Mastering the Market: Dutch and Flemish Paintings from Woburn Abbey

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Mastering the Market: Dutch and Flemish Paintings from Woburn Abbey
Teniers the Younger, The Interior of Archduke Leopold William's Picture Gallery at Brussels.

BIRMINGHAM.- This summer, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, will showcase a dazzling selection of Dutch and Flemish 17th-century masterpieces from Woburn Abbey, the ancestral home of the Dukes of Bedford. Featuring a dozen Old Master paintings, the exhibition Mastering the Market: Dutch and Flemish Paintings from Woburn Abbey (17 June – 24 September 2023) is one of the largest and most significant group of such works from this important ducal collection to be exhibited in a public gallery since the 1950s.

Mastering the Market, which focuses on the themes of patronage and collecting, is curated by four Art History and Curating MA students from the University, with guidance and supervision from experts at both the Barber Institute and Woburn Abbey. Other aspects of the innovative and dynamic 17th-century Dutch art market will also be explored – from the unique character of artistic culture in the newly independent Dutch Republic, through art dealership and attribution, to the demand for, and development of, new genres. The burgeoning wealth and rise of the merchant classes in the Netherlands in the 17th century sparked huge demand for portrait commissions, which the Barber exhibition examines, offering fresh interpretations of the works from Woburn Abbey.

Assembled principally by the 4th, 5th and 6th Dukes of Bedford between the 1730s and 1830s, the Woburn Abbey collection of Dutch and Flemish paintings is one of the finest in private hands in the UK. These include superb portraits and head studies by Rembrandt Van Rijn, Frans Hals and Anthony Van Dyck, exquisite landscapes and seascapes by Aelbert Cuyp and Jan van de Cappelle, and lively subject pictures by Jan Steen and David Teniers. The exceptional opportunity to see these paintings together in a public gallery has arisen due to the extensive and ongoing refurbishment of the Abbey.

Key loans include Rembrandt’s Portrait of a bearded Old Man, 1643, Hals’s Portrait of a Man, c. 1635-38, Van Dyck’s Portrait of a Married Couple, identified as Daniel Mytens and his Wife, c. 1632-34, Cuyp’s A Landscape near Calcar with the Artist sketching, c. 1652, Steen’s Twelfth Night or 'Le Roi Boit', 1670-71, and Van de Cappelle’s A Dutch Harbour, with numerous Fishing Boats, c. 1652-54.

Complementing the Woburn masterpieces is a small selection of the outstanding Dutch and Flemish paintings in the Barber’s own permanent collection, notably Jan Steen’s The Wrath of Ahasuerus, c. 1668-70, Van Dyck’s Ecce Homo, c.1625-26, and Portrait of François Langlois, early 1630s (jointly owned with the National Gallery, London), plus Hals’s Portrait of a Man holding a Skull, c. 1611-12. These will connect with the respective works by the same artists from Woburn.

Robert Wenley, Barber Institute Deputy Director, Research and Collections, says: “The exhibition will present the public with the rare opportunity to view these works up close in a gallery setting, and facilitate an appreciation of the ways in which patronage and collecting reflected and contributed to a dynamic period of European history.

“Our talented young team of student curators will also explore the tastes and achievements of the successive Dukes of Bedford as collectors of Dutch and Flemish paintings in the decades following their first purchases on the art market of works from these schools in the early 18th century.”

Professor Jennifer Powell, Director of the Barber Institute, says: “We are delighted to present works from this important collection in Birmingham. The Barber is proud to support this unique opportunity for students of the University of Birmingham to co-curate an exhibition of such exceptional quality in its main gallery programme”.

Matthew Hirst, Curator of the Woburn Abbey Collection, says: “We are delighted to have the opportunity to present these masterpieces from Woburn Abbey alongside other works by the same masters from the Barber’s own choice collection. This opportunity to compare these works and consider the phenomenon of the Dutch and Flemish market is only possible due to the input of the students at this unique time whilst Woburn Abbey is closed to undergo a generational refurbishment project”.

Woburn Abbey is the home of the 15th Duke and Duchess of Bedford and has been the principal family seat since the 1620s. Shaped by successive generations to adapt to changing family life and taste, the Abbey is currently closed to facilitate a major refurbishment programme. Guided both by rigorous research and the requirements of modern family life, the Abbey’s interiors are being conserved and re-presented using traditional materials and methods.

Woburn Abbey houses an outstanding collection of works of art brought together by the family over nearly 500 years. During the closure, there is an active loans programme to share some of these treasures so they can be enjoyed in different contexts. Woburn has partnered with a number of prestigious venues since 2020, including Royal Museums Greenwich, the Holburne Museum, Worcester City Art Gallery and Gainsborough’s House. Many of the important works of art from the collection have been exhibited in new ways due to these partnerships.

Full restoration and renewal of the roof at Woburn Abbey has led to a prolonged closure period. This has enabled these partnerships to continue and expand offering more opportunities to share Woburn’s impressive art collection with a wider audience.

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts is the art gallery, principal art collection and original concert hall for the University of Birmingham. It was founded in 1932 ‘for the study and encouragement of art and music’ by Lady Barber, who stipulated the acquisition of works ‘of that standard of quality required by the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection’. Housed in Birmingham’s most significant Art Deco building, designed by Robert Atkinson, the Barber Institute is home to a National Designated Collection, acquired and owned by the Henry Barber Trust and with holdings that now include some 160 paintings, dating from the early Renaissance through to the late 20th century, more than 800 works on paper, as well as sculpture, decorative arts and one of the most important caches of Roman, Byzantine and Medieval coins in the world. The collection features key works by (among others) Frank Auerbach, Giovanni Bellini, Sandro Botticelli, Rosalba Carriera, Edgas Degas, Thomas Gainsborough, Gwen John, Kä the Kollwitz, René Magritte, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Auguste Rodin, Peter Paul Rubens, J.M.W Turner, Van Vincent Gogh, Elizabeth Vigée Lebrun and Rex Whistler.

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