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Introduction

Henry Hill (1812 – 1882) is identified as an ‘important’ collector in Victorian England. [2] This is a label applied predominantly for his early collecting of the work of Edgar Degas and, to a lesser extent, Claude Monet and James McNeill Whistler. Accounts of his life are muddled, and his reasons for collecting Degas paintings are often questioned, but rarely has an attempt been made to rationalise his collection of works by Degas and other Impressionists, as part of his whole collection. A record of the collection itself exists through the Christie’s sales records. This has provided the provenance of some of Hill’s collection that can be traced forward into collections in the U.S, Paris, and the Ionides collection, which was bequeathed to the V&A.[3] The majority of the collection has yet to be traced.

This research uses disparate archives including civic records, census accounts, business records and advertisements, newspaper accounts and obituary reports and minutes and accounts from institutions that Hill was involved with.[4] Through piecing these together, it has been possible to construct a clearer biography of Hill. This presents the opportunity to develop theories about Hill’s collection.

This research reframes how Hill is considered, from a retired soldier from Brighton to a cosmopolitan businessman, using his networks and associations to develop his artistic circle and his collection. It presents a hypothesis, through an analysis of archival material available and a close study of his collection, that Hill collected multiple works by artists with whom he had a personal connection. Hill grew his business by developing a network of contacts and customers. This research suggests that his collection grew in a similar way, through an expanding network of artists and their circle, and their recommendations about their peers. This placed Hill ahead of his time in terms of collecting taste in some instances. It also helps to explain a collection that has not been easy to understand, in terms of its logical development. This research suggests that Hill’s collection reflects the personal network of artists that he knew, met and supported.

With a lack of core archival documents relating to Hill’s life and collection, I have compiled this research from evidence using a bricoleur approach.  It undertakes a biography of Hill that is the improvisation in human endeavour, to place Hill through snippets of gathered information, more firmly in his environment as man and collector.[5] As Bricoleuse, my intention is to create a picture of Hill from both an artistic and social anthropological perspective: In terms of artistic work, by building a picture, a biography, from archival information that is available to present a view. From a social anthropological perspective, it will place Hill within a social context of journey-man tailor, a self-made man and member of the Victorian middle class of merchants that revolutionized the art market in England. I have aimed to bring together data, to build a more comprehensive biography of Hill and, in doing so, presenting an approach through which the formation and content of his collection may be studied. In particular, I want to show him to be a man that lived and acted upon his socialist ideals through his philanthropic work, showed them through his collection, and collected pictures based on personal connections with groups of artists.

I have divided his story into chapters, building a picture of Henry Hill and developing a rationale behind the collection and how it was connected with a network of artist associates. The lack of archival records has limited the extent of the biographical data available for Captain Henry Hill and there is little literature that deals with him as a specific subject, although he is mentioned in several books about collecting or about Degas. One example of this is the exhibition catalogue written in 2005 by Gruetzner Robins and Thomson for the Degas Sickert Lautrec: London and Paris, 1870-1910 exhibition at Tate Britain.[6] Development of a context for this collector is, therefore, partially achieved through a study of secondary literature covering the subjects of the development of Victorian middle classes and collecting and dealing in Victorian England. Chapter One, therefore, explores the existing literature on Hill and his collection. This provides a framework in which it is possible to situate Hill using the pieces of primary data that are available. Chapter Two establishes the information that is known about Hill, challenging some assumptions that have been made in the past, and building a biography of Hill and his time in London. They provide a context for the world in which Hill lived and was successful. Chapter Three aims to examine Hill’s character, through his time in Brighton and his work on the boards of the Brighton School of Science and Art and the Brighton Free Art Gallery Fine Arts Sub Committee. Through detailed examination of these records, it has been possible to build a picture of a network of artists in which Hill played a role as friend, patron and colleague working together on developing Brighton Exhibitions for both British and foreign artists. Chapter Four explores Hill’s connection with a network of artists from France and England.

