again and so on.


History of Art Society, Witt Archives, Witt Library


There was evidently significant indecision regarding the benefits of his involvement to the Society. In 1929, Kenneth Clark added Witt’s name to the statement of purpose to be circulated to petitioned members. Yet, Witt’s name quickly disappears in the Society’s mock-up circular later in the year, and the occurrence seems to have been initiated by Clark. In a letter to the Earl of Sandwich Clark points out…’As to Witt: all I have had is a verbal message from his secretary that he will be a Vice President. This is rather off hand, but not, I believe you will agree, much to be deplored. We want Witt’s tacit support rather than his interference’.


The issue of ‘interference’ was a common jab at art historical ‘amateurs’ like Witt. In 1927, an article in the Burlington Magazine suggested that the Royal Commission should ‘stop its stupid interference and that its members should not be trusted with the fate of the nation’s collections’. However, by 1931, the nature and function of the History of Art Society had substantially changed. Instead of creating ‘another Walpole Society,’ its members settled on publishing an art historical yearbook, which would serve to publish art historical texts written or edited by scholars such as Herbert Read, Clark in addition to several others. Seemingly, Witt was no longer interested in partaking in the Society’s activities as he had joined forces with Samuel Courtauld, Lord Lee, Lord Conway and others involved in establishing The Courtauld Institute. Witt’s participation in the Institute was yet another of his myriad endeavours. Though he was essentially ‘ousted’ from the History of Art Society, Witt’s participation was greatly welcomed at the Institute. In an article in the Burlington Magazine from November 1932, Witt outlined the wide spectrum of courses on offer at the Institute during its preliminary term. Again, Witt’s approval and encouragement of an encyclopaedic trend of including the entire breadth of art’s history was evident. Witt mentions the following in the article:

Arrangements have been made for lectures covering the history of Design, Sculpture (Gothic and Antique), Architecture and its history, Painting and some of the great protagonists, Leonardo, Holbein, Rubens, Van Dyck, Constable, Manet; besides Drawings, Scandinavian Art, Romanesque Art, Metal Work, Ceramics, Furniture, Textiles, Chinese Art and American Museum organization, a generous curriculum indeed. For this current Michaelmas term the course embraces Byzantine Art, Medieval Painting, Iconography of Costume, Methods and Material Study and Celtic and Viking Art.


History of Art Society, ‘Studies in the History of Art’, Witt Archives, Witt Library


Moreover, the Institute was a tangible realization of Witt’s personal commitment to art education. The donation of Sir Robert and Lady Witt’s Library would become an asset to budding connoisseurs and scholars of The Courtauld who would later work to protect the country’s assets like Witt himself. In addition, the library would remain a vital and living organism, growing and changing as the study of art history too changed.




We have entitled this presentation “Sir Robert Witt: Collector and Patriot” because this represents two consistent qualities of Witt’s achievements and pursuits in the years 1929-1932. Through exhibitions, his library, his own collection of art and his relationships with other figures, notably Sir Joseph Duveen, Witt constantly prioritized collecting art for educational purposes, and for national interests.


Witt’s collecting, for his library, on behalf of the Tate and the National Gallery were not formed by personal taste or preferences. Instead his choices were informed by the benefits that they could pass on to others. His library was encyclopedic so that it might be of help to students, collectors and scholars. His collection of drawings was likewise wide ranging, as Witt attempted to gather as many drawings together as possible, prioritizing quality over fame or fashion. His focus on education was not confined to academic institutions, Witt was also strongly supportive of exhibitions all over the country which informed the British public’s knowledge and taste of art.


We have described Witt as a patriot largely because of his work for the National Art Collection Fund, which successfully kept numerous works of art within Britain. Yet Witt was also a patriot due to his support of British artists, and his organization of exhibitions across Britain. Witt’s contributions are still evident today, most obviously in the Witt library, which continues to be of invaluable help to scholars, students and collectors alike.