Alfred Morrison (1821-97): a patron and collector of decorative arts

Alfred Morrison inherited a vast fortune from his father James Morrison (1789-1857).  Even in an era famous for the collecting habits of the nouveaux riches, James Morrison stands out.  His son Alfred (fig. 1) was not only a voracious collector in his own right, but also a notable patron of contemporary artists and manufacturers.

The architect J. B. Papworth (1775-1847) was the key figure in turning James Morrison from just another wealthy, self-made merchant into an art collector of the highest order.  Papworth was the adviser when the family moved from modest Balham (in South London) to fashionable Harley Street; the acquisition of the Pavilion at Fonthill, Wiltshire (originally part of Fonthill House, built for Alderman Beckford, William Beckford’s father), and Basildon Park, Berkshire.

Alfred Morrison, was brought up at the surviving Pavilion of Fonthill Splendens, by then known as Fonthill House, where he was, so to speak, breathing the air that once gave life to William Beckford.  Like his predecessors, Morrison exerted influence on both design and taste though his patronage.  In his range of achievements as a collector and patron, he might be seen as following in the footsteps of William Beckford (1760-1844) and Thomas Hope (1769-1831).

1. J.E. Smith, Alfred Morrison, photograph, Fonthill Estate Archive

The Fonthill Estate Archive preserves letters, bills and other documents that shed detailed light on Alfred, the patron and collector.  Take, for example Alfred’s address/notebook beginning on 16 July 1857 (the year of his father’s death and therefore the year of his inheritance) and running until 9 August 1893.  This manuscript includes the names and addresses of many of the artists and manufacturers with whom Morrison had dealings over a period of thirty five years.  While activity was frenetic in the 1860s and 1870s, Morrison’s patronage and collecting was to continue uninterrupted until the end of his life.

When James Morrison died in 1857, Alfred was living a bachelor life at Fonthill; he married the much younger Mabel Chermside (1847-1933) in 1866 (fig. 2).  Over the years, he had travelled extensively in Europe and North America, developing a taste for, and understanding of, architecture and the fine and decorative arts.  He was also surrounded by some of his father’s paintings, including works by Rembrandt and van Dyck, and eighteenth-century French furniture and works of art.

Morrison would in due course branch out to form significant collections of prints, including works by Rembrandt, Hogarth, Dürer and Callot; modern Asian bronzes and enamels; autographs of the famous (with whom he was obsessed), as well as, most notably, Chinese porcelain (fig. 3) and other works of art.  In the wake of the sacking of the old Summer Palace in Peking (now Beijing) in 1860, the contents flooded on to the market.  By 1861, Henry Brougham, later 1st Baron Loch (1827-1900), had returned from China to London and sold to Morrison around 1,000 ceramics and enamels, mainly dating from the eighteenth century (fig. 3).

NOTE: Click individual images to see full-size picture

2. Charles Lepec, Mabel Morrison, enamel on copper (?), 1866; the damascened frame attributed to Plácido Zuloaga, probably 1867, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
3. Pair of altar vases, porcelain with underglaze blue and overglaze enamelled decoration, Chinese, Qianlong (1736-95), sold Christie’s (London), 9 November 2004, lot 46

Alfred began collecting in earnest at the age of 42 – five years after his father’s death – when he made significant purchases at the 1862 London International Exhibition.  This was also the occasion when he first came across many of the manufacturers whom he would soon patronise in depth.  Indeed, in this respect, Alfred’s purchases demonstrate how such World’s Fairs acted as a shop window for inventions and novelties of all kinds.  By the end of the International Exhibition in 1862, Morrison had spent over £7,500, in a major commitment to predominantly ‘decorative arts’.

Exhibits from the Indian Court at the Great Exhibition, 1851, had entered the British Royal Collection, and Morrison himself made extensive purchases from the Indian Section of the 1862 exhibition.  Indeed, numerically if not financially, this is where he appears to have been most active.  He also bought some contemporary paintings, but often it is the origin rather than the artist that is noted.  For example, he bought a Snow Storm, a Bear Hunt, a Picture of a Wedding, and a Mare and Foal from Russia.  Other purchases were made from Saxony, Belgium, Denmark, Norway and Bavaria.  Titles included Catching Horses and Summer and Winter.

Amongst decorative arts acquisitions from the 1862 Exhibition were works by Fourdinois and Grohé (Parisian cabinet-makers), Gatti, Barbetti and Giusti (Italian carvers and furniture-makers), Binns of Worcester and Minton (ceramic manufacturers), and from the metalworkers and pioneer revivers of enamels, Elkington of Birmingham and Barbedienne of Paris.  Purchases from Charles Lepec (1830-90) included ‘9 Plaques of Enamel’.  Over the next five years Morrison became Lepec’s most important patron; it would be many of his creations for Morrison that Lepec would later choose to highlight when he participated at the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle.  The covered cup made from enamel on copper and gold (fig. 4) is one such work.

4. Charles Lepec, Tazza and Cover, 1866, enamel on gold, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Other retailers and manufacturers that appear in Morrison’s address/note book in the late 1850s and early 1860s, as well as later, include [James] Powell (the glass manufacturer), Thomas Goode (retailer of ceramics), Hatfield (‘Brass Cleaner’), Fannière Frères (silversmiths), Arnoot, a cabinet-maker also employed by Ralph Bernal, another great collector of the era, Arthur Hughes (presumably the artist), Beurdeley, the Parisian cabinet and ornament maker, Quaritch the bookseller, Charles Duron and Plácido Zuloaga, Castellani, and Bapst and Falize.