Chapters Five and Six build on the research in the preceding chapters, concluding by arguing that Henry Hill was a more complex character than has been suggested in traditional views of him. He was more than a man who had a collection of paintings that somehow included some works by Degas. He was a man with strong values, committed to the support of workers less fortunate than he was. He had a socialist agenda in his philanthropic works that was reflected in his collection. He was also committed to benefitting the public and artists by developing an inclusive and extensive art agenda in Brighton. Hill was an influencer, using his developing network of friends and associates to strengthen the artistic and museological credentials of the town. His collection reflects his network of artists and friends and a strong sense of patronage, whereby he collected from artists that he knew, and taking the advice of those artists to expand his collection. This establishes Hill not just as a pioneer collector of Impressionism, as described by Pickvance, but as a collector engaged with the artist peer groups which reflected his understanding of developing connoisseurship and a broad philanthropic agenda.[7] Without an extant collection, these patterns are difficult to identify. While not claiming to provide a definitive assessment of Henry Hill as a collector and patron, this dissertation will, it is hoped, provide a clearer picture of his activities as well as suggesting further fruitful lines of research.

 Through a detailed assessment of records that are available to illuminate Hill’s life and character, it has been possible to establish personal connections between Hill and many of the artists he collected. Through this, it has proved possible to develop a hypothesis about the collection.  The collection does not exist in a physical sense, as does, for example, the Ionides Collection at the V&A.[8] It is possible that this is one of the reasons why the collection has not been studied in greater detail. There are no known letters about the collection and no catalogue or household inventory accounts that document the collection. The Hill collection was dispersed through a number of sales at Christie’s, one in 1889, and the others after the death of his wife Charlotte. The Christies’ sales records provide the best means of reconstructing the original contents of the collection.

There is one known contemporary account of the collection. It is an article published in 1882 by Alice Meynell (1847 – 1922), entitled A Brighton Treasure House.[9] This is a three-part article, with commentary, description and woodblock print illustrations. It was written just before his death, and published almost at the same time as his demise. The paucity of biographical details about Henry Hill himself makes it difficult to paint a complete picture of his life, motivations and the evolution of the collection.[10]

There are glimpses of Henry Hill, mentions in passing, in literature covering the collecting of impressionist art in the Victorian age. Hill is also mentioned as a buyer of Victorian painting.[11] However, there are no known surviving personal papers about his collection or his biography. Despite the paucity of evidence on Henry Hill the man and his motives as a collector and patron, this dissertation will attempt to piece together a necessarily incomplete picture which, it is hoped, will shed some new light on this important but shadowy figure.

Footnotes for Introduction:

[2] By Greutzner Robins, Treuhertz and Hook among other writers on this period.

[3] Christie’s sales records are the basis for this virtual collection. Constantine Alexander Ionides (1833 –1900), also a collector of art, bought some of Hill’s collection at the 1889 auction, including Winter by Ludvig Munthe (1873), A Vase of Flowers, Henri Fantin-Latour (1874) and James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne in Blue and Silver: Valparaiso.

[4] Archival documentation about Hill’s collection of French painting may still exist in the Durand-Ruel archives. These archives are private and are unfortunately not available to study and therefore lie outside the remit of this study.

[5] In the arts, Bricolage (French for Do-It-Yourself) is the construction of work from a diverse range of things that happen to be available. In social anthropology the term Bricolage was used by Lévi-Strauss in La Pensée sauvage (The Savage Mind) (1962) as an analogy for the collecting and reforming of cultural fragments. 

[6] Anna Gruetzner Robins and Richard Thomson Degas Sickert Lautrec: London and Paris, 18701910 (London: Tate Britain, 2005).

[7] Ronald Pickvance, ‘Henry Hill: An Untypical Victorian Collector’ Apollo, The Magazine of the Arts, Dec. 1962, Vol. 76, pp. 789-791.

[8] Henry Hill’s collection can be viewed on other pages of this site.

[9] Alice Meynell, A Brighton Treasure-House The Magazine of Art Vol.V. (London, Paris and New York: Cassel, Petter, Galpin & Co., 1882). Alice Meynell (1847 – 1922) was a writer, poet and suffragist. She wrote frequently for many publications including the Magazine of Art and The Art Journal.

[10] These footnotes will record the path and extent of the research. I hope they will serve as a solid basis for any future research, including the paths of enquiry that did not prove fruitful.

[11] In Julian Treuherz’s Hard Times and in relation to the work of Frank Holl and collectors of this.