When the public first visited the ‘Bourgeois Gallery’ Soane designed for Dulwich College in 1815 what they saw was the collection Sir Francis Bourgeois left to ‘the Master, Warden and Fellows of Dulwich College and their successors for ever’. Pictures from the great Bequest were hung - and no others - in the enfilade of five rooms. What with Margaret Desenfans’ choice pieces of furniture they might have been pacing the gallery of some great mansion; they might also have felt something of a Gothic Romantic frisson: in the adjacent Mausoleum three coffins above ground held the mortal remains of the former owners, the childless Founders. Soane’s fancy was for visitors to be conscious of magnanimous donors to the Gallery, even to be as it were in ‘communion’ with his three friends, asleep ‘in their silent tombs’.

The select, and now world-famous Dulwich Old Masters from continental Europe were of course among the 371 pictures of the Bequest. Making a geographical (indeed, temperamental) division of the collection into two groups: among the southern masterpieces one could point to the sacred names of Poussin, Watteau, Veronese, and Murillo; and among the northern to Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Rubens, and the Dutch landscape-painters. Until 1880 Dulwich College’s earlier collections, the Alleyn and Cartwright bequests, were housed in the school buildings (such as the Master’s living quarters): interesting and unique, but perhaps a touch frump once received in high society on the Gallery walls.

The Bourgeois Bequest, essentially a continental European Union of fine art, was to be joined and enriched by two benefactions of British art, featuring portraiture. In 1835 the musical family of Ozias Linley, Junior Fellow and Organist at the College, gave nine pictures of themselves, by Gainsborough, Lawrence and others. In 1911 ¬¬- surely for the centenary of the Gallery’s Foundation - Charles Fairfax Murray (1849-1919), artist, connoisseur, dealer and benefactor of art galleries, presented 38 portraits, adding four more during the Great War. In the course of the same years he also gave minor Old Masters: two Italian, one French, and Peter Lely’s Nymphs at a Fountain. Murray gave all on condition of strict anonymity, observed until his death. The Bourgeois Gallery had been criticised originally for having so few British or contemporary paintings, when its professed purpose was to inspire and educate young artists. There was Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse and a few other works by Reynolds (including the self-portrait), together with twenty-odd second-rate paintings by the Academician Bourgeois himself, and something of a Founders’ ‘facebook’ - portraits of themselves and their circle of friends, one a Gainsborough. While splendid British portraits now hang in the Gallery as a result of these two bequests, there are no early nineteenth-century British historical and genre paintings (no Wilkie); and by worse luck, not one ‘modern’ British landscape-painting (no Turner, and of Constable only the Ruisdael copy) apart from Richard Wilson’s Tivoli of 1752 - early, and Italian.

Murray was an elusive, rather secretive man, said to ‘make himself happy in the background’. His name occurs often, however, in the literature about fine art and museums after 1867. Who was the eighteen-year-old John Ruskin sent to Rome to make copies for him and for the Arundel Society, and some years later, with Ruskin in Venice - his ‘heaven-born copyist’ - was set to work on Carpaccio? Whom did William Morris take to Bruges in 1870 for a first trip abroad on his twenty-first birthday? Who painted Romantic panels for ‘art furniture’, and carried out Burne-Jones’s zodiac designs on the walls of the Green Dining Room at the V & A (now part of that café)? Who painted church glass for William Morris’s firm? Who was Rossetti’s salaried factotum, and Burne-Jones’s first studio assistant? Who was the editor Rossetti and Morris trusted with their poems? Who amassed an extraordinary collection of Pre-Raphaelite personal papers and drawings, greatly helped their biographers, and jealously guarded their reputation? How did two of the many panels that originally formed Duccio’s Maestà at Siena come to be at our National Gallery, along with many of the really important early pictures? Whom did Burne-Jones recommend for Director of the National Gallery in 1894 - though unsuccessfully? Who made the princely gift of Titian’s Tarquin and Lucretia to the Fitzwilliam? Who sold over a thousand Pre-Raphaelite works on paper to Birmingham for much less than their market value? Why is Turner’s Devonport and Dockyard in the Fogg Museum at Harvard? At the Kelmscott Press, whom did Morris first approach to design and engrave on wood illustrations for The Well at the World’s End? Who designed and illustrated the only Kelmscott book not chosen by Morris, Savanarola’s Epistola de Contemptu Mundi, the autograph manuscript of which he owned himself? Who helped Morris with his illuminated manuscripts: A Book of Verse (including a miniature portrait of the author), his Aeneid and Odes of Horace? Who sold Pierpont Morgan 1,400 Old Master drawings? Who, indeed, but Charles Fairfax Murray.

