fig. 1
'A woman is in the art world's hot-potato job',

One must buy for the future, even against public opinion, although it is satisfying when you do buy a picture that’s popular … It’s important to get really top class things.

Mary Woodall, Melbourne Herald, 1965

On 1 May 1965 Dr Mary Woodall CBE (1901–1988) became the first woman to be appointed London-based adviser to the Felton Bequest for the National Gallery of Victoria and subsequently proved to be one of the most effective advisers in the history of that office (fig. 1). One feature of her tenure from 1965 to 1974 was the manner in which she managed to revive the Felton Bequest’s ability to purchase old master (thirteenth century to seventeenth century) works of art. Although the buying power of the Bequest had been severely depleted by inflation since 1955, and had consequently been unable to keep pace with the price increases of the international art market,1 See ‘Mr McDonnell as adviser to the Felton Bequest and its purchasing policy during the post-war period’ (Felton Committee Report, 3 June 1964, National Gallery of Victoria archive); the one exception during this period of restricted buying power was the purchase in 1959 of George Romney’s A large family piece, c.1768. Dr Woodall’s astute acquisition policies helped her to acquire major works by artists including Claude Lorrain (1600–1682), Guido Reni (1575–1642) and Annibale Carracci (1560–1609). The new mezzanine galleries of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European art at NGV International (fig. 2) are dominated by seven of Mary Woodall’s major purchases from both the Felton Bequest and the Everard Studley Miller Bequest and dramatically showcase the quality and quantity of her acquisitions. While this essay examines Dr Woodall’s acquisitions of Italian paintings, it is also important to note that her tenure saw the purchase of some equally significant works in the area of prints and drawings, Asian arts and the decorative arts.

This was the second time Dr Woodall had successfully built up the pre-eighteenth-century collection for a gallery. She developed her acquisition philosophy during her distinguished career at the Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery. Her guiding principle is best exemplified by John Ruskin’s statement concerning J. M. W. Turner: ‘The greatest picture is that which conveys to the mind of the spectator the greatest number of the greatest ideas’.2 A. Inglis & J. Long, European Masterpieces: Six Centuries of Painting from the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, Melbourne, 2000, p. 132. The problem facing small regional galleries with limited funds like the Birmingham was that important and minor works alike had become unaffordable. To combat this Dr Woodall turned her attention to first-rate examples from the second-tier old master market that was being overlooked by her major competitors, the wealthier public institutions and even wealthier private collectors. The success of her policy lay in the fact that she avoided purchasing at public auction. She fully utilised her intimate connections with art dealers to acquire works before they became publicly listed in catalogues. She realised that trying to compete with large public institutions and private collectors would be completely futile for the Birmingham or any small gallery. In this way Dr Woodall was able to build up the collection from the pre-eighteenth-century Italian school, even though they were already highly priced.3 Felton Committee Report, 3 June 1964, NGV archive. In addition, her combined art scholarship and experience as a senior civil administrator bolstered the old master collections for both the Birmingham and the National Gallery of Victoria.

Mary Woodall was born on 6 March 1901 in Kent, England, into the industrial aristocracy. Her mother was Bertha Nettlefold whose family business, Nettlefolds & Chamberlain, had for many years dominated the economic sphere of Birmingham City and beyond. Mary Woodall read modern history at Somerville College, Oxford, and later graduated from the Slade School of Art, where she studied under Henry Tonks. She went on to the Courtauld Institute of Art and was awarded her PhD in 1937 (a rarity at the time for a woman) for her thesis on the landscapes of Thomas Gainsborough.4 Mary Woodall, The Place of Gainsborough in the Development of English Landscape with Special Reference to his Drawings, Courtauld Institute, 1937; published in 1939 as Gainsborough’s Landscape Drawings. In 1964 The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough, edited by Mary Woodall, was published. Ralph Edwards stated, ‘Dr Woodall has placed all students of Gainsborough in her debt (her Gainsborough’s Landscape Drawings which appeared so long ago as 1939 is still the only book on the subject) and now she has greatly increased the obligation’ (Connoisseur, February, vol. 155, 1964, p. 100). For a short time she was a volunteer attaché at the British Museum but with the onset of World War II she joined the Women’s Volunteer Services as a regional director. During the war she was employed at the Ministry of Health and, later, the Ministry of Supply.

