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School of Art
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George Powell of Nanteos

In my will, therefore, I had left to your University - as well as being quite the worthiest and most intelligent corporate body in my dear but benighted town - all I possessed ‘of bigotry and virtue’.

Letter GP to Principal T C Edwards, 4.iv.1879

George Ernest John Powell (1842-1882) was the son of Colonel William Thomas Rowland Powell of Cheltenham (1815-1878), Member of Parliament for Cardiganshire (1859-1865), and Rosa Edwyna Powell (née Cherry) of Buckland, Herefordshire. His early years were spent at the family mansion of Nanteos three miles south of Aberystwyth. The family wealth was accrued from the profits of various lead and silver ore mines in Cardiganshire. George Powell was initially educated at home by his mother and a governess, Sarah Love from London, sent to public school in Cheltenham and then to Eton in the mid 1850s. In 1861 he matriculated to Brasenose College, Oxford but left before graduating. He spent most of his adult life in London and France and had sufficient means to pursue a life of travelling - throughout Europe, northern Africa and Iceland - writing poetry and indulging his passion for both music and collecting books, music manuscripts, autograph letters, fine and decorative art, coins and ‘curiosities’. Powell succeeded to the Nanteos Estate in 1878, was made High Sheriff of Cardigan 1880-81, married Dinah T Harris a housekeeper of Goodwick, Pembrokeshire in 1881 and died on 17 October 1882.

Powell began giving his collections to the University in 1879 and bequeathed the rest on his death in 1882. In three letters to Principal Thomas Charles Edwards (4.iii.1879, 26.iv.1879, & 8.iv.1882) Powell sets out his intentions and lists some of the artefacts he wishes to donate - a ‘tiny batch of Icelandic curios’, a ‘curious and unique’ series of Japanese paintings on paper, ‘some superb works’ in jewelled and enamelled silver and some Japanese ivory carvings. He had approached the University as early as 1874 but now convinced of the stability of both the University and the Museum and apparently familiar with the curators he seems to have been spurred on to acquire artefacts specifically for the Museum.

Powell had offered his collection to the town initially in 1871 through the agency of the Rev. E O Phillips of Llanbadarn, with the proviso that a room or gallery was built to house it. At the time the collection was valued at £5,000. After a year of meandering discussion by the town council and an unsuccessful attempt to finance both a free public library and a gallery by implementation of the 1845 Public Libraries Act, Powell withdrew his offer - but not before the value and quality of the gift had been called into question. His collection was given to the University in the belief that its intrinsic value and usefulness in academic pursuits would be recognised in the eyes of both scholars and townspeople and that this would win him status in his life-time and a particular category of immortality.

Clause 31 of Powell’s will (16.x.1882) sets out the bequest: ‘I give and bequeath to the trustees for the time being of the Museum of the said University College all my oil and watercolour paintings and crayon drawings not at Nanteos aforesaid and (hereinafter specially mentioned) whether the same paintings and drawings happen to be at 41 Mornington Crescent aforesaid at the time of my death or elsewhere under the care of Mr Smith Picture Dealer 137 New Bond Street or any other person. And I give and bequeath ... all the Roman Greek Egyptian and other antiquities and all curiosities and objects of art ivory carvings bronzes Persian Faenza and Moorish ware statues brass repoussé work and Oriental embroidery in my possession at the time of my decease.’ In addition to all the objets d’art the bequest included 150 oil paintings, watercolours, prints and drawings and 1,700 books.