The son of a linen draper at Bow, Murray used to sleep under the counter. His Times obituary said that he was ‘pugnacious’ because he had to make his own way. He was perhaps lucky to escape conventional education: sent to Sudbury to escape cholera, he studied with local painters before becoming a drawing assistant or ‘shop boy’ in Morton Peto’s engineering office at Westminster. At seventeen he sent some drawings to Ruskin, who recommended him to Burne-Jones. Murray declared that his real ‘trade’ was painting portraits and romantic scenes, but a rheumatic hand made him give up in 1903. His portraits of his close friends Morris and that quite wonderful architect, Philip Webb, are famous, as are the pencil sketches of Morris on his deathbed (one now at Kelmscott). By thirty he was one of the most erudite of connoisseurs and dealers, who would advise famous collectors and museums. At various times he worked for Agnew and Colnaghi.

Murray sounds rather unworldly. His large head (some called it noble) carried a snub nose, and stiff curly hair, above a dwarfish bandy-legged body. Not all responded to his charm and enthusiasm: Jane Morris wrote from Florence in 1880 that he was ‘more conceited than ever’ and ‘insufferably dirty’. In youth Murray knew the Dulwich Gallery well, where he sat next to his friend William Spanton, a Suffolk painter and copyist, who was making a version of the Veronese St. Jerome; together they copied at the Venetian Room in the National Gallery. Spanton, in later prosperity, lived at the Paragon at Blackheath; his daughter Margaret painted a Nude now with the Gallery (DPG 641); in 1934 she gave three late seventeenth-century portraits (609-611), a Shipwreck (613) - and also a small oil painting by Murray, her father’s friend.

Murray’s youthful The King’s Garden of c.1875 (612) pictures a hortus conclusus with three girls chilling out à la Giorgione. Essentially a literary illustration, the painting is hyper-Pre-Raphaelite: it alludes to a text, makes pastiche of medieval past, and the girls are dressed in prismatic colours. It is like a template, in composition and mood, for Kelmscott Press illustrations by Burne-Jones and others; also absurdly derivative, in both image and text. To begin with, it is plainly distilled from Burne-Jones’s gouache Green Summer of 1864. Murray is known to be illustrating a short ballad of Rossetti’s, ‘My Father’s Close’ (subtitled ‘from Old French’, but actually elaborated from the ‘Au jardin de mon père’ which Gérard de Nerval, the Symbolist, published in 1847). At so many removes from spontaneous observation, the picture retains some shred of sincerity. It is certainly a delicious male fantasy of utter female devotion, an irrecoverable dream from a patriarchal era. Murray dresses the trio of royal princesses in Poussin frocks; in the apple-orchard a symbolic fountain. Each princess in Rossetti’s poem has one verse. To the refrain of ‘Fly away, O my heart, fly away’, they declare the pleasures of their senses and the sweet morning, and dream of elsewhere and of lovers. (Oh, for a smartphone). One hears a drum; the youngest declares it is her true love off to fight:

“I keep my love for him,
So sweet:
Oh! let him lose or win,
He hath it still complete.”

Murray could identify the artists of unsigned oil paintings and drawings as no-one else in his day, though a century later at least eleven of his attributions of the painters (or portrait sitters) in his Dulwich Gift have been re-assigned. Ruskin declared in Fors Clavigera for 1877 that Murray knew ‘more in many ways of Italian painting than I do myself: every picture he buys for you is a good one’. (The best he sold Ruskin was the Verrocchio Madonna for £100, now at Edinburgh). His knowledge of Italian, German, Dutch, Flemish and German art was equally encyclopaedic. He was the sort of authority who could say right away that a portrait was definitely by Allan Ramsay, and was painted in 1797: “he used a particular blue in that year, which he discontinued later, thinking it would not last. But you see how well it stands the test of time”. He lived on well into the Arts and Crafts movement; his sympathies were deep and loyal - impressionism was a ‘post-prandial disturbance’.

Murray was restless, getting rid of collections and acquiring others. His very many illuminated manuscripts, early printed books and autograph letters were as extraordinary as the Old Master and Pre-Raphaelite drawings; and there were Tanagra figures, Chinese vases, majolica, bronzes and prints. He made benefactions, for one reason, because he did not believe in incurring death duties; determined not to draw attention to himself by being named, his generosity seems truly altruistic. The Dulwich collection of signed English portraits he was assembling over twenty years was, we learn, initially intended for the Fitzwilliam or somewhere in Cambridge, but came to us because of his friendship with Henry Yates Thompson (1838-1928), son of a banking family and owner of the liberal Pall Mall Gazette. Thompson, a Dulwich College Governor, was the Gallery Committee Chairman and effectively its director from 1908-19. He and Murray were passionately interested in illuminated manuscripts. Yates Thomson built a complete new wing onto the Gallery (now the entrance elevation) of four rooms for his anonymous friend’s Gift. Energetic, generous and notoriously rude, Thompson gave Newnham College a library, built an Art School for Harrow where he had been Head Boy, and planned another for Dulwich College; he gave the Gallery the portrait of King James I in 1898 and Canaletto’s Bucintoro at the Molo on Ascension Day in 1915.

