An extraordinary stroke of good fortune set the world-famous Picture Gallery at the heart of the Village and the Dulwich Estate, monumental and magnificent on its lawns: two hundred years ago, the first free public gallery in England; intended to educate and inspire young artists. We can’t know the full story why its founders eventually determined on Edward Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift as beneficiary – an ineffectual small charity school to breed up orphan boys for university, with a dull almshouse; a sleepy sinecure (at that time, of course), offering lavish hospitality to cultivated visitors from across the Thames that it could well afford. In 1824 The Somerset House Gazette said the collection was left to Dulwich ‘almost unaccountably’. The bequest comprised Old Masters (some of the first quality) and other paintings, now the main collection, followed by the gift of the Gallery itself, Soane’s own ‘favourite subject’, on the site of the College stables. It is also something to celebrate that Dulwich College Picture Gallery was rebuilt after severe bomb damage and developed as the glorious and (since 1995) independent, Dulwich Picture Gallery.

When its founders, Noel Desenfans and Sir Francis Bourgeois, set about establishing a Gallery, Dulwich College was in fact their third choice as location. Desenfans had got together the Old Master collection for the last King of Poland, Stanislaus Poniatowski, as both a royal and a national gallery, but the King was forced to abdicate, and it never happened. In 1799 Desenfans offered the collection to the British government for something new in this country, a National Gallery, if the government would come up with the premises; William Pitt the Younger declined it. Thank goodness, for us, and thank goodness again for the contumely of the Duke of Portland: when Desenfans died in 1807, the pictures were at his Charlotte Street house in Marylebone, on the Portland Estate, where he lived, a ménage-à-trois with his wife Margaret and his friend Sir Francis Bourgeois, RA. In 1810 Bourgeois asked the Duke to modify the lease for a National Gallery, ‘gratuitously open… to artists as well as to the public’, as both ‘a source of professional improvement’, and ‘an object of national exhibition’. The Duke replied (the letter is in the College Archives), pointedly naming Bourgeois as ‘esquire’ rather than by his Polish title (the equivalent of a knighthood, as agreed by George III), and saying he didn’t think he could do that, and would not bother to find out. Presumably he did not like the idea of an art gallery with outreach to riff-raff on his London estate. Thus the Gallery never was a neighbour of Mme. Tussaud’s, but grew ‘to posterity for the benefit of the nation’ at Dulwich College, under the aegis, as Bourgeois put it, of the ‘unpretending merit’ he admired there.

Bourgeois told Launcelot Baugh Allen, the Warden of the College and a barrister, who negotiated the gift, that he had visited the College and it was ‘dedicated to an excellent purpose’. Bourgeois was himself an orphan, adopted by Desenfans; as was Desenfans, probably, with obscure French origins and a surname commonly given to foundlings from the Des Enfants institutions. Bourgeois told Allen another advantage was Dulwich’s moderate distance from London, in delightful countryside. Possibly the same motive as Edward Alleyn’s, perpetuating his childless name, influenced him: art collections in London in aristocratic mansions were known by the name of their owners; the College in early days referred to ‘the Bourgeois Gallery’. Leigh Hunt wrote that there was certainly vanity in Bourgeois’ bequest, ‘though attended with touching circumstances’. Soane, the Founders’ friend, was specified as architect, to include a Mausoleum in the Gallery for them and Margaret. Soane in his Memoirs says that at one point he thought of leaving his own Library and Collection of Antiquities to the College, inspired by Bourgeois; the spare fourth Mausoleum sarcophagus was perhaps for himself. What a thought: to have added the riches of the Soane museum as teaching aids to the superior amenities of the current Dulwich College boys. An important mediator among these dramatis personae was the Rev. Robert Corry, who was the College’s Third Fellow and Usher (schoolmaster): he also ‘occasionally officiated at Sir Francis’s private chapel’ at Charlotte Street. This was Soane’s original mausoleum for Desenfans, prototype of the later one at Dulwich, domed and top-lit. Bourgeois put it (not altogether tactfully) that the College Fellows were ‘not shackled with any onerous duties to divert them from the care of the paintings’; the country air would ‘operate favourably in preserving them from the atmospheric and other evil influences of the metropolis’. When Bourgeois died in 1811 the College and Margaret (née Morris), Desenfans’ wealthy widow, almost immediately began discussions with Soane, who designed the Gallery and gave his services without fees.

Another factor in the choice of Dulwich College was perhaps its current celebrity for housing Alleyn’s theatrical archive. John Philip Kemble, the grand actor and a friend of the Founders (whose portrait by Beechey is in the collection), was a frequent guest of the College, where he had studied the manuscripts. At the Old College in those days Alleyn’s Long Gallery, eighty by thirteen feet, was on the first floor of the west wing; in the 1670s John Aubrey called it ‘a Picture Gallery’: ‘in it are several worthless Pictures, and some not so bad, viz. The Founder, and his First Wife, Henry Prince of Wales, Sir Thomas Gresham, Mary, Queen of Scotland, and several others given by Mr. Cartwright, a Comedian [=actor], whose Picture is at the Upper End’. Alleyn’s own collection of portraits included the kings and sibyls he bought, noted in his diary. After a visit in 1791 Horace Walpole, that fastidious aesthete, called all these old pictures ‘mouldy’.

