The Chantrey Bequest

In 1875, the Royal Academy received under the will of Sir F. L. Chantrey RA, a vast sum of money - 105,000 pounds. This was invested by five trustees, and the income each year was handed over to the Academy to purchase works of art - painting and sculpture - executed within the shores of Great Britain. The idea was to build up a national collection of British Art.

The President and Council of the Academy chose seven pictures and one sculpture in the first year, 1877. Works were hung in the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum). However, when the Tate Gallery was built, in accordance with Chantrey's wish for a 'public national collection of British fine art', all the works purchased - 85 so far - were handed over to the nation and put in the Tate in 1897.

It was a great honour for an artist to have a picture purchased undr the terms of the Chantrry Bequest - as noted by one contemporary critic, '...a magic pronouncement, for to be bought for the nation means more than an incidental honour; it means that all future work that artist does will be anxiously looked for, given due regard when it appears, and that there will be meted towards even its shortcomings generous judgement.' It also was often a good indication that the artist would be shortly elected to the Royal Academy.

However, criticisms were made of the selection of pictures bought by the President and Council of the Royal Academy. The purchases were seen to be incomplete and unrepresentative of the total art output of Britain, with a lot of work by Royal Academicians, some current and recent artists of merit neglected, and Scottish artists being almost entirely ignored unless they exhibited in London. The Academicians were also seen as relying too much on buying from the Summer Exhibition at the Academy itself, and reluctant to buy from dealers, at auction, or from private owners of pictures. In 1902 a House of Lords Select Committee was appointed to investigate the administration of the Chantrey will, and broadly agreed with all these criticisms. It recommended that rather than the unwieldly Council of the RA, a committee of three - the President (Poynter at that time), an RA and an ARA should choose the works to be bought, and that the will should be altered to allow purchase of works executed in part abroad.

The Council were reluctant to agree. As they saw it, Chantrey's will was a sound one, and as an RA, he had well understood the workings of the Academy and must have intended what he had written in his will. It was a matter of opinion which works were the best to buy, and that was 'a point on which a body of artists like the RA has at least a good a right to an opinion as anyone else.' However, the Academy did make some changes - two small subcommittees were set up, of three painter and three sculptor members, to seek out suitable works and recommend them to the Council for puchase; the Council did however retain the right of choice and refusal.

There remained a fundamental problem in Chantrey's will, which was that responsibility for purchase and responsibility for exhibition of the works purchased were divided between two institutions. In 1917, the Tate Gallery, home of the Chantrey pictures, became separated from its parent the National Gallery, with its own Board of Trustees being appointed. The new Board wished to influence the choice of pictures bought through the Chantrey Bequest, and alter the arrangement for keeping all the pictures in the already crowded Tate. In 1918, it was agreed that the Academy Council would inform the Tate Trustees which pictures they intended to buy, and invite their opinion. However, there was to be no veto for the Tate, and the RA was to have three of its own members appointed to the Tate Board.

The Tate Gallery did not find this satisfactory, and in 1922 the agreement was altered in their favour when the Board was allowed to appoint members to the picture selection subcommittees. There were now to be two subcommittees of three Acadamy members and two Tate Gallery Board members, recommending purchases to the Academy Council, which could accept or refuse to buy works for the Chantrey Collection in the Tate Gallery. Finally, in 1949 the Tate gained equal representation with the RA members on the selection subcommittees. By this time there were well over 400 works purchased under the terms of the bequest, of which about 1/3 were by members of the Academy at the time of purchase.

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Francis Chantrey // Royal Academy // Tate Gallery // Pictures in the Tate // Background Information