rivate art collections are usually based on the aesthetic preferences of the collector, or the prestige/investment value of the works collected. The Awakening Beauty collection works on different principles. It consists of pictures selected not only for their aesthetic merit but also for their historical and cultural interest as disclosures of how Victorian pictorial beauty is awoken. In recent scholarship beauty has been primarily studied in relation to the gendered gaze. Awakening Beauty considers additional issues. It has a special interest in images whose meaning is enabled through an accompanying text, and in images created as studies for more substantial "finished" works. Indeed, the meaning and critical implications of "finish" in Victorian art and beyond, are a central theoretical concern of the project. This intellectual work is carried out by Paul Crowther under the auspices of the Moore Institute research centre in humanities at the National University of Ireland, Galway (where Paul is the Established Professor of Philosophy and co-Director of the Values and Identities research cluster). Awakening Beauty contributes to the ongoing internationalization of the Institute's activity, and, of course, to that of humanities research in Ireland generally.
The collection currently numbers around 180 works with extensive support material from the artists' other cultural outputs (including unpublished letters, and, in some cases, volumes of poetry, novels, theoretical writing, and illustrated books). Awakening Beauty is being added to continuously. It mainly comprises material from the Victorian classical tradition, from artists influenced by John Ruskin, and works of historical genre.
In terms of the former, the collection is strong in works by George Frederick Watts, Lord Leighton, and Sir Edward Poynter. Specific highlights include the Portrait of John Whichelo which brought Watts his first major success when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1840, and, on a smaller scale, the only known full-length contemporary portrait study of Schopenhauer—a tiny drawing done by Leighton as a teenager in 1847. The Ruskin-related art includes all those members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who made their careers as artists. Specifically, there are drawings or watercolours by Millais, Holman Hunt, Rossetti, an intriguing nude in pencil by Thomas Woolner, a portrait medallion in plaster by him (created in Australia, 1853), a later portrait medallion in marble, and also two finished oil paintings by (or in one case attributed to) James Collinson. Artists associated with the Brotherhood and second-generation Pre-Raphaelites are also included. Amongst them are Burne-Jones, Arthur Hughes, William Bell Scott, Henry Holiday, and John William Waterhouse. A number of drawings by Ruskin himself are in the collection, including two original illustrations (after Turner) subsequently reproduced in Elements of Drawing.
Landscape painting was much influenced by Ruskin, and since interpreting landscape is also the basis of a research cluster within the Moore Institute, the collection is, accordingly, rich in landscape pictures. There is (what is probably) the single largest holding of works by Alfred William Hunt outside the major UK and American public collections, a group of images by the Lancashire-based Dublin artist William Davis (including his very last sketch) and other works by John Brett, John William Inchbold, George Price Boyce, John Samuel Raven, Albert Goodwin, and Benjamin Williams Leader.
The historical genre works in the collection include Edward Matthew Ward's Marie-Antoinette Listening to the Act of Accusation—a major "hit" at the 1859 R.A. Exhibition, a version of his Alice Lisle (1858); a reduced version Frederick Goodall's admired Rachel (R.A. Exhibition 1867) and Charles West Cope's Oliver Cromwell Receiving a Deputation… exhibited at the R.A. in 1872. The collection also holds William Daniels's dark social realist masterpiece The Song of the Shirt of 1875.
The collection features also a large holding of watercolors by Mary Seton Watts, and an extraordinary group of wall-hangings (depicting biblical figures) that we attribute, speculatively, to Evelyn De Morgan and another hand. Other individual artists represented in the collection include Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Edward Lear, Hubert Herkomer, Val Prinsep, Benjamin Leader, Marcus Stone, William Etty, John Melhuish Strudwick, John Seymour Lucas, Phillip Hermogenes Calderon, Joseph Noel Paton, Walter Crane, Edward Hughes, William Maw Egley, and—extending into the Edwardian and Georgian eras—Roger Fry, and Byam Shaw.
Works acquired for the collection are selected by Paul Crowther and Mojca Oblak in consultation. Crowther performs historical and cultural analysis of them that links directly to his research. He is concerned not only to address the pictures in relation to their original contexts of production, but to explore also the possibility of them having a more enduring aesthetic significance. However, instead of using discredited formalist approaches as the basis for this, he connects the aesthetic significance of the works to the structure of embodiment and the complex cognitive role of the imagination.
Crowther has a special interest in works influenced by Ruskin, and in the enduring critical potential of his ideas (and the artists championed by him) in relation to contemporary ideologies of global consumerism and "enterprise culture." He is interested also in the potential of Adorno and Max Raphael's work as tools for clarifying the relevance of Victorian pictures for contemporary art practice.
Oblak's work is an exploration of a kind of living-alongside art as a means of overcoming standard spectatorship and gallery formats. More importantly, she creates original works based on ideas and images arising from the collection and Crowther's work upon it. Her idioms include drawing, painting, photography, embroidery, and assemblages of found and decorative objects. She holds that the traditional media of art have now been taken to their limits—we are in an age (to modify Aristotelian terminology) of artelechy where art is, technically speaking, a fully realized concept. Significant innovations within the traditional media individually considered are no longer possible. The time has come, therefore, to reconfigure art practice so as to engage more creatively with art's history, and to articulate more personal aesthetic spaces and critical standpoints. For Oblak, this involves combining different media and shifting the conditions under which art is encountered.
It is hoped that selected works from the collection will be exhibited at other European locations. Each such exhibition will include some newly acquired pictures—thus giving it a distinctive character. Oblak will create original works based on the location of each such exhibition so that the collection becomes a continuous travelling event of academic and artistic research.
The Awakening Beauty project, then, is not just a collection—it is a matrix for continuously developing critical interdisciplinary research in philosophy, art history, cultural history, and contemporary art practice. It is a living research entity which changes the conditions of art collecting. At the very least, it offers a splendid way of internationalizing the work and renown of the Moore Institute, and of creating a legacy that will be of enduring cultural significance in its own right.
Crowther, Paul. Awakening Beauty: The Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art. Exhibition catalogue. Ljubljana: National Gallery of Slovenia; Galway: Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, 2014.
Created 13 January 2014