Like many first-time visitors to Watts Gallery, I found the experience akin to a ‘personal discovery’; the place, the pictures and sculpted work of Tennyson and the personality who created them. The visit was prompted by an initiative proposed by Assistant Curator, Julia Dudkiewicz and John George, Development Advisor to Watts Gallery, to explore areas where the Witt and Watts could collaborate to mutual benefit.

I was fortunate to meet Richard Jefferies, Curator of Watts Gallery, shortly before his retirement; he produced a handwritten entry recorded in the Minutes of Trustees, noting the arrival of the Witt Library for the duration of the War. Richard unwittingly proffered the bait that moved the collaborative effort into ‘Phase 2’.

We began work with an exchange of information on the holdings of our institutions; however, the really interesting work is just beginning.

Whilst the entry in the Minutes is supported by anecdote - apparently green Witt boxes messed up parquet flooring in the basement of Watts Gallery - the Witt Library’s wartime sojourn in Compton is not supported elsewhere. Rather, in 1934 the Watts archive records six hundred boxes of books from the Warburg deposited in the gallery itself, hindering the hanging of new acquisitions to the picture collection.

Shortly before his death, Sir Robert Witt made notes to help future custodians manage his library; he mentions staff being disbanded at the start of war and his collection:

“…sent to the country; Lambourn, Brighton and finally to West Wyckham Park to join the Wallace Collection.”

Any further reference to the library’s wartime history is scant, mostly remarking on its return to London. Indeed, the Witt Library’s Visitors’ Book hardly notices the war at all; the entry for Charles Johnson, National Gallery, 24th July 1946 follows immediately after Dr. de Wild’s visit from The Hague on 31st August 1939 without a gap.

Sir Robert was a Trustee of Watts Gallery, representing the National Gallery from 1925. He attended most meetings until his death. The first Director of the Courtauld, W. G. Constable, was appointed a Trustee in 1935 and continued to attend meetings of the Trustees after moving to America, in 1938, to take up a post in Boston. He was present at the meeting, in July 1952, following the death of Sir Robert Witt that necessitated the election of a new Trustee. The place was offered to Professor Boase, appointed Director of the Institute, in 1937, following Constable’s resignation. However, Boase declined.

Minutes for the meeting of Trustees, in July 1956, note: “The curator was instructed to negotiate the restoration of the fresco (‘The Bowood Fresco’) with Mr. Rees Jones of the Courtauld Institute”, and suggests the Conservation Department and Watts Gallery began working ‘collaboratively’ half a century ago.

These few snippets of Witt, Watts and Courtauld Institute associations were deduced from a copy of the Minutes of Watts Gallery and knowledge of our own archives; work on the material continues in earnest in October and it is hoped a wealth of fact and gossip will be revealed.


Sir Robert Witt