I cycled most weekdays down the Iffley Road to go to school in Hammersmith for seven years. Despite the fact that my favourite subject by 6th form was history of Art (much mocked these days I’m afraid, especially even by my own children) my blue-stocking classmates, our friends and our teacher were all completely unaware that 5 minutes up the road, mostly in permanent storage, was the most fabulous collection of pre-Raphaelite art. Yet to come under the gaze of Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Jimmy Page and other rich collectors, it might be that their lack of fashion explained why Hammersmith and Fulham Council kept them such a close secret. More likely was the problem of display – as their value has crept up so have worries about conservation and insurance.
Cecil French was born in Dublin and trained as an artist at the Royal Academy Schools, London, and at Sir Hubert von Herkomer’s School at Bushey, Hertfordshire. He had a private income and so started collecting Old Master drawings and was lucky enough to meet Sir Edward Burne-Jones during the latter’s last days at the Grange in Fulham. Unlike some untalented artists Cecil soon realised that he wasn’t nearly as good an artist as those who created his masterpieces which he astutely gathered. On 30 June 1953 the Fulham Public Libraries Committee accepted with thanks Cecil French’s offer of six works by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, for display in the libraries.
French’s offer was a response to the Council’s positive attempts to preserve The Grange, Burne-Jones’s house in North End Lane which sadly, after French’s death, came to nothing. In his will, dated 19 January 1952, French instructed one of his executors, Rowland Alston, Curator of The Watts Gallery, Compton, to distribute the remainder of his paintings, following specific bequests, to museums. Thus, in February 1954, Fulham received a bequest of a further 47 works (both paintings and drawings), the majority of which are by Burne-Jones. The value of Cupid delivering Psyche of 1867 is now eye-wateringly high and that is why it is such particularly good news that in 2018 at last the Watts Gallery are coming back into the picture by showing a selection of highlights from the Bequest. Not only that but they are sharing the cost of some of the inevitable restoration.
Hammersmith and Fulham Council have negotiated that any resident of H&F who turns up at the gallery with proof of address is let in free, if they can make the journey to the Surrey Hills near Guildford. There is much to see there – further info here.
Members of The Hammersmith Society, the Fulham Society and the historic Buildings Group are visiting in March and the hope is that many school trips will be organised as well – to rectify at long last the concern expressed in my opening sentence.
Many of Cecil’s letters – particularly those from Ricketts and Shannon, are now in the Houghton Library at Harvard.