A name absent from the address/note book is the Parisian glassmaker Philippe-Joseph Brocard (1831-96), who revived Islamic-style glass, which he first exhibited at the Paris 1867 exhibition.  However, Brocard made for Morrison the pair of flasks (fig. 5).  Evidence that these were a specific commission, rather than a random purchase, is established by the presence of Morrison’s monogram as part of the decoration.

In 1866 Charles Duron (1814-72), who is best known for his enamel and gold-mounted hard stone objects, invoiced Morrison for ‘1 bracelette emaux’ and ‘1 brooch’.  But Morrison also acquired hard stone objects from Duron, including the coupe (fig. 6) exhibited at the Paris Exposition Universelle, 1867.

5. Philippe-Joseph Brocard, Pair of Vases, circa 1870, enamelled glass, Minneapolis Institute of Art
6. Charles Duron, Coupe, circa 1867, agate with enamelled gold, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

The Spaniard Eusebio Zuloaga (1808-98) initiated the revival of damascening (the inlaying of silver and gold into iron), first shown by him at a national exhibition in Madrid (1845).  However, it was his son Plácido (1834-1910) who improved the technique and widened the range of objects in this medium. Eusebio exhibited at the London Great Exhibition, 1851, but Placido, through his participation at the Paris Exposition Universelle, 1855, achieved the greater international recognition.  Zuloaga, with whom, like Lepec, Morrison developed a close relationship, supplied Morrison with more than forty outstanding examples of his work.  Perhaps the most remarkable commission is the monogrammed centre table, now at Buckingham Palace, spotted by Clive Wainwright during a privileged Furniture History Society visit.

Another one of the nineteenth-century’s outstanding artisans patronised by Morrison was Lucien Falize (1839-97).  The gothic-revival case, shown at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle, takes the form of a late Gothic tower, decorated elaborately with sculptural and architectural motifs.  Its craftsmanship confirmed Falize’s reputation as an enameller of the highest order (fig. 7).  The clock was made in cooperation with Germain Bapst (1853–1921).

But how and where did Morrison display his growing collections?  Here is another aspect of this enormously wealthy man’s enlightened patronage.  In 1863 Morrison acquired the lease on 16, Carlton House Terrace, London, a prestigious London address overlooking St James’s Park.  For the designs of its interiors and furnishing he turned to Owen Jones.  The same architect and designer would also create a remarkable set of cabinets for Chinese ceramics and enamels at Fonthill (fig. 8).  The manufacturer chosen for this extraordinary commission was the London cabinet-maker Jackson & Graham.  The interiors of Carlton House Terrace, although depleted (fig. 9) and lacking their original furnishings, survive sufficiently for us to appreciate a couple of contemporary descriptions, extracts from which are worth quoting.

7. Lucien Falize and Germain Bapst, Clock, 1881, silver with enamelled gold, hardstones, rock crystal, amethysts and diamonds, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
8. Owen Jones (designer) and Jackson & Graham (cabinet-maker), Cabinet, circa 1863, ebony and ivory, Toledo Museum of Art

Mrs Haweis, in Beautiful Houses (1882) wrote: ‘The house has been entirely decorated from designs by Owen Jones, carried out by Mr. Jackson of the firm of Jackson and Graham, and presents an appearance therefore, of general unity seldom seen in houses so large.’  Mary Eliza Haweis (1848-98) continues: ‘The ceilings are very fine; the doors, wainscots, and many suites of furniture throughout the house are made of the finest marqueterie of inlaid natural woods, and satisfactorily answer the common complaint that modern workmen cannot, or will not, do the good work which ancient workmen did.’ (fig. 9)

Writing in Travels in South Kensington (1882), Moncure Daniel Conway (1832-1907) noted that at Carlton House Terrace, ‘Every chair is as philosophically as it is beautifully constructed’ and, perhaps referring to the chair (fig. 10), pointed out designs reminiscent of ‘the perforated chairs of Delhi palaces’.

9. Owen Jones (designer) and Jackson & Graham (cabinet-maker), Panel, circa 1870, Ebonised pearwood, ebony, harewood, holly, amaranth and sycamore, Minneapolis Institute of Art
10. Owen Jones (designer) and Jackson & Graham (cabinet-maker), Chair, circa 1870, Ebonised pearwood, ebony, harewood, holly, amaranth and sycamore, Art Institute of Chicago
11. Minton, Plate, 1870, bone china

It seems that no part of the furnishings went unnoticed.  Mrs Haweis was surely referring to one of these monogrammed Minton plates (fig. 11) when she observed rather acidly ‘One of the most curious features of the house – an enormous cabinet, filled with a pretentious service of Minton’s ware…’

This note gives just a broad outline of the collections formed by Alfred Morrison, but plans are underway, spearheaded by Caroline Dakers, for an in-depth study. The present note is based on a lecture given by the compiler at the Art Institute of Chicago, May 2016.

All photographs are by Prudence Cuming Associates, London and are the copyright of H. Blairman & Sons, London, except the header and fig. 1 Fonthill Estate Archive, fig. 3 Christie’s Images and fig. 7 Metropolitan Museum of Art.