Author Article by National Gallery curator Susanna Avery-Quash: How the Eastlake family shaped the Victorian art world

Art for the Nation by Susanna Avery-Quash and Julie Sheldon is a fascinating biography of the Victorian Eastlake family (Sir Charles, Lady Elizabeth and their nephew Charles Locke) who played a pivotal role in the development of the fledgling National Gallery. Here Susanna Avery-Quash gives us an insightful introduction to the Eastlakes, explaining why their influence in shaping the National Gallery can still be felt today.

Article by Susanna Avery-Quash

The nineteenth century witnessed an astonishing growth in public institutions associated with the arts. The focus of Art for the Nation: The Eastlakes and the Victorian Art World is the development of one such body – the National Gallery – and the story of a family who was intimately involved with its flourishing for 60 years of its most formative history.

Sir Charles Lock Eastlake (1793-1865) began his life as an aspiring painter, intent on achieving greatness. Yet he became best known for his administrative roles, notably as President of the Royal Academy from 1850 and as the National Gallery’s first Director from 1855. The book explores the motivations behind this transition by investigating Eastlake’s friendships with various celebrated English artists including Sir Thomas Lawrence and J.M.W. Turner, and his dawning realization that his artistic abilities, though good, would never be exceptional. We note that despite his reluctance to be drawn into the public eye, certain men such as Sir Robert Peel and Prince Albert persuaded the unassuming Eastlake to take up a number of responsibilities which ultimately led him to becoming a central figure in the Victorian art world of the day.

This book claims that Eastlake may be seen as the National Gallery’s second founder – certainly by the time of his death it bore little resemblance to the institution with which he had been first associated in 1843. Eastlake was closely involved with the reconstitution of the Gallery in 1855, when new posts were created, an annual grant established and an acquisitions policy formulated, many of these innovations based on ideas already tried and tested in German museums with which Eastlake was familiar. The Gallery no longer saw itself as a treasure-house displaying only acknowledged masterpieces, but rather as an institution keen to house a collection of paintings comprehensive in its historical scope. To help fill the gaps, Eastlake made lengthy tours round Europe every summer; ultimately he acquired over 150 pictures for the nation.

But Eastlake’s legacy, as the book makes clear, did not stop with his acquisition record for he also influenced thinking about the preservation, cataloguing and display of pictures, thinking which has set the tone of much Gallery policy ever since. Thus, from 1856 core information was supplied via an early form of labelling, and new-style scholarly catalogues were also published from that year. To allow individual schools of art to be enjoyed on their own merits, Eastlake started the process of hanging pictures by their country of origin and in chronological order. He also thought hard about how pictures should be framed and lit and against what colour background they should be displayed.

Eastlake was able to share his interest in art with his wife, who accompanied him on nearly every foreign tour. Before their marriage, Elizabeth Eastlake (née Rigby, 1809-93) had written travel books, articles on a host of topics, and had translated important art-historical texts. As Eastlake’s spouse, she developed her knowledge of art history with the result that during her widowhood she wrote numerous articles specifically on art and became a respected connoisseur. It has always been enthusiastically asserted that Lady Eastlake was a dominant force in Eastlake’s successful career at the Gallery; in our book we reassess the evidence to reach a more balanced conclusion in which Lady Eastlake is seen as a lively encourager of her husband’s plans rather than as the inspirer and instigator of them. What our book reveals more generally is that the Eastlake’s marriage had within it as much colour, mutual affection and productivity as many better-known and celebrated partnerships of the day, such as those between Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill or George Eliot and George Lewes.

The third main character of the book is Eastlake’s eponymous nephew – Charles Locke Eastlake (1833-1906). He is often confused with his better-known uncle or referred to solely as the author of A History of the Gothic Revival (1868) and Hints on Household Taste (1872). Our book focuses instead on his little-known role as Keeper at the National Gallery for 20 years from 1878. Despite never realizing his ambition to become Director, he did much to keep the flame of his uncle’s memory alive at the Gallery, not least his endeavour to display more of the pictures by schools and in chronological order. In other areas, however, his contribution was quite distinct, doing much to open up the Gallery to the general public.

The inspiration for this book stemmed from the authors’ wish to expand on what they had previously said about the separate lives of the Eastlakes – in Julie Sheldon’s edition of Lady Eastlake’s letters (2009) and my own edition of Eastlake’s travel notebooks (Walpole Society, 2011). To coincide with the various Eastlake publications out this year, the National Gallery is hosting a temporary exhibition from July 2011 to commemorate the work of its first Director. One hope of both the current book and exhibition is to provide readers and visitors with greater insight into why certain pictures have been acquired for the nation, why they are displayed in the way they are, and how they came to receive their attributions. Another hope is to draw the public’s attention to these significant yet under-studied characters, who contributed so much to the National Gallery and to the wider Victorian art world.

Art for the Nation

Art for the Nation

Dr Susanna Avery-Quash is Research Curator in the History of Collecting at the National Gallery, London. She edited Sir Charles Eastlake’s Travel Notebooks and has contributed to many National Gallery titles. Art for the Nation is available this month from Yale University Press.

Visit the National Gallery’s Exhibition Page to find out more the Art for the Nation exhibition (27 July – 30 October 2011).

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