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Chapter Six

Conclusion: Building a Picture of Henry Hill

Hill used the examples of Liverpool and Glasgow as models for establishing the Brighton exhibitions. These were much bigger cities with shipbuilding and industry. He clearly identified himself with the new generation of art patrons, the merchants and industrialists ‘the great tycoons of the industrial Midlands, the cutlers and cotton kings in the forties, the druggists and textile merchants of the fifties, and the ironmasters of the sixties and seventies.’[228] Hill built his business in London from poor beginnings, and was part of this industrial development of the middle classes. He also aspired to develop Brighton and its cultural capital.

In this manufacturing boom time, Hill was an example of the self-made man:  a representative of the mobile middle class whose wealth was built on trade and hard work. Maas suggests that in such a climate, art became Art and that ‘Pictures by living painters became objects to be commissioned, discussed, exhibited, bought singly or by the score, hung, returned to the artist for alteration, rehung, bartered, exchanged, sold by private treaty, auctioned, copied (in duplicate or triplicate), revised, and sold yet again […]’[229]. In short, the work of living artists became part of the active economy. Hill’s actions, as Chairman of the Brighton Fine Arts Sub Committee, illustrate this commercial support for living artists. His own collection (and loan of) provides an exemplar of patronage. As can be seen in the customer relationship that Hill had with Holl, this work was commissioned, exhibited, and copied. Often, Hill commissioned copies of Holl’s subjects (such as Newgate and The Foundling). He also had a copy of John Petties R.A.’s diploma work, The Jacobites. Rather than undermining the value of the painting as a unique object, this reproduction highlighted the importance and success of their subjects, especially those widely distributed in the Graphic.

A number of pictures purchased by Hill were reproduced in the Graphic, including Sons of the Brave, a popular picture by Phil Morris, depicting orphan boys of soldiers of the Royal Military Asylum, Chelsea.[230] A search of dealer records at the time Hill was buying shows no obvious reference to Hill. This suggests, supported by accounts from Reynolds and the Fine Arts Sub Committee records, that Hill was buying largely from artists directly. Hill’s philanthropic work suggests an interest in education and opportunity for working men and women through arts and crafts and manufacture, aligned with the philosophy of the South Kensington Museum and Prince Albert. This may place sentimental socialism at the heart of Hill’s collecting.            

In describing the work of Degas in the Hill collection, Meynell provides one of the earliest critical assessments of his work in England. Flint does not reference the Meynell article when reviewing the critical reception of the Impressionists in England, perhaps as it was not a public show or perhaps as it was a regional collection. Both Social Realism and Impressionism are described using literature as a reference. Moore recalls Impressionist painters and naturalist writers socialising together. Treuhertz connects Social Realism to Dickens. Contemporary critics found it easier to describe painting in terms of literature, which had a precedent of creating narrative truth. As Flint describes, Victorian critics ‘believed that they could treat paintings in the same way as they might approach the novel form, directing their attention to narrative and to potential moral implications.’[231] Meynell uses the same comparison in attempting to explain Degas and his impressionist painting. She writes that ‘there is an essential unity in the aims of impressionary art and naturalistic literature, inasmuch as both proclaim a complete denial of the ideal; and through the uncertainties of the mannered and fantastic painter may be seen the intelligently-seized truth, the low or painful or humiliating facts, of the novelist.’[232]

In making this connection Meynell supports her proposition that Degas ‘may be taken as a typical realist and impressionist of his time’, and in doing so supports the notion that the contemporary view of social realism and impressionism were perhaps not as siloed as they have come to be.

The modern view of these two schools are that they have no relation to each other – as Impressionism became a rising star and Victorian social realism declined in popularity. Louis van Tilborgh in Hard Times references Van Gogh being ‘deeply moved by the illustrations of everyday life in the Graphic […]’ in the 1870s when Holl, Walker and others in the Hill collection were contributing ‘black and whites’ of social realism.[233] The proclaimed aim of the Graphic when it began in 1869 was to provide ‘a faithful literary and pictorial chronicle of its times’.[234]

In the second half of the nineteenth century, both the proponents of social realism, the French realist schools and the Impressionists were experimenting with the new – industry and modern life and explorations of the notions of truth and beauty in art. Assessments of Hill’s collection subsequent to the Meynell contemporary account do not seem able to sit sentimental socialist paintings and Degas side by side on his gallery walls. In their descriptions, aspects of the collection are excused, or simply left in the shadows. It is only really when the collection is considered as a whole, of its time, and with the context of Henry Hill as collector, can its value be understood. This may account for Pickvance and others writers having difficulty in conceiving the collection as a whole – that it is considered through a modern lens, whereas a contemporary view would not have held these schools of art as water and oil, but as able to mix with each other.