There are no diaries which might establish the itinerary of Powell’s version of the Grand Tour abroad. He carefully preserved his correspondents’ letters and had them bound into 11 volumes (he also pasted newspaper cuttings and reviews concerning his own and his friends’ activities, and those of his musical and literary heroes into a scrapbook entitled Gleanings). The letters indicate to a certain degree where he travelled on the continent, but very little is included about how he purchased his collection, only fourteen of his own letters survive, written to Algernon Swinburne and Simeon Solomon, and now in the Brotherton Library, Leeds. Over one hundred letters from the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) are included in Powell’s bound correspondence. The two men became close friends from 1865 onwards, visited each other in London and Aberystwyth and both stayed at Powell’s cottage near Etretat, Normandy in 1868. The letters reveal that both shared a fascination with corporal punishment and its literary exegesis in the works of the Marquis de Sade. (Swinburne too had attended Eton.) Powell named his cottage Chaumière Dolmancé after a character in De Sade’s La Philosophie dans le Boudoir and their adventures there are related by Guy de Maupassant in his story L’anglais d’Etretat and also in the Goncourt brothers Journal (28.ii.1875). Maupassant met Powell and Swinburne in the summer of 1868 at Etretat when he attempted to rescue Swinburne from the sea. In Maupassant’s fictional account Powell appears as a proto-type of J K Huysman’s Des Essientes in [italic]Au Rebours], seeming at first gentle and kind to his visitors but acting in an increasingly bizarre manner, living with a monkey yet rumoured to eat only monkey flesh, possessing an album of pornographic photographs of soldiers, sucking on the fingers of a severed, mummified hand and so on - and of course outraging the locals. In the short story he describes Powell’s character, ‘He loved the supernatural, the macabre, the tortured, the intricate and every form of derangement’. In the tradition of many eccentric collectors such as Ludwig II of Bavaria and William Beckford, Powell flirted with the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, but safely ensconced in a cottage in Normandy and on rather a less lavish scale. All that remains as material evidence, apart from the correspondence, are watercolours of Etretat by Wilhelm Kümpel (1822-80), and a lock of Swinburne’s hair. A watercolour by J B Zwecker of Nip the monkey is now missing.

An undated, bound inventory of the paintings in the University is more specific about Powell’s methods of acquisition but not always totally convincing; in it Powell indicates with ‘+’ those works ‘executed expressly for me’; those annotated with ‘#’ were ‘gifts from the artists’ and ‘GP’ (encircled) indicated those produced ‘from my own designs’. But there seems to be an element of wishful thinking; the category ‘+’ includes two drawings in red chalk Female Head and Seraph by Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-1898) these appear to be preparatory studies for his painting Le Chant d’Amour (1868-77) now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. An undated letter from Georgiana Burne-Jones acknowledges Powell’s payment in person at their house in Fulham. There are two other very similar studies of the Seraph in the Ashmolean and British Museums. A watercolour of the same subject, painted in 1865, was purchased by the Scottish collector William Graham who then commissioned the New York painting; it is unlikely therefore that the two Burne-Jones drawings were ‘executed expressly’ for Powell and more likely that Powell asked for copies of studies he had already seen.

On the other hand the letters from J B Zwecker, Wilhem Kümpel and Simeon and Rebecca Solomon show that Powell was active in commissioning work to his own taste. His correspondence with the artist Johann Baptiste Zwecker (1814-1876) in particular attests to a close working relationship. Zwecker illustrated Powell and Eiríkur Magnússons’ Legends of Iceland (First & Second Series, Richard Bentley, 1864-66) and painted many watercolours on this theme for Powell, some of them from Powell’s designs. They began their correspondence in 1864 and it continued until Zwecker’s death in 1876. Powell encouraged and supported Zwecker throughout the artist’s long periods of ill-health. Zwecker was a well-known illustrator whose work appeared regularly in periodicals such as Good Words and Once a Week; he also illustrated various works on travel and natural history - a number of them by David Livingstone and H M Stanley. His magnum opus was the illustration of the Reverend John George Wood’s Illustrated Natural History (three volumes, Routledge 1861) and his Natural History of Man (five volumes, Routledge 1863-70). Zwecker’s replies to Powell’s letters from Leipzig, Madrid and Algiers are often decorated in the headings and margins with vignettes of his own dreams and adventures and with portraits of Powell in different guises. In one letter Zwecker describes Powell as ‘a Will O’the Wisp, here there, everywhere, nobody can follow ... now in Spain, in the twinkle of an eye in Paris again’. (27.ii.1866) Many letters also make reference to the works commissioned by Powell. One describes his painting Nautilus - A Dream in Fever, painted from a specimen Zwecker had bought especially: ‘The picture succeeded better than I expected. The colours of the Nautilus and deep, deep blue sea, blend beautifully. I really thank you did give me to do such a bold bit of colouring ... I hope you will send me some new ideas for painting, I shall be delighted to embody them with brush and colour.’ (c.May 1865) Powell paid Zwecker, often in advance, anything from five to 30 guineas for each piece.

