- Stewards of the Nation’s Art: Contested Cultural Authority 1890–1939 by Andrea Geddes Poole
With this monograph, historian Andrea Geddes Poole addresses the ongoing debate regarding the relative decline of Britain’s landed aristocracy from the late Victorian era to the interwar period. As Geddes Poole explains in her introduction, historians agree that Britain’s landed classes experienced a period of transition from the late nineteenth century onward due to a combination of social, political, and economic pressures, including the reduction of agricultural revenues and an increase in land taxes. According to some historians, including David Cannadine and Peter Mandler, the financial strain experienced by the landed aristocracy meant that although this group retained a high degree of social status, they no longer wielded real political or economic clout and were thus reduced to an ornamental class of figureheads in prestige appointments. In contrast to this view, an opposing school of thought, represented by the work of Ross McKibbon and Andrew Adonis, finds the British aristocracy to have been highly resilient in response to financial and political pressures, and able to successfully retain its longstanding hegemony by absorbing recently titled aristocrats into its ranks and by developing ties with powerful financial and business interests (Geddes Poole 8–10). The issue is far from settled and continues to impact studies of class, empire, gender, material culture, and political reform.
Geddes Poole makes an important contribution to this ongoing debate by focusing on the issue of cultural authority in relation to stewardship. To do this, she looks at the administration of four of Britain’s public art galleries: the National Gallery, the National Gallery of British Art (later known as the Tate Gallery), the Wallace Collection, and the National Portrait Gallery. Noting the predominance of aristocrats who served as governors for these institutions, Geddes Poole poses a central question: was the prevalence of aristocratic board members on the nation’s leading art galleries an indication of the elite’s continued power and influence, even as Britain became an increasingly meritocratic society that valued professional expertise?
The opening chapters establish the context for this question. Geddes Poole addresses a number of related subjects, including the impact of Victorian and Edwardian philanthropy on the development of national art collections, the role of government in terms of gallery appointments and acquisitions, and the actions and perspectives of the men who ran these four principal galleries. She divides them into three groups: the men who served on boards of governors, including members of the old landed aristocracy and the newly titled men of wealth from industry and finance; the administrative directors, who were usually professional artists or academics employed to run the galleries’ daily operations and manage the collections; and the Oxbridge senior civil servants [End Page 215] in the Treasury who oversaw the funding of public galleries and decided on gallery and board appointments.
To understand how these groups interacted and perceived one another, Geddes Poole draws on an extensive range of primary and secondary sources, including gallery archives, published and unpublished government documents, and private papers. This is far more than an institutional history of government and gallery operations, however, since much of the book addresses the dynamics of power and the conflicts between boards and directors as they jockeyed for control of everything, from daily gallery operations to art acquisitions and sales, the most acrimonious examples being the feuds between the governors and administrative directors at both the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection. These conflicts represented the clash between competing kinds of cultural capital: one based on knowledge of and familiarity with elite culture, represented by middle-class arts professionals and (to some extent) the new men of wealth, and one based on the social capital of birth, prestige, and position, exemplified by the aristocratic, but amateur, gentlemen connoisseurs who served as gallery trustees (4, 216).
In describing the relationship between aristocratic trustees and professional gallery administrators, Geddes Poole notes the importance of the 1894 Rosebery Minute, which transferred the...