Impressionism, Post-impressionism, Symbolism and Camden Town
‘Mrs Mounter’, Harold Gilman
Conservative taste rather than simply lack of money prevented the acquisition of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist pictures by the Walker Art Gallery until about 1935. The appointment of Frank Lambert to the directorship of the Gallery in 1931, and the £20000 given in the Wavertree bequest marked the beginning of a less timid purchasing policy.
Lambert admired the paintings of Sickert and British Post-Impressionist artists, particularly Gilman, Gore, Bevan and the so-called ‘Camden Town’ painters who specialised in depictions of everyday intimate interiors and metropolitan street views. Lambert bought Gilman’s ‘Mrs Mounter’ - usually considered his masterpiece - and acquired by purchase and gift four outstanding Sickerts.
Although Lambert staged a large exhibition of modern prints and drawings at the Walker Art Gallery in March 1938, which included works by Picasso, Matisse, Dali and Klee, and added a major surrealist display as part of the 1938 Liverpool Autumn Exhibition it was not until well after the Second World War that the gallery gave any serious attentions to the purchase of more modern continental pictures.
Virtually all purchases were of British art. However, even moderately ‘modern’ works by British artists caused difficulties. Both Lambert and the Arts & Libraries Committee Chairman, Vere Cotton, wanted to buy a Paul Nash painting for the collection in Summer 1938 but were outvoted by their fellow committee members. J. McIntosh Patrick’s ‘Springtime in Eskdale’, was purchased, although costing five times as much.
Lambert’s successor, Hugh Scrutton, concentrated upon buying representative late nineteenth century French paintings: between 1959 and 1968 pictures by Vlaminck, Monet, Cezanne, Vuillard, Seurat, Sargent, Courbet and Degas were purchased - usually with the help of a substantial grant-in-aid from various government agencies and also from local benefactors.
Fortunately, Impressionist pictures were not then being sold for the high prices they now obtain.
Symbolist paintings and sculpture
A few avant-garde pictures had however made their way into the collection. For example Segantini’s ‘Punishment of Lust’, 1891, a Symbolist work, was bought in 1893 largely at the prompting of PH Rathbone, the then Chairman of the Walker Art Gallery Committee. The most important piece of Symbolist sculpture, ‘Mors Janua Vitae’ by Gilbert, was a gift to the gallery, as was Rodin’s ‘Minerva’.
The purchase of Tissot’s ‘Catherine Smith Gill and two of her children’ in 1981 brought back to Liverpool the only picture by one of the French Impressionist circle to have been painted in the city. Tissot was a political refugee in England for some years and in 1877 visited Liverpool to paint Mrs Gill at her home in Woolton - in the same year that the Walker Art Gallery opened.