His close friend Algernon Swinburne introduced Powell to the young artist Simeon Solomon (1840-1905). From his correspondence it is clear that Powell sometimes suggested ideas for compositions to Solomon. He purchased three watercolours by Solomon who was closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelite circle and later the Aesthetic Movement - Noon, A Roman Youth and Love Dreaming by the Sea; the latter two were both commissioned by Powell. A Roman Youth was painted when the artist was in Rome in 1869 where he wrote his prose poem A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep, published in 1871. Solomon was also a friend of Swinburne and provided illustrations for his novel Lesbia Brandon (written c.1859-1868). In an undated letter from Solomon to Powell he consults his patron about the composition -‘would you like the ruined temple background to your "Love" or the sea + sky that we spoke of elsewhere - will you kindly let me have a line as it is being begun’. Solomon’s homosexuality earned him notoriety, an eighteen-month suspended sentence and eventual destitution. After Simeon’s arrest in 1873 Powell, unlike Swinburne, appears to have kept in contact with the Solomons. The Wounded Dove is the only work by Simeon’s sister Rebecca Solomon (1832-1886) in the collection; her letters to Powell confirm that she was paid £15 in installments, the last of which was made in 1873. She trained under her brother Abraham and attended Spitalfields School of Design. The work she exhibited between 1850 and 1874 was favourably reviewed and reproduced in contemporary art magazines but after her brother’s arrest her promising career came to an abrupt end.

Powell also collected a number of works from the more well-known Pre-Raphaelites - two pencil drawings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) of Clara Vaughan Morgan, 1874 and Ruth Herbert, 1858 and a watercolour of the head of a young woman by Sir Edward Poynter (1836-1919) who eventually became the President of the Royal Academy in 1896. Powell placed particular value on Ruth Herbert who was manageress of St James Theatre, London until 1867; quoted in the College Magazine 1882-83 he writes ‘Pictures of this noblest of artist-poets being of such extreme rarity and immense value, it has taken me five years of constant search to find this very interesting specimen’ suggesting that the work was not procured directly from the artist. Most of the paintings and drawings of female sitters in Powell’s collection are epicine, or ethereal. The watercolours of ‘scenes of Spanish life’ by P J Antoine are slightly more robust - his Woman with a Tambourine, The Drummer and The Fan are more in the Realist vein but very little is known about him except that he worked and exhibited in London.

Powell also bought paintings which were more of the academic or ‘old master’ variety, some of them genuine, some copies; these he may have purchased in sale rooms in London possibly through the agency of Mr Gullick from whom there is some correspondence. They include two early watercolours by J M W Turner (1775-1851) Folly Bridge, Oxford (c1794) and Westminster Bridge (c1796); two landscapes attributed to John Crome (1768-1821); two paintings attributed to John Constable (1776-1837), Branch Hill Pond, Hampstead Heath (probably by John Linnell) and A Country Road (possibly by F W Watts) and three large watercolours by Richard Westall (1765-1836): Satan Calling Forth His Legions (1792), A Nymph and two Satyrs [Elegia Quinta] and The Birth of Sin, all finished studies for engravings illustrating John Boydell’s edition of Milton’s Poetical Works (1792-94).