In this gallery indeed hung some of the interesting if second-rate pictures William Cartwright the younger left to the College in 1682, in memory of Alleyn. His father William, also an actor (fl. 1598 – 1636), was Alleyn’s colleague. Few of these are worthy of display nowadays, except for the famous group of portraits of actors. Both Cartwrights were prominent actors and theatre moguls, like Edward Alleyn. The elder was with Alleyn in the Lord Admiral’s Company in 1598; in 1606 he was a senior member of Prince Henry’s Company at Alleyn’s Fortune Theatre. After Alleyn retired from the stage to Dulwich, Cartwright’s name appears several times as a dinner guest in his Diary, in 1620 as one of ‘ye King of Bohemes men’ (the acting company) from the Fortune Theatre. Alleyn no longer ran the Fortune, and Cartwright had leased it with some others in 1618 for £200 a year; the agreement also promises Alleyn ‘two rundlettes [small casks] of wyne, the one sack, the other claret’ each Christmas. Sack, incidentally, a fortified wine rather like sherry, was Falstaff’s favourite drink: it ‘illumineth the face’, he said, produces ‘excellent Wit’, and confounds ‘Pusillanimitie, and Cowardize’. Falstaff’s educational policy was simple: ‘if I had a thousand Sonnes, the first humane principle I would teach them… should be to addict themselves to Sack’.

In the reign of Charles I, Cartwright was once again playing at the Fortune and elsewhere. ‘Ould Cartwright’ is last mentioned in theatrical records in May 1640. The theatres were closed by law from 1642-60. The younger Cartwright (1606–1686) is known to have been on the continent and with a company who performed for Charles, Prince of Wales, in Paris in 1646, and was possibly performing at The Hague. In 1648 he was in trouble with a scheme for secret performances at the Cockpit. We know nothing about the parts the elder Cartwright played, but his son’s Restoration work is well documented: he was in the King’s Company, with a ‘thundering’ voice, and specialised in revivals of Ben Jonson, playing Corbaccio in Volpone and the plum roles of Morose in Epicœne and Sir Epicure Mammon in The Alchemist. Shakespearean roles included Brabantio in Othello and a Falstaff that Pepys admired in 1667: ‘after dinner my wife and Willett and I to the King’s House and there saw Henry the Fourth; and contrary to expectation, was pleased in nothing more than in Cartwright’s speaking of Falstaff’s speech about What is Honour?’ He performed six roles by Dryden and the cuckold Sir Jasper Fidget in Wycherley’s outrageous Country Wife. Like his father, he was a co-lessee of the Fortune Theatre. His final role was at the age of seventy-eight, by which time he was bookselling from his home in Great Turnstile, Holborn. In 1658 (when the theatre was still banned) Cartwright revised and published Thomas Heywood’s An Apology for Actors (originally of 1612). He discussed British actors, such as Tarlton and Kemp, especially praising ‘the most worthy famous Mr. Edward Allen’ and his second vocation, ‘his Colledge at Dulledge for poor people and for education of youth’ and his humility and charity, eating and dressing like one of his pensioners.

Cartwright was a collector. He asked (in vain) to retire to the College with his servant and be buried in the chapel. Ailing, he was cheated by his two servants of seventeen years, Francis and Jane Johnson, who did all they could to obstruct the Deed of Gift of December 1686, neglecting to name an executor. Cartwright had left to the College (as major beneficiary) £400 ‘of broad old Gold’ (Commonwealth twenty-shilling pieces); ‘his Books and pictures, two silver Tankards, Damask Lynnen, an Indian Quilt’; a ‘Turkis Carpet’ for the Dining Room; ‘one large damask Table Cloth with other convenient lynnen for the Communion Table and the beautifying of the Chappell’; and ‘severall pictures of Storeyes and Landskips for the beautifying the Dyninge Roome and Gallery’. After his death in 1687 the College had to take the Johnsons to court: Francis was imprisoned two years in the Fleet, before escaping. Details of the College’s troubles, under the Mastership of Richard Alleyn, are recorded in its Register and Weekly Account books. John Alleyn, the Warden, ‘with great difficulty got into possession of all goods appraised, except such as are mentioned at the latter end of the Inventory’. These the Johnsons ‘with their confederates’ had carried away, together with £390 of the gold. Just £65.5.0 was left; the College collected this, and nine pounds half-year rent from a tenant of Cartwright’s. Eventually these items were handed over, and ‘old household stuff’ was sold for £20.13.0.

