IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART EVENING SALE
Collecting Impressionist and Modern art in Britain during the early years of the 20th century was a rare passion, practised by a small number of dedicated individuals whose assiduous pursuit of contemporary European paintings has shaped Britain’s cultural landscape. However, amongst the roll call of now-famous collectors such as Samuel Courtauld, Sir William Burrell and the Davies Sisters, there are a few important names which are often missing. Royan Middleton’s collection is one of the least known and most fascinating of all those formed in Britain from the 1920s onwards. The breadth of his collection, including European artists from Monet, Van Gogh and Modigliani to English painters such as Nash, Sickert and Augustus John to the Scottish Colourists, gives a remarkable insight into the evolution of painting in Britain and abroad. In particular, it is the superlative quality of Matisse’s La Leçon de piano that reflects the discerning taste and vision of the collector, who was part of a small group of fellow cognoscenti living in Scotland.
Based in Aberdeen, where he ran a highly successful printing and publishing business from the Rose Street Works, Royan Middleton (1885-1965) was also an amateur painter of some skill and a keen musician. Although inclined to absolute privacy, he and his wife Wilhelmina belonged to an artistically inclined circle in the west end of the city that met to play music together and whose members made up the Aberdeen Art Gallery’s Committees. Middleton’s initial introduction to art was through the fine art calendars his firm produced. Over the years he reproduced a number of paintings, mainly those late-19th Century artists whose works had a mass appeal, such as Fortunino Matania, which he either acquired or borrowed for the purpose. By the 1920s Middleton’s taste became more eclectic and adventurous and he began to buy paintings for himself by the European avant-garde. This coincided with his meeting the dealer Alexander Reid whose operation, Alex. Reid & Lefevre (universally known as the Lefevre Gallery) in Glasgow and London almost single-handedly introduced many British collectors to Impressionist and post-Impressionist art.
The extraordinary ascent of Reid as Britain’s primary dealer of contemporary French art came about after a couple of years spent in Paris working with Theo van Gogh at Boussod, Valadon et Cie. and painting alongside his brother Vincent – who he shared a house with. On his return to Glasgow he brought a selection of easily saleable works in the established taste – Monticelli, Corot and the Barbizon school – which gave him the freedom to develop a market for the living artists he had met in Paris with the Van Gogh brothers – although it was not until 1914 that he was able to make a significant showing of Impressionist and post-Impressionist painting, and after the First World War of the School of Paris artists. Reid held a hugely successful exhibition – both financially and critically - at the McLellan Galleries in Glasgow in 1919, but soon after determined an appetite for modern art in London. He and his son A.J. McNeill Reid joined forces with his former rival Ernest Lefèvre in 1923, organising joint exhibitions in London and Glasgow before formally combining their businesses in 1926.
By the time Reid had established a foothold in the London market, Middleton and his fellow Scots were regularly travelling south for business, and Alex. Reid & Lefevre joined the circuit of galleries in Mayfair, which included Arthur Tooth & Sons and the Leicester Galleries, that enjoyed brisk trade from north of the border. The first major solo exhibition of Matisse’s work in Britain was held at the Alex. Reid & Lefevre premises in London in 1927, when Middleton purchased La Leçon de piano. He went on to lend it over the years to several shows organised by The Lefèvre Galleries, whilst continuing to add to his collection up until the 1950s.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, there was a small but focused core of men whose passion for the arts helped to define Aberdeen as one of the most forward-looking cultural centres of the United Kingdom. The city became the possessor of an enviable public collection housed in the Aberdeen Art Gallery as well as a number of outstanding private collections. Sir James Murray (1850-1933) was the pioneering figure whose generosity and passion guided the Aberdeen Art Gallery into the 20th Century. Following Murray were a few other spirited individuals, including Middleton, the galleries’ curator Harry Townend and Sir Thomas Jaffrey (who replaced Murray as Chairman of the Gallery in 1928). However, it was undoubtedly Royan Middleton who set the bar high where the modern movements were concerned, leaving behind a quiet legacy of absolute discernment which his family was able to enjoy for many years, and which would be discreetly shared with the wider public in exhibitions in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, London, Paris and in the USA. The landmark purchases Middleton made in the 1920s and 30s established the pattern of his collecting for the remainder of his life. In her study of early collectors of Matisse’s art, Margit Hahnloser-Ingold mentions that he must have been one of the first and certainly one of the most ardent collectors of Matisse’s work in Britain: ‘He had an unfailing eye for quality and owned at least five Matisse paintings in addition to pieces by Bonnard, Vuillard, Cézanne, van Gogh, Modigliani and Utrillo’ (M. Hahnloser-Ingold in Henri Matisse. The Early Years in Nice 1916-1930 (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1986-87, p. 259).