The paintings and objets d’art also reveal a decided interest in the male nude particularly in the collection of small bronzes. Some are Renaissance, some 18th or 19th-century copies of Renaissance originals and some are contemporary pieces made by well-known sculptors of the time such as On the sea shore (1877) (a black woman manacled in slavery) by John Bell (1812-1895), {italic:Pan] by Jean Baptiste Clésinger (1814-1883) and Bacchus by Victoriano Codina-Länglin (1844-1911). The overall theme of the bronzes is the male nude in classical guise, subject matter which is echoed in some of Zwecker’s watercolours, particularly the overtly phallic Boy on a Dragonfly, Ajax by Etienne Garnier and Love Dreaming by the Sea by Simeon Solomon. Homoeroticism is undeniably one of the prime organising principles of Powell’s collection of fine and decorative art.

As for the other artefacts in the collection there are few clues to where they were acquired: a Liberty’s label on a piece of Satsuma pottery, a label from F De Soye of Paris on a Japanese ivory carving; a claim to have found intaglios (carved gemstones) ‘between Mayence and Ingelheim during the 1869-70 war’ (UCW Calendar, 1899-1900; p273) and his presence in the area is confirmed by a letter from Zwecker to Powell (20.vii.1870) or to have excavated various antiquities, given to the Museum in 1879, ‘in ancient tombs in the neighbourhood of the Rhine’ and to have collected a series of silver ornaments ‘and other articles’ during his Icelandic travels. Two Islamic tiles from Antatolia and Persia and a Moroccan bowl he may have been picked up on his travels in North Africa or Spain, equally the paintings by Gustave Guillaumet (1840-1887), Diaz de la Peña (1807-1876) and drawings by Horace Vernet (1789-1863) and Etienne Garnier (1759-1849) he may have purchased in France. Likewise his collection of Limoges enamels may also have been acquired in France; these include two ‘Twelve Caesar’ candlesticks and two plaques by Jacques Laudin (c.1627-1695).

Powell was very taken with Romantic struggles for liberty and nationhood. Like many other collectors in the 19th century he collected material associated with Napoleon Bonaparte. He bequeathed two images of the Emperor wrought in minute calligraphy by the imprisoned ‘Maestro di Pavia’ c.1825; a profile constructed from an account of the battle of Waterloo and a full-length portrait in Imperial robes which is simultaneously the text of Napoleon’s last will and testament. Powell was also a supporter of the Icelandic nationalist and writer Jón Árnusson, giving him £1,500 ostensibly to write a definitive history of his homeland which was never completed. It was from Árnusson’s collection of Legends of Iceland (1862-64) that Eiríkur Magnússon and Powell took their selection. There is no evidence to suggest that Powell felt any similar concerns for the fate of the Welsh nation or language.

The natural sciences are also represented in Powell’s gifts in the form of ‘natural curiosities’: specimens of Icelandic rocks and minerals - Iceland spar, malachite, agates, antimony and various ores; fossil specimens from Tremadog and pieces of wood from the submerged forest at Hastings: the rattle of a rattlesnake, a specimen of Lacerta Gouldi, the molar of an elephant and a piece of organ-pipe coral. The ‘artificial curiosities’ included many artefacts from Japan: sixteen Japanese netsukes (small carved figures, many of skeletons or skulls) and eight Kagimabuta netsukes (rice-cake shaped netsukes with discs of metal incised and appliqued with scenes from Japanese legend); eleven larger ivory okimono carvings, some ojime (small coral or ivory beads) and five bronze tsuba or sword guards; a group of Japanese arrows in a leather stand, a bronze spider crab, an ornate bronze and brass medicine cabinet, a cast iron saki kettle and two enamelled metal vases; other curiosities include a Chinese magician’s crystal wand; a large number of ‘Oriental and other manuscripts’; old Persian needlework; a pair of Canadian snowshoes and a carved wooden effigy of a New Zealand chief. The European rarities include autograph signatures of Henry III and Henry IV of France; and a Papal Bull of Pope Urban VIII of 1637. The list begins to resemble the contents of a 17th-century Wünderkammer.

