I have in recent years been fortunate to be able to work on two of the world’s great collections of sculpture, in the Ashmolean Museum Oxford, and the Wallace Collection in London. My three-volume catalogue of the Medieval and Renaissance sculpture in the Ashmolean has just appeared, and I will shortly complete the new catalogue of Italian sculpture in the Wallace Collection, for publication in 2015. Working on a catalogue of a collection is quite different from an article or an exhibition catalogue, in which to a great extent you have the chance to select your material and your themes. In contrast, for a catalogue of an entire collection you have to, as it were, take the smooth with the rough. Almost every collection is a mixed bag – if you are lucky with some superb masterpieces, but almost certainly too with its fair share of also-rans: routine or damaged objects, mistakes (witting or unwitting) and problem pieces, for which you scratch your head and in desperation ask yourself “What am I going to say about that thing?”!
So preparing a collection catalogue is a long and an arduous journey, but it is also a tremendously stimulating one, as well of course as being a great privilege. Cataloguing encourages you to look very hard at objects, and to consider critically and afresh what has (or all too often hasn’t) been written about them before. Very often you are forced to think outside your own comfort zone, almost always a good thing. These are all skills that any successful dealer must learn to employ when assessing the works of art that pass through his or her hands, in the course of a professional career. They are at the end of the day all about giving a work of art an added context, in terms of its attribution, the history of its ownership, or the way in which it was used or displayed. If you can do some of this, the work of art starts to become a little more than the inanimate object it is, taking on in some mysterious way a life of its own. An added ingredient in all of this is that indefinable, but vital skill – the keen eye of connoisseurship, gained through long experience of looking at works of art of all levels, from the sublime downwards. Drawings and sculptures, especially small bronze sculptures, are both types of object for which that sixth sense is crucial, hopefully helping you to tease out the extra hidden significance in a work of art, so you can better express and communicate its beauty and its impact.
In many ways the task facing a cataloguer of a museum collection is not dissimilar to that of the dealer. Each has to take a group of objects – those in the museum collection or those on the market, or in the dealer’s stock – and try to make sense of them. At the end of the day, we both aim to add value – the dealer perhaps in a literal sense! In a museum collection, the added value lies rather in greater knowledge of the work of art, increasing understanding and appreciation for our many different audiences. The forensic and connoisseurial skills employed to these ends are, however, not all that different between museums and the trade; indeed, most of us who are professionally engaged in the art world found our way there because of a love of the subject. This is why good relationships between those who care for collections in the public domain, those who collect privately and those who work in the art market, are important and generally benefit all parties. We are very fortunate in London and the United Kingdom that just such close and positive relationships have long been the norm. The practical financial support received by the Ashmolean from friends and colleagues in the art trade made publication of my new catalogue possible. On a more down-to-earth level, it has been of huge benefit to have been able to see and discuss over the years so many fine and interesting sculptures, as they have passed through the London market. In recent years it has become fashionable to talk of London as the preeminent global city of our age. In the fields of sculpture and drawings, this may well be true – other than New York, it is hard to conceive where else today you would find quite such a combination of great public collections, active scholars and collectors, and a dynamic and confident market. It is why Master Drawings and Sculpture Week has become a fantastic annual showcase of all that is best about London as a world centre of the art market, an event to which anyone with an interest in sculpture or master drawings looks forward with the greatest excitement. 2014 will I am sure be no exception.
Collections and Academic Director
Wallace Collection, London