Monday, 14 December 2015

A Cabinet of Collectors 2: C. Drury E. Fortnum


Charles Drury Edward Fortnum made his first fortune mining in Australia in the 1840s.  Back in England  he married twice, each time to a rich cousin, heiresses of the Fortnum family grocery wealth.
He travelled on the continent with his wives, collecting and studying Renaissance ceramics, especially maiolica, and bronzes, many of which he loaned to Henry Cole's South Kensington Museum (today the Victoria & Albert Museum) for a special  exhibition in 1862.   For several years, he was an Art Referee or consultant for the Museum, negotiating purchases,  for which he refused to be paid commission because he was 'a gentleman and not a dealer'.  A member of the Society of Antiquaries, he became a Trustee of the British Museum in 1889.

Venetian glass goblet, gilded and enamelled, 1475-1500  © V&A Museum
Purchased by Fortnum for the Museum in 1884

Victorian museums were very competitive institutions in their collecting, and subject to the interests and expertise of individual curators, who could be very cavalier in their decisions.    Offended particularly by one at the South Kensington Museum,  who refused to recognise and accept a terracotta relief by Antonio Rossellino which Fortnum had offered them,  Fortnum looked elsewhere for a home for his treasures. He felt strongly that "to entrust my loved children (my only family) to a baby-farm where they might die for want of proper nursing, clothing or care, would be the act of an extremely careless or unnatural parent".  Courted by curators from the Ashmolean Museum,  he eventually decided to transfer his collections to the Ashmolean, bequeathing them in his will, along importantly with funds to create a proper building to house them.

In 1889 Oxford University awarded him a Doctorate of Civil Law  (he had served as a local magistrate for many years)  in recognition of his gift.


C. Drury E. Fortnum, DCL,    Charles Alexander 1893
© Ashmolean Museum

He was a pioneer and his collection included  early 13th century pieces, as well as the luxury lustre wares, and istoriato narrative plates, showing scenes from history and classical myth.
He presented this istoriato plate to the Ashmolean in 1888, as well as other top quality and historically important pieces from his maiolica collection.


   Dish with Archelaus, King of Cappadocia, before the Emperor Tiberius
Urbino, c. 1530-35  ©  Ashmolean Museum


What the South Kensington Museum did have was Fortnum's masterly Catalogue of Renaissance Maiolica in the South Kensington Museum of 1873, which researchers still consult.  The woodcut illustrations show fine details in counterpoint to modern photographic images.

 His scholarly introductory essay describing the history, techniques and study of Renaissance maiolica was also published as a South Kensington Museum Art Handbook in 1875,  "enabling the public at a trifling cost to understand something of the history and character of the subjects treated of."

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