Powell was a fanatical devotee of Wagner and attended the first performance of the Ring cycle. A list, preserved by Powell, of those attending Bayreuth in August 1876 describes Powell as ‘Gelehrter’ - a learned gentleman or man of letters. By his own account he also had dinner with the ‘Great Master’ and his wife Cosima in September 1876 (letter to Swinburne 11.ix.1876). The relic of this experience was a dried flower from the gardens at Bayreuth (long since lost). He amassed a number of musical manuscripts and autographs including Ode upon the New Year (1693) by Dr John Blow (1649-1708), and Orazio Benecoli’s Dixit Dominus (1668). In 1862 he purchased from the sale of the library of the Society for British Musicians an autographed manuscript of Mendelssohn’s concert overture Meerestille und glückliche farht (Calm sea and prosperous voyage) 1832. Unfortunately the score is no longer considered to an authentic working document by the composer. Powell also bequeathed a plaster-cast of Mendelssohn’s hand. There is an element of the souvenir about much of his music memorabilia - and occasionally a suggestion of the relic - the coffee service he thought had belonged to Mozart (but was in fact made by the Gieshübl Porcelain Factory in Bohemia two decades after Mozart’s death in 1791), a Parian bust of Beethoven, a fragment of Robert Schumann’s coffin in a beautifully enamelled silver and rock crystal casket (only the casket remains). Powell was acquainted with Schumann’s wife, the pianist and composer Clara Schumann. He also bequeathed autograph letters of Schumann, Weber, Cherubini, Hummel and Drs. Blow, Boyce and Croft. His music manuscripts were left to Dr Joseph Parry’s College in Swansea but later returned to Aberystwyth. The artist Wilhelm Kümpel, a mutual friend of Powell and Zwecker was commissioned to produce crayon portraits of Powell’s musical and literary heroes among them Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Schumann and Richard Wagner. Powell also bequeathed an engraved portrait of Wagner by Sir Hubert von Herkomer.

Powell’s collection was not formed in any systematic fashion, nor is there any evidence to suggest that while it was in his possession it was arranged or displayed in any ordered manner - as a private museum or a secret studiolo - to demonstrate any rational point to potential spectators. Most of the objects which Powell gave and bequeathed to the University were part of the decor of his house at 41, Mornington Crescent in north west London, little came from Nanteos. Nevertheless, en masse, his collections do constitute Powell’s personal Theatre of Memory - they are representative of his personal enthusiasms, they had strong significance as precious souvenirs of friends and relics of heroes, as illustrations of his status as man of letters, a scholar, a benefactor, a patron to young genius and an equal among the great and the good - in his own words his collections were ‘the reality of my dreams’. This nostalgic aspect of his collection - artefacts amassed to authenticate Powell’s experiences, to summon them but never to recoup them - now colours our picture of Powell. He left no narrative to supplement the artefacts and as they were dispersed throughout the University, their collective meanings suffered concurrent attrition.

Powell’s collection also conforms to historical precedents. It contains the material acquired by any ‘serious’ art collector in the mid-19th century, following the model of Renaissance princely collections; in this instance without the means of a William Beckford (1759-1844) or a George Salting (1836-1909) or the knowledge and connoiseurship of a Charlotte Schrieber (1812-95) or Lord Llangattock (John Rolls). The paintings, objets d’art, curios, souvenirs and relics seen together are imbued with Powell’s own slant on the world; separated, unsequenced, dispersed they are dumb; in the canon of art history as moments in a progression they are ‘second rate’ or ‘minor pieces’, in the language of the auction house many are ‘without provenance’, ‘attributed’, copies or even fakes. But together the artefacts and associated literature are an invaluable resource for the reconstruction of the world view of a 19th-century collector, and the examination of our relationship with material goods in collections, through time.

Neil Holland