Fundraising Officer and former Assistant Curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Humphrey Clegg, told us the story of Alfred Felton and the Felton Bequest.
Alfred Felton was born in 1831 in Essex, England, where his father worked as a tanner. He travelled to Australia in 1853 with the intention of finding gold but instead made his money carting goods to the goldfields.
He showed early signs of being a shrewd, upright businessman. He may have been apprenticed to a chemist before migrating because he established himself in Melbourne as a wholesale druggist on his return from the goldfields.
Another wholesale importer and druggist in Melbourne at the time was Edward Youngman. He invited Frederick Sheppard Grimwade to come to Melbourne to be manager of his company 'Youngman & Co.' In 1863 Grimwade moved into Mrs. Reilly's Boarding House on The Esplanade, St. Kilda where Alfred Felton lived.
Edward Youngman died whilst on board "S.S. London" which sank in the Bay of Biscay. His brother sold the business to Felton and Grimwade in 1867 and the company name became 'Felton Grimwade & Co.' Felton who had saved money on the goldfields contributed £8,000 which he had borrowed from his father. Grimwade had trained as a druggist in England and came from a wealthy family. There were no disputes between the two men and ultimately they became equal partners. They were hugely successful. Not only were they druggists and wholesalers, they also offered advice and financing, acting in the manner of bankers.
Over time they founded other businesses such as the 'Melbourne Glass Bottle Works' (1872), the 'Adelaide Chemical Works Co.' (1882), the 'Australian Salt Manufacturing Co.' (the only company which failed) and in partnership with Joseph Bosisto they founded 'J. Bosisto Co.' (1885). Much later the amalgamation of several companies formed the Drug Houses of Australia.
Medical remedies have certainly changed over the years and an example of the ingenuity of Felton & Grimwade was the shipment to England of a cargo of one million leeches. The occasional escaping leech was not appreaiated by passengers on the ship.
In partnership with some business associates Felton bought the country properties "Murray Downs" and "Langi Kal Kal." Although he owned the largest house in St. Kilda, "Wattle House," Felton was lonely there and in 1891 moved back into a comfortable apartment at the "Esplanade Hotel" in St. Kilda.
It was from this time that Felton started collecting art. He had no knowledge of the subject and according to Daryl Lindsay, who was Director of the Victorian Art Gallery from 1942, Felton's tastes were 'common place' and his collection 'had only the occasional quality piece.' After his death however all his works were sold and the Gallery only acquired about 8 pictures. Felton had a wonderful library with all the major literature journals and all the major art history journals. His paintings had wonderful frames and he collected beautiful sculptures.
Throughout his life he made significant donations of £20 here and there but a work by Rupert Bunny was the only painting he donated to the Gallery.
Felton's will was made on 22 August 1900, 4 years before his death in 1904. He stipulated that a committee be set up to handle his estate, valued at £378,000 ($40 million in today's money) and to invest his monies so that out of the interest earned 50% should go to charities, particularly those which cared for women and children and the other 50% should go towards purchasing works of art for the National Gallery of Victoria. Felton stipulated that the art works should educate and stimulate society.
This bequest thrust the Gallery into the limelight, giving it greater spending power than the National Art Gallery of London and the Tate Gallery combined. The Gallery was immediately offered too many works to search through and they came with exorbitant price tags. All other financing of artworks at the Gallery dried up and there was conflict between the Felton Bequest committee which became very powerful, and the Gallery's own committee.
Over the years 15,000 art works have been acquired at a current value of $2 billion. Annually 4% of the interest earned is to be spent, although during the two World Wars spending ceased. Art works were relatively cheap during the depression but have soared in price since the late 1950s.
The Bequest has purchased many of our most loved paintings such as Frederick McCubbin's 'Lost' purchased in 1940, Tom Robert's 'Shearing the Rams' (1906) and Tiepolo's 'The Banquet of Cleopatra.' Amongst the sculptures, Auguste Rodin's 'Le Penseur' (The Thinker) is one of the first castings.
Different altogether is the fine jewellery collection of Sir Thomas Barlow, the collection of books with water colours by William Blake and some Japanese wood block prints of excellent quality. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Bequest, three contemporary artists were commissioned to produce works in honour of William Barak, the last Wurundjeri leader. What would Felton think of the latest acquisition, 'PixCell - Red Deer' by Kohei Nawa?
There have been other generous donations to the Gallery but Felton's bequest is one of the world's largest. Accompanied by the bequest to charity he has shown himself to be a man of intelligence and caring.
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