Murray kept his own life as discreet as he could. He was bigamous in all but law. At twenty-six he married a young beauty of seventeen from Volterra called Angelica; they had six (surviving) children, in Siena and later in Florence, where he bought a large villa and was well known in the fascinating expatriate artistic community that included many cultivated Americans. Jane Morris wrote to Rossetti saying the pair were rotten parents who let babies die: “I think it is a great charm in Murray’s eyes, this entire ignorance and total incapacity on the part of his wife, she loves him, and that is all he cares about, and they can make more babies”. Living mostly in London from 1887, he met a model, Blanche Richmond, who sat to him and with whom he had another family of six at Chiswick. Such arrangements were not uncommon among nineteenth-century artists. Murray made enough money for them all to live well and indeed in some style, the boys attending private schools and Cambridge; meanwhile he partly lived at the Grange, the large romantic former house and studio of Burne-Jones at Fulham (earlier Samuel Richardson’s house) cramming it with treasures, room after room - a splendid Poussin, an autumn landscape by Millais, a great Turner. There he said to A. C. Benson, “some people wonder how it comes about that a man like myself who started without a sixpence, should have got together so big a collection, but the fact is that I have got a natural instinct for detecting artistic quality. I recognise a particular touch and method, and don’t often make bad mistakes. And if you attend a great many sales, as I do, you get wonderful bargains”. Undoubtedly his own experience as a painter improved his eye, just as it did for other painters who were also connoisseurs such as Lely, Reynolds, Lawrence and Eastlake.

As for the Gift itself, the most popular picture is probably the voluptuous Lely, the Arcadian Nymphs at a Fountain, which he bought in France. In 1927 Spanton wrote that he found this later on in a lumber room ‘for fear it should injure the morals of the boys at the College’. One might give many of the Fairfax Murray portraits a cursory look and think they were not really first-rate, noting few famous artists - even with a Gainsborough, two Hogarths, two Lelys, and a Romney; few people will have heard of a single sitter - though there is Sir Henry Vane, by Gerard Soest: Governor of Massachusetts (1636-7), Commonwealth Parliamentarian and mystical Christian, executed in 1661, a hero of the poet Milton. No catalogue entry for this painting mentions Milton’s sonnet declaring Vane a better statesman than any Roman senator, while at the same time the ‘eldest son’ of Religion.

Murray wrote to Spanton that the collection for Dulwich was not a portrait gallery - the point was not the sitters but ‘a series of pictures by artists, whether British or not, who have painted in England’. It was important to him, as he said, that ‘most are signed’. It was recognised at the time that this was a collection acquired by someone making a ‘practical study’ of English portraiture from the Stuarts up to the foundation of the Gallery, and that Murray was ‘a serious pioneer’ in his researches. Finding signatures among so many portrait painters is obviously an important first principle for making attributions about unsigned ones. The most recent portrait was by Benjamin West, painted in 1805 (and signed, in this case); as Murray would have been well aware, West was President of the Royal Academy while important and interesting regulations for the mutual benefit of the Academy and the Gallery were agreed at the time of its Foundation and then actively prospered. West died in 1820, five years into its career.

The Gift makes special demands on the visitor well repaid by subtleties. Obvious excitements are Knapton’s genial Lucy Ebberton of the early 1740s, said to herald a new style in portraiture; the man with a febrile face (569) said at first to be the mad poet Nathaniel Lee; the early Hogarth fishing conversation piece, and the early Gainsborough Suffolk couple beneath a blasted tree, the wife holding sketch-book and porte-crayon. The latter was bought perhaps at a Christie’s sale Murray talks about where a group of such early Gainsborough portraits “fell to me all about twenty pounds apiece”. From Strawberry Hill came Charles Jervas’s Dorothy, Lady Townshend, Horace Walpole’s aunt, in Turkish costume like her friend Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Murray’s two Lely portraits of women in blue are pretty pot-boilers, but Lely’s A Boy as a Shepherd, also from Strawberry Hill, was rightly prized by Walpole for its “impassioned glow of sentiment, the eyes swimming with youth and tenderness”. Murray’s last gift, in 1917/18, was the wonderfully informal animated portrait of the brilliant London sculptor Roubiliac by Andrea Soldi.

A C Benson described Murray as ‘kind, generous, eminently human’, saying that ‘instead of using his adroitness to despoil the world, he gratified his generosity by enriching it, and asked for no return’.

Further sources: the excellent biography by his grandson, David B. Elliott, 2000, Charles Fairfax Murray, the Unknown Pre-Raphaelite. The Walpole Society volume for 2017, a meticulous and absorbing edition of letters between Murray and museum directors. A chapter in A.C. Benson, Memories and Friends, 1914; W. S. Spanton, An Art Teacher and his Teachers in the Sixties, 1927.