In 1945 Dr Woodall was encouraged to take the position of Keeper of Art at the Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery. After one year in this position the director, Trenchard Cox (Sir), promoted her to deputy director. In 1956 Cox departed to become director of the Victoria and Albert Museum and Dr Woodall succeeded him as director of the Birmingham. Her appointment raised a few eyebrows at the time as she had become the first woman director of any major municipal gallery or museum in Great Britain (fig. 3).5 ‘Dr Mary Woodall. Art administrator and scholar’, Obituary, Times, London, 6 April 1988, p. 16. The Birmingham had been distinguished mainly by its Pre-Raphaelite painting collection, but under Dr Woodall’s directorship its reputation was elevated to one of national significance through her successful acquisition of pre-eighteenth-century paintings that bolstered the Italian-school collection. It required all of her administrative and negotiating skills to secure the necessary funds to acquire works by Guido Reni, Annibale Carracci, Giovanni Benedetto (1609–1664), Carlo Dolci (1616–1687) and Jacques Rousseau (1630–1693), as well as a large painting, Erminia and the shepherds, 1626, which had been painted for the Duke of Mantua by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591–1666), nicknamed ‘Guercino’ (cross-eyed). But the acquisition that best demonstrates Dr Woodall’s skills is her coup in 1958 in purchasing the painting by Sandro Botticelli (c.1444–1510) Descent of the Holy Ghost, 1495–1505.6 Times, London, 11 August 1959, p. 11. The Botticelli had been bought earlier in June 1958 on behalf of an American gallery in London at a Sotheby’s auction. Dr Woodall successfully applied to the Reviewing Committee on the Report of Works of Art, requesting them to not grant an  export license. At the same time she secured funding from the National Art Collections Fund to purchase the work for the very reasonable sum of 6000 pounds sterling.7 ibid., (repr.).

In 1962 Dr Woodall was elected as the first woman president of the Museums Association of Great Britain. In this role she lobbied heavily for an increase in the educational training and academic standard of museum employees. She asserted that higher wages should be paid as quality people were being lured instead to universities and private collections. She was a perfectionist herself and, as director of the Birmingham, she had a hands-on approach to every aspect of the gallery and museum. She organised the hanging of works and even mixed the paint used on the walls.

In 1964 Dr Woodall retired as director of the Birmingham and the following year she agreed to become the London-based adviser to the Felton Bequest. The acquisition policy that she subsequently implemented altered slightly from the very successful one she had developed at the Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery. She seems to have been heavily influenced by the fact that, unlike the Birmingham, the National Gallery of Victoria was known as a gallery and not as a gallery and museum. With gallery collecting principles as her premise, Dr Woodall’s passion and experience in the area of Italian painting predisposed her to such acquisitions, but she also saw the great value in collecting in other areas. As John Poynter has noted: ‘She made no specific suggestions, but remarked that the Gallery needed more sculpture, that it should seek modern prints … and should look to works from South-East Asia’.8 J. Poynter, Mr Felton’s Bequests, Melbourne 2003, p.523.

The conditions Dr Woodall encountered were the opposite to those of her predecessor, A. J. L. (John) McDonnell (1904–1964). His advisership from 1947 until his sudden death in London in 1964 was under the most favourable circumstances.9 Felton Committee Report, 3 June 1964, NGV archive. From 1949 to 1954 the Felton had been able to purchase an average of three or four major paintings each year. Yet, from 1955 onwards, the number and quality of such works decreased sharply.10 ibid. The local media had for years published obituaries of the Felton, describing it, at best, as a spent force and, at worst, obsolete.11 See Poynter, p.522. Despite these considerable obstacles, Dr Woodall almost managed to recapture the postwar boom by acquiring, on average, two Italian old master paintings for every year of her tenure.

In 1966 and 1967 Dr Woodall purchased two paintings that perfectly reflected her exploitation of the system of buying first-rate examples from the second-tier market. The panel painting The Holy Family, c.1545, by the Italian Mannerist Perino del Vaga (1501–1547), was acquired in 1966 from the Hazlitt Gallery, London, for 12,000 pounds sterling, and a small panel painting, The Adoration of the Magi, c.1420, by the Italian artist Giovanni Toscani ((1370–80)–1430) (fig. 4), was purchased from Herbert N. Bier, London in 1967.12 Acquired as Italian School, Florentine, 15th century (see U. Hoff, European Paintings before 1800 in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1995, p. 292). Perino del Vaga had assisted Raphael and was considered one of his most brilliant disciples, representing a fundamental link between the two stylistic periods of Raphael and Michelangelo. The purchase of Toscani’s The Adoration of the Magi became the earliest Renaissance work to enter the collection; the price of AUD$31,000, a considerable percentage of the total Felton income for that year,13 Felton Committee Minutes, 10 February 1966, p.33, NGV archive. highlights how costly such works had become.

