Friday from the Walters' Vault: English Masterpieces that Weren't

Photo: GV (Deep Storage)
Photo: GV (Deep Storage)

When the Walters Art Gallery opened to the pubic in 1934 its collections were orgainized chronologically and by culture.  Ancient through Medieval Art were to be found in Galleries I through VI downstairs, off the sculpture court, while upstairs in Galleries VII through XIV visitors could enjoy everything from Early Italian to “MODERN” French painting, which in those days meant the 19th-century painting. 

More interesting, though, are those works of art that figured prominently in that 1930s installation but are nowhere to be found (at least in public spaces) six decades later. There was a Canaletto “View of the Doges’ Palace” that later was no longer a Canaletto and, sadly, a Rembrandt portrait of his wife that long ago was stripped of that attribution.

But oddest by far is Gallery XII in the installation of the 1930s, that was simply called “English Art.”  It included paintings by most of the English greats, including Hogarth, Gainsborough, Reynolds, and Constable. 

But not one of these luminaries is to be found on public view at the Walters today. 

It’s as if English Art had sort of disappeared.

For all the things Henry Walters had gotten right in assembling the largest and finest collection of world art of any American, ever, he pretty much got the English part totally wrong. 

Mostly simply stated: the so-called Hogarth wasn’t a Hogarth, the Gainsborough wasn’t a Gainsborogh, the Constable wasn’t a Constable…and so on.

Was it that Henry Walters simply didn’t care much for England and English artists?

Maybe so. 

But what is absolutely certain, is that long before I arrived at the museum in the mid-1980s, “Walters Gallery XII” and its illusionary treasures of  English Art had vanished into deep storage.