Hill had socialist sympathies. This can be seen in his choice of paintings, but is backed up by indications of his support as town councillor for the improvement of sanitation in Brighton (leading to a new sewerage system being constructed in the town 1871 – 1874), and the support of the School of Art and Design, for which he provided the mortgage to build. Meynell describes at length, in A Brighton Treasure-House, a painting by Mr. Barnard that is not listed in the Christie’s catalogue.[235] Meynell describes it as a two-panelled painting by a ‘professional satirist’ based on a popular song called The Vagabond by Mr Malloy. In this song, a beggar is described as ‘free in the land’. On one side, the song is being sung in the comfort of a drawing room, and in the other, the subject of the song shivering and dying on the doorstep of a shelter for homeless dogs. Although not of the highest artistic merit, Meynell compares the subject to the ‘large-hearted’ author Dickens and his social sentiment. This fits with evidence about Hill, his life, his patronage and his collecting, reflecting a large-hearted social sentiment and a practical business approach to making a positive change.

Previous writers on Henry Hill as a collector have struggled to provide an adequate explanation for why he collected as he did. This, in part, is because he has never been a primary focus for any of these studies. He has been a bit-part player in the history of collecting in Victorian England. Other collectors more well-known, and with more accessible archival records, have taken the limelight. This is often the case where the collections remain intact, in part or as a whole, and can be considered using physical evidence. Creating a virtual archive, and drawing a focus towards Henry Hill as a collector has, I hope, opened up a fruitful avenue of research and presented some new propositions about the collection and the man.

One must qualify the conclusions of Pickvance and Patry with new evidence that establishes Hill as a person who ran a business in the cosmopolitan centres of London and Paris, a collector embracing the new, and a philanthropist keen on developing education for the people of Brighton.

Pickvance observed that ‘Hill’s bias was towards ‘realistic’ or ‘naturalistic’ painting. He wrote that Hill ignored the Pre-Raphaelites and owned nothing by the then fashionable Leighton, Poynter, Frith or Edwin Long.’[236] Hill’s collection of Pre-Raphaelite work was indeed limited. The evidence suggests that he was not personally acquainted with the circle of artists, or interested in their subjects, but he did own some works by artists who are recognised as Pre-Raphaelite painters.[237] The evidence does suggest though, that these were not a focus for Hill’s collecting. It is also true that Hill did not own work by the most well-known academicians. Hill did not know these painters, and it is possible that he could not afford, or was unwilling to pay, the high prices for the Royal Academy elite. There is no attempt in the Pickvance analysis of the collection to understand the variety of pictures and artists.

A closer examination of Patry’s arguments, which explain Hill’s collection as a linear progression from early nineteenth century English artists and culminating in Degas and Monet, does not encompass the social aspect of his collecting. The concept of network and social associations, presented in this dissertation, unravels the validity of Patry’s explanation.

He was part of a network of artists, both British and European, as a patron and promotor. Hill took advice from these artist friends to build a collection that reflected a definitive moment in the history of art. It included art that was a refusal of ‘beauty or the ideal’, that art criticism had yet to find the right language to explain or explore.[238] At the same time, it also included art that was considered at the time, in contemporary accounts, mawkishly sentimental. It is as a collection of these elements together where its value lies. It represents a man, Henry Hill, and his patronage. It also represents a view of an artistic exchange of taste that speaks eloquently of a moment in time. 

The engagement with foreign artists was a considered approach by Hill, seen from the very start of his involvement with the Fine Arts Sub Committee and promoted throughout his chairmanship, to make Brighton a cosmopolitan and European leisure and art town. The cross-cultural exchange exacerbated by the Franco-Prussian war led to a rich exchange of artistic ideas, which Hill actively facilitated and supported both personally and through the work that he did.

The story of Hill and his collection meets an abrupt end at the Christie’s sale: there is no grand finale to this biography. Captain Henry Hill and his collection are now a passing footnote in the history of collecting, and the rise of Impressionism. There are significant differences in the biographies and legacies of Hugh Lane and Henry Hill that may help to explain the disappearance of Hill and his collection. Since the first biographies of Lane, a collection of archival documents relating to him have been gathered together at the National Library of Ireland.[239] This provided O’Byrne enough building materials to present a convincing picture of the man and his motivations. There are also other differences between the two collectors.

Hugh Lane presents a romantic figure as a collector of Impressionist art. He, in many ways, is the perfect figure to represent one of the first collectors of impressionist art. He died, tragically young, on the Lusitania when it sunk in 1917. He was a dealer in Old Masters and had a singular passion for Impressionist art. He left a bequest of 39 continental paintings about which there is an ongoing controversy over ownership and the details of his Will, which has both a political and cultural element. The nature of Lane’s will means that ‘to break up the bequest would be to invalidate his will […] officially therefore, all of the pictures are of equal status.’[240] This gives the collection as a whole a value, although out of the conditional gift of 39 pictures in the bequest there are eight which are fought over – the ‘most important Impressionist paintings’ by Manet, Monet, Pissaro, Renoir, Morisot, Vuillard and Degas. The rest forms part of the permanent collection at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. Lane’s bequest, made 25 years after Hill’s death, includes eight painters represented in the Hill collection.[241] Arguably, Hill also owned some of the most important impressionist paintings, notably works by Degas and his mysterious Monet. Perhaps there is something about the curated nature of the Hugh Lane collection and its focus (other than it being a bequest) which demonstrates an Impressionist sensibility, much like Samuel Courtauld later showed for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, which is lost amongst Hill’s Victorian pictures.