In 1967 Dr Woodall also secured a small early work by the ‘father of European landscape’ Claude Lorrain. This first-class example came from the Earl of Brownlow’s collection and was purchased through Dr Woodall’s trusted connections at Agnew’s, the art dealers in London. The painting, an oil on canvas titled River landscape with Tiburtine Temple at Tivoli, c.1635 (fig. 5),14 This painting represented the National Gallery of Victoria in Claude Lorrain (1600–1682): A Tercentenary Exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, and Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, between 1982 and 1983 (see Hoff, p.56, cat. no. 7). was purchased for 15,000 pounds sterling. The work was previously unknown, which explains why it was sold for such a relatively low price. Yet, at the time, the Felton funds were at one of their lowest levels.15 Felton Committee Minutes, 8 April 1967, p. 40, NGV archive. In the competitive international art market it required every bit of inside information and access to major collections and dealers for Dr Woodall to make quality acquisitions. The purchase of a genuine Lorrain filled the gap in the collection which had been created by a Lorrain work that proved to be a contemporary copy.

Dr Woodall had also been asked to undertake advisery work on behalf of the Everard Studley Miller Bequest,16 See P. Paffen, ‘Everard Studley Miller and his bequest to the National Gallery of Victoria’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, no. 35, 1994, p. 35. which had an unusually fortunate period during 1967–68. Through the bequest the NGV received four portraits of outstanding merit. Unlike the Felton Bequest, the Miller Bequest stipulated its funds be used to purchase ‘portraits of individuals of merit in History painted, engraved or sculptured before AD 1800’. Dr Woodall used the funds to acquire the Gallery’s first example of an ‘elevated’ portrait with the purchase in 1967 of the British artist Johan Zoffany’s (1733–1810), painting, Elizabeth Farren as Hermione in the The Winter’s Tale, c.1780.17 See Hoff, ‘Recent additions to the National Gallery and Art Museum’, Art Bulletin of Victoria. no. 9, 1967–68, p. 38. Elizabeth Farren’s stance is very similar to that of the sitter in Joshua Reynolds’s Mrs Abington as the The Comic Muse. 1764–65 (Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire, England), indicating Zoffany’s alignment with Reynolds’s ‘grand style’ of portraiture. The marble bust Emperor Septimus Severus, acquired 1967–68, was the first Roman portrait bust to enter the Gallery’s collection and was also purchased through the Miller Bequest. Three further sculptural acquisitions were made between 1967 and 1968. The bust George Gougenot, 1748, by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle (1714–1785), was a superb example of baroque illusionism, and the terracotta bust of Rubens, c.1743, by Michael Rysbrack (1693–1770), was an ideal acquisition for the Miller Bequest since it was made as part of a series of ‘men of merit in history’. Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828) was the most celebrated French sculptor of the eighteenth century and is considered to be one of the greatest portraitists of the period. His plaster bust Jean-Jacques Rousseau, c.1778, which was taken from a death mask, conveys the nervous sensibility at the core of the great French philosopher’s mind.

The acquisition in 1968 of the painting by Bernardo Cavallino (1616–c.1656) The Virgin Annunciate, c.1645 (fig. 6), was purchased for 12,000 pounds sterling, which was approximately one-third of the Felton funds available at that time; however, the choice to expend these funds was well made.18 Felton Committee Minutes, 24 February 1968, p. 65, NGV archive. About eight of his paintings are extant and only one of them is dated.19 See Getty Museum, , viewed 6 October 2002. In a report of a joint meeting of representatives from the Gallery and Felton Committee members on 19 August 1971, the opening remarks by Felton chairman Sir Clive Fitts illustrate how highly they regarded Dr Woodall’s professional and personal attributes:

I may say that I had known Dr Woodall for a long time before she became a Felton adviser. Her standing and reputation in England and the U.S.A. are very high … She is exceedingly well liked and there is no doubt that opportunities come her way that would not be available to everyone.20 Report of the joint meeting between representatives of the National Gallery of Victoria and Felton Committee members, 19 August 1971, NGV archive.

 In relation to the usefulness of a London adviser, Sir Clive added:

One of the functions of the adviser is to make the rounds of the Galleries to keep in touch with works which may never get into a firm’s catalogue and thus never come to the notice of the local curators.21 ibid.

