LARGE private art collections are a phenomenon we associate more with the industrialists and businessmen of the 19th and 20th centuries than with the present day.
William Burrell’s purchases founded the Burrell Collection in Glasgow; the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle houses the collection of John Bowes; Philadelphia had its Albert C. Barnes; Baltimore its William and Henry Walters.
The Wyvern Collection is a British 21st-century art equivalent. What is extraordinary is that it was amassed within the past 30 years by a collector who has decided to remain anonymous, and who went against the grain of contemporary values — first, by choosing to spend his or her wealth on art; and second, for the love of it rather than as an investment.
The Wyvern Collection also goes against the grain for what it contains. Painting has an unquestioned primacy in the art market, but this collector favours sculpture and artefacts. Nineteenth- and 20th-century art enjoys greatest popularity, but this collector is interested in the Middle Ages. Italian art still dominates medieval and Renaissance scholarship, but, if anything, this collector favours art made outside Italy, though there are also Italian pieces in the collection. The art market is obsessed by famous names, but this collection comprises primarily anonymous work.
There are many real gems here, among them several high-quality English alabasters (Catalogue nos 82, 83, 132, 147) and an impressive set of 15th-century terracotta apostles (Cat. 114), to pick out only a few.
BUILDING a private collection is a very different enterprise to stocking a gallery or museum, where art is purchased on strict criteria of quality, range, and rarity. These criteria are also important to serious private collectors like this one, but, as the collector’s foreword to The Wyvern Collection: Medieval and Renaissance sculpture and metalwork makes clear, personal interest and appeal are also vital.
The intriguing challenge, then, as we peruse this catalogue, is not only to absorb the scholarship on each item but to puzzle out what it was about each of these pieces that appealed to the collector, and, by extension, what appeals to us as fellow 21st-century viewers.
The formal cataloguing of this part of the Wyvern Collection has been entrusted to Dr Paul Williamson, who retired recently as Keeper of Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, but is still putting his incomparable knowledge to the best possible use.
The entries are succinct and almost invariably convincing. A puzzling alabaster Christ is deftly associated with Catalan sculptor Pere Joan (Cat. 122), for example; and an alabaster weeper is tracked back to the lost mourners from the tomb of Charles of Bourbon at Souvigny (Cat. 116). Authenticity and dating are impressively corroborated by scientific analysis of materials as well as well-chosen comparisons.
Quite correctly, the focus of the catalogue is very much on the “what” — the physical make-up and attribution. The question of how the various items might have been used (the “why”) is a little more unevenly addressed. The reader will gather from the cataloguing of the fabulous collection of aquamaniles that they were designed to hold water, but the explanation of their use is embedded in the description of a laver (Cat. 95). What is the exact use of a steelyard weight (Cat. 6); and why should an aeolipile (a new one on me) blow steam at a fire (Cat. 46)? That one really is baffling.
Williamson wears his learning lightly, but this is a scholar’s catalogue designed for a scholarly audience, with frequent recourse to highly specialist literature. It serves a valuable function in locating the 186 items in the field of scholarship.
It also demonstrates just how much there is in private hands. Anyone who thinks that museums offer a complete overview of what was made in the past should think again.
Dr Kim Woods is an art historian, who retired recently as a senior lecturer with the Open University.
The Wyvern Collection is published by Thames & Hudson at £65 (CT Bookshop £58.50).