The terms of the Will for the Ionides bequest to the V&A, like Lane’s, also relates to the collection in its entirety, thus protecting its value as a collection rather than individual pictures. The terms of Ionides Will state that his bequest be named ‘”The Constantine Alexander Ionides Collection” and not distributed over the Museum or lent for exhibition.’[242] The definition of legacy is a gift, or bequest endowed by a predecessor. The galleries and museums of Duveen, Tate, Courtauld and Lane and, in America, Frick, Freer and Gardner, among many others, name some of the great collectors, and mark their legacy. Hill also left a legacy – a School of Science and Art (now sadly demolished), the support of numerous individuals and the cultural capital produced by his generosity. These are not as easily quantified or identified as pictures on a gallery wall, or indeed, a gallery.

There is no Henry Hill gallery. Hill’s was a quieter and practical kind of philanthropy. Perhaps he was more journeyman than showman in style. The only place his name is up in lights is on the number 872 Bus in Brighton in honour of his role as Town Councillor.[243] He was never centre stage, but he played an important supporting role. Through his collection, some of the most important Impressionist pictures have a connection to England, and his collection had an indefinable influence on artists and audience at the time. Leaving nothing tangible behind, Henry Hill remains almost a blip in the history of Impressionism in England, and perhaps it has been tempting to leave him there, as he does not fit easily within this narrative. Perhaps his character seems a little pedestrian to represent the launch of Impressionism in England, and maybe a little too Victorian. The language and critical reception for Impressionism was a largely Edwardian affair. Not only had Hill collected, but his collection also sold, before the market for Impressionism really took off in England.

That Hill could have hung Degas and Monet in his gallery amongst his sentimental Victorian realist pictures is almost distasteful to the myth of Impressionism, as riding on the crest of modernism. Without the modern- day reverence of Impressionism, these pictures formed an addition to his existing collection rather than a singular passion for the avant-garde. Hill was developing his own taste and knowledge of art, but as has been shown in the literary assessments of the Hill collection, the mingling Impressionist art with a Victorian vernacular does not sit comfortably with the romantic assessment of the reception of this work. Arguably, his collection perhaps fits into the more inclusive history of collecting Impressionism that is beginning to develop, reflecting much wider currents and influences.[244] This in turn may reflect more generously on other contemporary schools of painting as influencing change, thus allowing Hill, his Impressionist pictures, and his collection as a whole to take their rightful place in the history of collecting.

The End

Footnotes for Chapter 6:

[228] Maas, Gambart, p. 16.

[229] Maas, Gambart, p. 17.

[230] Produced in Graphic 30th October 1880, and shown at the Royal Academy the same year.

[231] Flint (ed.), Impressionists in England, p. 17.

[232] Meynell, A Brighton Treasure-House, p. 82.

[233] Louis van Tilborgh ‘Vincent van Gogh and English social realism: ‘And the truth is that there is more drudgery than rest in life’’ in Treuhertz (ed.) Hard Times p. 119.

[234] Peter Keating ‘Words and pictures: Changing images of the poor in Victorian Britain’ in Treuhertz (ed.) Hard Times p. 130.

[235] It is also unusual that the images to accompany this part of the article do not say that they are after painting that form part of the Hill collection, but given the nature and subject of the article, and the inference of its author, this must be assumed. Meynell, A Brighton Treasure House.

[236] Pickvance, Henry Hill, p. 790.

[237] Hill owned work by Henry Moore (1831-1895) who Maas describes as having taken ‘Pre-Raphaelitism to the seaside and open sea’ Maas, Victorian Painters, p. 63 and The Flight of Jane Shore by Val Princep, clearly Pre-Raphaelite in style (Christie’s Sale Record Feb 20th 1892 Lot 266). More significantly, Hill also owned five paintings by Strudwick who in the 1860s emulated John Pettie but by the 1870s was working as a studio assistant to Edward Burne-Jones and exhibiting at the Grosvenor and New Galleries. The Christie’s sales records show five works by Strudwick (Auction numbers 94 – 98 in the 1889 sale), two sold to Agnew’s. Agnew’s stockbooks show these sold on to William Imrie (1836 – 1906) on the same day at a 5% profit. Imrie, a ship owner from Liverpool, lived in Mossley Hill. He had a collection of paintings, including many works by Strudwick, of whom he was a patron for the first part of Strudwick’s career.

[238] Flint (ed.), Impressionism in England explains the development of art criticism by using, for example, scientific rather than subjective grounds. p. 19.

[239] Accession number 5073.

[240] O’Byrne, Hugh Lane, p. 241.

[241] These include works by Bonvin, Corot, Daubigny, Fantin-Latour, De Medrazo, Monet and Rousseau. I am grateful to Liz Forster at the Hugh Lane Galley for providing me with a list of the 39 paintings.

[242] [accessed 23rd August, 2018]

[243] [accessed 23rd August, 2018]

[244] The revisionist hanging of the Musée d’Orsay, using coloured walls and artificial lighting to create a more intimate, homely experience of the impressionist paintings in the collection is indicative of this trend.