Apollo Magazine

Mind the Gap: William Holman Hunt’s ‘Isabella’ should stay in Delaware

Should a museum, purportedly in order to save its head, sell off the jewel in its crown?

Isabella and the Pot of Basil (c. 1868), William Holman Hunt. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The tale of the Delaware Art Museum’s upcoming sale at Christie’s London of Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil (c. 1868) is one that would have captivated Henry James, or for that matter, O. Henry. The dilemma posed by the sale is this: should a museum, purportedly in order to save its head, sell off the jewel in its crown? James decried, notably in his late novel The Outcry (1910) what he saw as the rapacious appetites of American collectors. What, then, would he have made of an American museum auctioning off a work in a move that one prominent critic, Mark Samuels Lasner, a senior research fellow at the University of Delaware Library, has called ‘sacrilege’?

Lasner had helped the museum organise its 2009 ‘Useful and Beautiful’ conference and exhibition of its Pre-Raphaelite treasures, and also helps fund an annual Pre-Raphaelite student fellowship under a joint programme with UD Library and the museum. Delaware’s superb Pre-Raphaelite collection, in Lasner’s view, is the museum’s ‘core, the reason for the institution’s very existence.’ In its publicity for the sale, Christie’s quotes an 1886 remark by contemporary critic Cosmo Monkhouse: ‘…a picture of the century, to be mentioned hereafter whenever the history of the art of England is written.’ Isabella will lead the sale of Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite and British Impressionist Art on 17 June; it is estimated at five to eight million pounds.

Deaccessioning art is not, per se, considered unethical, if proceeds are used to further collecting objectives, but Delaware is selling Isabella not to augment its Pre-Raphaelite collection, the most extensive in the world outside of Britain, but to repay a $19.8 million loan it took out to finance the renovation and expansion of its Kentmere Parkway building in 2005. When, on 26 March, the museum announced it would have to sell up to four as yet undesignated works or close its doors, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), an association of 240 directors of major American museums, stated that ‘The AAMD firmly believes that there are viable alternatives to this course of action and that deaccessioning works from the collection is not necessary to sustain the Museum’s operations…treating works of art from a museum’s collection as financial assets not only damages the museum taking such an action, but also adversely affects the field as a whole.’ The AAMD could impose sanctions and loss of accreditation.

In a Los Angeles Times article of 27 March on the Delaware deaccessioning plan, Mike Boehm wrote persuasively, ‘If a museum’s collection is deemed fungible, it raises the question of why private donors or government agencies should fund its operations when it could earn its own keep by selling valuable holdings – making a business practice of using its expertise and connections to identify underpriced art that’s likely to appreciate in value, then turn around and sell high.’ Some museums have downsized rather than deaccession, notably the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, which gave up its structure on West 53rd Street, relocating to its original, smaller quarters at Lincoln Square in order to retire a $32 million debt on the building. Perhaps Delaware should have considered more thoughtfully wherein its real fortunes lay, before embarking on expansion in 2005.

The Delaware Art Museum has stated that Isabella and the Pot of Basil, as a work purchased by the museum in 1947, is neither bequest nor donation; the sale thereof, it argues, does not violate any trust. The CEO of the museum, Mike Miller, also remarked in an interview that the Hunt painting ‘is no more important than any others,’ and was selected because of its limited impact on the overall Pre-Raphaelite collection. But Isabella was purchased in the first place to fill a significant gap – the lack of any major work by Hunt, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – in the Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Collection, that of a Wilmington textile mill owner who from 1890 until his death in 1915 amassed a sophisticated group of art works and archival documents of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Unlike Henry James’s omnivore ‘robber-baron’ collectors, Bancroft, with sympathy and sensitivity, built relationships with living members and descendants of the original Brotherhood, including Jane and Jenny Morris, Winifred Sandys and Philip Burne-Jones, constructing a living context for his collection. That Isabella is not part of Bancroft’s descendants’ original 1935 bequest does not diminish its importance, its relevance, its belonging in the collection.

The entire controversy reminds us that the more ancient synonym for ‘curator’ is ‘keeper’. To ‘keep’ means to continue having or holding something: to not return, lose, sell, give away or throw away. The loss of Isabella and the Pot of Basil represents an enriching resource – a legacy – that cannot be restored.

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