UCD Art Historian Brings Forgotten Sketchbooks to the Fore
Most people will not have heard of 19th century art critic and illustrator George Scharf. Born in 1820, he developed a reputation as an art consultant, and his illustrating abilities meant his skills were constantly in demand during his lifetime. He later became the founding Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London.
Despite this, Scharf has received scant attention from academics – until now. According to Dr Philip Cottrell, UCD School of Art History and Cultural Policy, his time has finally come. A PhD has been completed on his work; a conference was partly devoted to him. And – perhaps most notably – Cottrell himself has completed work on a database of some of Scharf’s sketches which were compiled during his involvement with the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857.
Cottrell himself has completed work on a database of some of Scharf’s sketches which were compiled during his involvement with the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857.
Cottrell spent four years working on the database, but his interest in Scharf’s work came about entirely by accident when he was asked to investigate a painting in St Andrew’s Church on Westland Row in Dublin more than a decade ago. While in the church, another painting caught his eye. It turned out – as he suspected – to be a Renaissance Madonna and Child with Saints. The painting, Cottrell says, is “not a great masterpiece” – but when he looked at the back of it, he saw a label that proved it was one of 16,000 works of art included in the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition. That exhibition was important because it was “the first time there was a major national exhibition devoted just to art,” Cottrell says.
“I think you could arguably say that it was the biggest exhibition that’s ever been held,” Cottrell says. “It’s a fair claim, because you’re talking about 16,000 items that were on display, and a massive brick and glass pavilion erected at Old Trafford.”
Despite this, art historians have had only a partial understanding of what exact paintings went on display at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition, which is why Cottrell wanted to find out more about this surprise painting. He decided to turn to Scharf’s sketchbooks for answers.
Art historians have had only a partial understanding of what exact paintings went on display at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition, which is why Cottrell wanted to find out more…He decided to turn to Scharf’s sketchbooks for answers.
Cottrell went to the Heinz Archive of the National Portrait Gallery in London to view the archived sketchbooks to “join the dots”. He was amazed at the extent of what was in the sketchbooks, and – after sifting through just some of the material – he knew something needed to be done with them. He decided he wanted to investigate the sketches further and create a database that other researchers could use.
He needed €20,000-€25,000 to create a database of just some of Scharf’s sketchbooks – a relatively small amount in the research sphere – but cobbling the funds together was a challenge. Cottrell successfully gained some funding through UCD, but finding other funders was difficult. British funders didn’t want to finance the project as he was attached to an Irish institution; Irish funders didn’t want to fund a project that was British based.
Eventually, he managed to get funding from a US fund, the Samuel H Kress Foundation. He also received funding from the Paul Mellon Centre for the Studies in British Art and from the Thomas Dammann Junior Memorial Trust.
The ensuing project meant that Cottrell had to act as something of a “one-man band” at times. “I did get some valuable assistance here and there from a few postgraduate students who gave their time,” he says, “but I have to sing the praises of one particular postgraduate student called Sarah Maguire, she was at the School having completed her MA with us, and was thinking about using some of this material for her own research degree. She’s the one who gave me major assistance.”
To create the database, Cottrell spent four years going through Scharf’s sketchbooks page by page and image by image. “Sometimes Scharf makes it easy. Because he’s so particular with what he’s doing, he tries to cross-reference his images. He goes back to these pages, sometimes years after the event, to apply catalogue numbers to them, so with about 60 percent of the images it was a fairly straightforward process to look at the catalogue numbers to find out that they actually referred to the catalogue numbers that they got later on in the exhibition, and then I could join the dots.”
To create the database, Cottrell spent four years going through Scharf’s sketchbooks page by page and image by image.
For other sketches, Cottrell had to rely on his own experience.
“Looking at a sometimes very brief sketch, trying to work out if it’s Renaissance, Baroque work, trying to work out what the figures are probably doing in the work… I would gradually narrow it down until I had worked out what kind of subject this is. I used the Internet a lot.” He also used the Witt library in London, which houses reproductions of paintings, to establish what works Scharf’s sketches were based on.
The work “took ages,” Cottrell says. “Originally, all I wanted to do was try and just put quite a skeletal level of description in place to allow these sketchbooks to be digitised, so you could browse through them online. In the end, when myself and my postgraduate assistant Sarah started going through it, we realised we couldn’t sift this material so easily, we had to work out what everything was in order to distinguish what we were looking at. We thought it would make the day to day far more profitable and of use to researchers if we were able to make each entry for each page far more richly textured and far more informative in terms of what the viewers were looking at.”
The resulting database represents a major collaboration between UCD School of Art History and Cultural Policy and the National Portrait Gallery, London. It enables users to browse detailed information on hundreds of important works of art in nineteenth-century British and Irish collections, creating a valuable tool for art historical and provenance research.
“I think we’re very proud of the fact that we have done a proper job on these sketchbooks and we’ve demonstrated the rich potential this material has,” Cottrell says. “The time seemed right to give this material the attention it deserves.”
The resulting database…enables users to browse detailed information on hundreds of important works of art in nineteenth-century British and Irish collections