What are art collections? In this article, we will explore collections connections: from museums to modern art.

The Jerwood Collection residency at The Harley Gallery in 2021/22 offers a fantastic opportunity to explore a privately owned modern art collection in detail. The collection is showing over 4 themed exhibitions selected by different curators. Through this programme, the year-long residency will offer an in-depth understanding of this period of modern British art

In the Portland Collection museum, visitors can catch a glimpse of another privately owned collection.  Currently, the displays focus on superb family portraits by masters including Anthony van Dyck and John Singer Sargent. The magnificent collections developed by the eighteenth-century Margaret Duchess of Portland are also on display. Like the Jerwood, the Portland Collection shows over changing displays to enable visitors to catch glimpses of its many treasures through the

These two displays tell us a fascinating story of art and collecting across the centuries.

What are art collections?

There is evidence of collecting across history.  While most of us will buy things for our homes, how many people would call their belongings a ‘collection’? What transforms a group of artworks into a collection?  By comparing and contrasting The Jerwood Collection and The Portland Collection, we can get an insight into some of the common themes.

The purpose of an art collection

Michelangelo, Madonna del Silenzio, 1538

Michelangelo, Madonna del Silenzio, 1538, bought by the 6th Duke of Portland. Available on Bridgeman Images.

The Dukes of Portland and their families bought the art and objects in The Portland Collection over 4 centuries.

Although called a collection – and in quality it is equivalent to those of a major museum – very few members of the family who formed it could be called collectors in any traditional sense, since they had no intention of creating private museums or galleries. Instead, they commissioned family portraits to hang on the walls of their houses or as miniatures to present as gifts, accumulated books and manuscripts in their libraries and archive, and invested in silver and porcelain for their dining tables. The Portland Collection is a composite picture of the lives, enthusiasms and eccentricities of ten generations of one family, a few of whom are famous but most of whom are not.
Michael Hall, Treasures of The Portland Collection

Edward Harley (1689 – 1741) purposefully collected books and manuscripts. A generation later his daughter Margaret, Duchess of Portland (1715 –1785) developed the Portland Museum of natural history. However, it was the 6th Duke of Portland (1857 – 1943) who was the first member of the family to consider the family’s art a ‘collection’. He employed a librarian and archivist Richard Goulding and bought purposefully to add to the collection’s depth and breadth. A catalogue raisonné of the Collection’s miniatures can be viewed on Archive.org.

The Portland Collection is now a ‘closed collection’. It is a completed body of works with no new additions.

What is the mission of the Jerwood Collection?

The first purchase for the Jerwood Collection: Sir Frank Brangwyn RA RWS, (1867-1956), From my Window at Ditchling, © David Brangwyn

In comparison, The Jerwood Foundation works in supporting education, music and performing arts. By starting The Jerwood Collection, they added a visual arts thread to their activity.

The Jerwood Collection is a ‘live collection’ and regularly adds new works from younger, contemporary artists.

The goal is to share a private art collection with the wider public. The artworks initially hung in Jerwood’s offices. They then set up a loan scheme to share the works with the public – and now the collection is travelling to The Harley Gallery.

Through its promotion of a broader understanding, interpretation and enjoyment of modern and contemporary British art, an important part of Jerwood’s philanthropic mission is delivered by the Jerwood Collection.

In turn, it has led to the expansion of the Jerwood Foundation’s support of the visual arts. They established the Jerwood Painting Prize in 1994 and the Hastings Contemporary art gallery, opening in 2012.

The story of an art collection

Building a collection creates connections between its objects.

All collections have a golden thread which ties their objects together; whether a historical narrative, examples of a particular style, or an era.

The Portland Collection story is the history of a single, powerful, and fascinating family.

Although the items in the Portland Collection are individually of high artistic or historic importance, they are even more significant as an ensemble that has been created over many generations, like a centuries-old park, or a tract of venerable woodland.
Michael Hall, Treasures of The Portland Collection

In contrast, the Jerwood Collection focuses on modern and contemporary British art. The personal interest of its founder Alan Grieve and the specialist knowledge of Curator Lara Wardle drive this focus.

As I was born in the 20th century, and as I had lived through the 20th century, we started a 20th-century British collection. It has become a living, breathing thing for us. […]

My privilege […]  is to add to the collection. This collection is not a static collection, it will continue to grow by acquisition. We are very fortunate in that way.

Alan Grieve, Chairman, Jerwood Foundation
(Watch a full interview with Alan on the Collection here)

The Collections Connection

These two art collections are vastly different. However, they both tell a story, are purposefully managed, and look at how we engage with art.

Plan a visit to explore ideas of art collecting through these two extraordinary bodies of work.