In 1971 and 1974 Dr Woodall acquired two works by the famed Annibale Carracci, The Holy Family, c.1589 and Pan, c.1592 (fig. 7), from the Hazlitt Gallery in London.22 Hoff, European Paintings, p. 50.

Three years later Sir Denis Mahon stated that Pan was certainly by Annibale and was ‘of the finest quality and considerable art historical importance’.23 Sir Denis Mahon, quoted in Hoff, European Paintings, p. 52. Dr D. Stephen Pepper considers the picture to be ‘one of the masterpieces of Annibale Caracci’.24 D. Stephen Pepper, quoted in Hoff, ibid. In 1974 she also acquired Head of an old woman, 1640–42, by Guido Reni. Reni was born in Bologna and at the age of twenty he joined the Carracci Academy to further his painting studies. He was a quintessential academic but remained one of the most elegant painters of all time.

In 1969 Dr Woodall’s portfolio of responsibilities expanded considerably with her appointment as a trustee of the National Gallery in London and as a representative for the gallery on the Council of the National Trust. In 1972 she was also elected to the National Gallery Scientific Liaison Committee. None of these activities had a detrimental effect on her responsibilities to the Felton Bequest.

In her last letter to Sir Clive Fitts, Dr Woodall stated: ‘I have tried to strengthen further the strong points in the collection, to buy quality rather than names and not to try to “gap-fill”’.25 Mary Woodall, letter to Sir Clive Fitts, Felton Bequest correspondence, Fitts archive, University of Melbourne, 29 October 1974. She added that she had tried to forge links in the NGV collection between paintings and drawings of the same subject and period, and to decorative-arts objects similar to those appearing in paintings. This principle distinguished Dr Woodall’s major painting purchases during her tenure as adviser. Works were not recommended for purchase simply because they were reasonably priced, but also because they provided a scholarly link between existing works in the collection. Dr Woodall had successfully managed, through quiet professionalism and consistency, to steer the Felton Committee to concentrate their depleted funds on special paintings and objects.

Dr Woodall’s term as Felton Adviser officially ended on the 30 March 1975,26 Felton Committee correspondence, 21 April 1975, NGV archive. when she was seventy-four. In the following year she also retired as a trustee of the National Gallery, London. Dr Woodall immediately returned to her own painting and, later in 1978, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford held a one-woman exhibition of fifty-four of her works in the Eldon Gallery.27 Dr Kenneth Garlick, the former authority on Japanese art at the Ashmolean Museum, has described Dr Woodall’s paintings as having been ‘drawn with surety and being on a small scale of quiet and often poetic feeling’. He considered that she was a Wordsworthian at heart (see K. Garlick, ‘Dr Mary Woodall’, Obituary, Independent, London, 14 April 1988).

On 31 March 1988, aged eighty-seven, Mary Woodall died in a nursing home near the village of Clifton Hampden, Oxfordshire, where she had lived for some years in retirement.

Peter Tzamouranis, completed BA (Honours), University of Melbourne in 2002.

 Acknowledgements

I am deeply indebted to Malcolm Cormack, Paul Mellon Curator, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Virginia, USA, for his generous response to my enquiries about Dr Woodall.

My thanks and appreciation to Dr Kenneth Garlick for his informative correspondence that answered crucial biographical and professional information which had eluded my research. I also thank Toby Watley, Curator of Fine Arts, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, for his invaluable assistance in supplying information about Dr Woodall’s acquisitions and contributions during her professional career at the Birmingham.

The following archivists have generously provided information and advice in furthering my research: Katherine Boothman and Julie Mallinson, Cheltenham Ladies College, Birmingham; Judith Etherton and Joanne S. Kilgannon, the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London; Katie Dawson, Museums Association of Great Britain; Isobel Hunter, National Gallery, London; Julia Nurse and Gary Thorn, British Museum; Wendy Kirkby, University College, London; Pauline Adams, Somerville College, Oxford; and Christopher Hunwick, Main University Archive, Oxford.

I would also like to thank and acknowledge Professor John Poynter whose research and work on the Felton Bequest has enabled me to place Mary Woodall within the context of the bequest’s history.

 

Notes

This article is based on the author’s Bachelor of Arts (Honours) thesis: A Presentation of Dr Mary Woodall (1901–1988): First woman to be appointed London-based adviser to the Felton Bequest at the National Gallery of Victoria. Department of Fine Arts, Classical Studies and Archaeology, University of Melbourne, 2002.