The Johnsons had pawned, among other items, a mouth-watering collection of six volumes of playbooks, for twenty shillings; other playbooks of his did survive in the Fellows’ Library at the College. Some plays in manuscript, as result of fishy depredations by Garrick, with other items from the College Library somehow ended up in the British Library, in the Egerton Collection. The books at Dulwich include the two volumes (of three) of the First Folio Shakespeare (missing the Tragedies) and the truly wonderful copy of Mercator’s atlas with the hand-coloured maps; these are often shown to current pupils.

As for the pictures, the intended subject of this article, an exemplary exhibition with catalogue, Mr. Cartwright’s Pictures, (1987) was mounted by the late and grievously missed Giles Waterfield, the Gallery’s first Director. That charming and erudite young magnifico taught us about the meaning of the collection and the building while he excitedly researched them. Giles deftly described the collection as ‘a rare survival (albeit not intact) of that belonging to a man “of moderate means”’. A seventeenth-century Turkish carpet fragment, a historic lace cloth and period chairs were borrowed from the V & A, in allusion to Cartwright’s bequest; a bright idea of creating a real still-life exhibit on a table with actual strawberries, imitating a Flemish still-life painting but accidentally stained the cloth. When Giles lunched at the V & A, mortified and apologetic, he was served strawberries in bowls on an antique white cloth as a stark reminder.

Cartwright owned no Old Masters; his pictures were mostly by contemporary British or Dutch painters; they came with Cartwright’s remarkable ms. Inventory of 239 pictures, of which the College received all but 46, stolen by the Johnsons. As we have seen, some of the paintings were hung in the Long Gallery by the end of the century, but the Collection was ‘distributed throughout the College’. In the way of institutions, the pictures were treated abominably, many disappearing. In 1752 they were said to have been ‘neglected in a garret’ and made havoc of by a College butler; some were in the Fellows’ rooms. Cartwright’s taste was not very sophisticated: he owned a Last Supper but also rather gamey ‘cabinet pictures’ listed in the Inventory, such as ‘Woman in a smock, her pimp holding a chamber-pot’, or ‘a Soulderr & a wench at it’. A bad loss was the engraved View of London, taken by Mr John Norden in 1603. Representation of the City Cavalcade on the Lord Mayor’s Day. 76 portraits are listed in the Inventory, 48 of them named and six of them of royal subjects. Portraits included some by John Greenhill, a pupil of Lely, who was Cartwright’s (too often inebriate) friend and neighbour, including a mid-1660s portrait of the actor (‘my picture in a black dress, with a great doge’), together with ‘my first wife’s pictur Like a Sheppardess’, and a fine self-portrait as a young man. The rest comprised 27 religious pictures, 42 genre subjects, and 10 canvases depicting secular history; of 41 landscapes, 19 were seascapes; there were 24 still lives. In 1890 they were transferred to the Soane Gallery. Only 77 survive there now. A remarkable album of drawings is retained by the College Archives.

A double portrait dated 1560, The Judde Memorial, is striking, a fashionable memento mori, in which the sombre couple unite their hands on a skull, standing above a cadaver, with the legend ‘Lyve to Die and Dye to Live Eternally’. Literary portraits are of Michael Drayton and of Richard Lovelace (with six others of his relations), the Cavalier poet once called ‘the most amiable and beautiful person that ever eye beheld’, who wrote a comedy for Queen Henrietta’s Men and was most likely a kinsman of Cartwright.

Of the famous theatrical portraits there is Cartwright père at the age of 59, his expressive ringed actor’s hand prominent, like Edward Alleyn’s in the Board Room at the College. Something amazing is the Shakespearean Richard Burbage, the most famous actor of his day, the original Hamlet and Lear, catalogued as ‘mr burbig his head’, and thought possibly to be a self-portrait. Nathan Field is a haunting image, in costume and with pearl earring, actor and playwright, who fathered a child by the Countess of Argyll, and was the actor at the Globe (listed among the Players in the First Folio) who replaced Shakespeare when he left the stage. Other theatrical portraits include Cartwright’s colleagues, Thomas Bond and Richard Perkins. Perkins was the star actor at the Cockpit in the 1630s, and played (with Queen Henrietta’s Men) the diabolical Barabas in a highly successful revival of Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, the title role made famous by Edward Alleyn.

Dulwich benefits from a number of bequests: first the College of God’s Gift, from its Founder, that most magnificent player, Lord of the Manor; this drew after it a second, sixty-eight years later, from Cartwright, another actor; and both in turn influenced two painters of continental extraction in London (together with Margaret Desenfans) to give the third, the Bourgeois Gallery – free, public, and now jubilant.

As to a fourth bequest – the Linley family portraits, or the fifth, the gift of collector Fairfax-Murray, we will explore these in future articles.

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