1     See ‘Mr McDonnell as adviser to the Felton Bequest and its purchasing policy during the post-war period’ (Felton Committee Report, 3 June 1964, National Gallery of Victoria archive); the one exception during this period of restricted buying power was the purchase in 1959 of George Romney’s A large family piece, c.1768.

2     A. Inglis & J. Long, European Masterpieces: Six Centuries of Painting from the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, Melbourne, 2000, p. 132.

3     Felton Committee Report, 3 June 1964, NGV archive.

4     Mary Woodall, The Place of Gainsborough in the Development of English Landscape with Special Reference to his Drawings, Courtauld Institute, 1937; published in 1939 as Gainsborough’s Landscape Drawings. In 1964 The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough, edited by Mary Woodall, was published. Ralph Edwards stated, ‘Dr Woodall has placed all students of Gainsborough in her debt (her Gainsborough’s Landscape Drawings which appeared so long ago as 1939 is still the only book on the subject) and now she has greatly increased the obligation’ (Connoisseur, February, vol. 155, 1964, p. 100).

5     ‘Dr Mary Woodall. Art administrator and scholar’, Obituary, Times, London, 6 April 1988, p. 16.

6     Times, London, 11 August 1959, p. 11.

7     ibid., (repr.).

8     J. Poynter, Mr Felton’s Bequests, Melbourne 2003, p.523.

9     Felton Committee Report, 3 June 1964, NGV archive.

10     ibid.

11     See Poynter, p.522.

12     Acquired as Italian School, Florentine, 15th century (see U. Hoff, European Paintings before 1800 in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1995, p. 292).

13     Felton Committee Minutes, 10 February 1966, p.33, NGV archive.

14     This painting represented the National Gallery of Victoria in Claude Lorrain (1600–1682): A Tercentenary Exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, and Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, between 1982 and 1983 (see Hoff, p.56, cat. no. 7).

15     Felton Committee Minutes, 8 April 1967, p. 40, NGV archive.

16     See P. Paffen, ‘Everard Studley Miller and his bequest to the National Gallery of Victoria’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, no. 35, 1994, p. 35.

17     See Hoff, ‘Recent additions to the National Gallery and Art Museum’, Art Bulletin of Victoria. no. 9, 1967–68, p. 38. Elizabeth Farren’s stance is very similar to that of the sitter in Joshua Reynolds’s Mrs Abington as the The Comic Muse. 1764–65 (Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire, England), indicating Zoffany’s alignment with Reynolds’s ‘grand style’ of portraiture. The marble bust Emperor Septimus Severus, acquired 1967–68, was the first Roman portrait bust to enter the Gallery’s collection and was also purchased through the Miller Bequest. Three further sculptural acquisitions were made between 1967 and 1968. The bust George Gougenot, 1748, by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle (1714–1785), was a superb example of baroque illusionism, and the terracotta bust of Rubens, c.1743, by Michael Rysbrack (1693–1770), was an ideal acquisition for the Miller Bequest since it was made as part of a series of ‘men of merit in history’. Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828) was the most celebrated French sculptor of the eighteenth century and is considered to be one of the greatest portraitists of the period. His plaster bust Jean-Jacques Rousseau, c.1778, which was taken from a death mask, conveys the nervous sensibility at the core of the great French philosopher’s mind.

18     Felton Committee Minutes, 24 February 1968, p. 65, NGV archive.

19     See Getty Museum, , viewed 6 October 2002.

20     Report of the joint meeting between representatives of the National Gallery of Victoria and Felton Committee members, 19 August 1971, NGV archive.

21     ibid.

22     Hoff, European Paintings, p. 50.

23     Sir Denis Mahon, quoted in Hoff, European Paintings, p. 52.

24     D. Stephen Pepper, quoted in Hoff, ibid.

25     Mary Woodall, letter to Sir Clive Fitts, Felton Bequest correspondence, Fitts archive, University of Melbourne, 29 October 1974.

26     Felton Committee correspondence, 21 April 1975, NGV archive.

27     Dr Kenneth Garlick, the former authority on Japanese art at the Ashmolean Museum, has described Dr Woodall’s paintings as having been ‘drawn with surety and being on a small scale of quiet and often poetic feeling’. He considered that she was a Wordsworthian at heart (see K. Garlick, ‘Dr Mary Woodall’, Obituary, Independent, London, 14 April 1988).