Frances Varley - The Courtauld Institute of Art

Frances Varley

Search for:

Frances Varley

PhD Student

On Twitter

4 Mar

Identity and the Region in the United States and Britain from a Comparative Perspective, c.1870-1914

Supervised by Professor David Peters Corbett

Advised by Dr Esther Chadwick

Centre for American Art


My research focuses on how collections were used as tools in the negotiation of individual, communal, and local identities in Britain and the United States in the years between 1870 and 1914. By highlighting comparative case studies in Manchester and Philadelphia, I interrogate how civic concerns of cultural, economic, and geographic peripherality intersected and impacted individual attempts at self-presentation through collections and their display. In doing so, my research explores the extent to which the individuals were regional actors and the ways in which facets of the self coalesced in conjunction with concerns of local stability, community, and identity. Through its focus on the interconnected histories of museums and collecting in Britain and the United States throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century this project considers the social and ideological functions of art. It considers collections, museums, and bequests as vital means of negotiating identity, self-representation, and ideology.


The thesis will explore in turn Thomas Coglan Horsfall (1841-1932) and Enriqueta Rylands (1843-1908) in Manchester and John G. Johnson (1841-1917) and William H. Dorsey (1837-1932) of Philadelphia. As near-exact contemporaries, these individuals demonstrate the competing, intersecting, and networked reality of diverse identities in each city. Their collections, bequests, and writings reveal the ways in which each one sought to negotiate complex questions of identity, self-presentation, and belonging. Horsfall was an industrialist and established a didactic art museum in the heart of industrial Manchester intended to support the moral and spiritual ‘improvement’ of the urban poor. Johnson was a lawyer who developed a private collection intended to demonstrate the breadth of western art history. He arranged that his collection, and his Philadelphia home, would become an art museum in the event of his death. Both men perceived their collections as having inherent moral and educational value. Rylands was born in Havana, Cuba and educated in New York, London, and Paris, before marrying Manchester industrialist John Rylands. At her husband’s death, Rylands established the John Rylands Library in his memory and sought to develop a collection of national significance. Dorsey was an African American artist and historian whose collection of over 500 rare books, paintings, and sculptures serves as one of the earliest and most complete attempts to construct a synthetic history of Black America. 


In their positions of social status, wealth, masculinity, and whiteness, Horsfall and Johnson represent the establishment of their cities and time. An exploration of the ways in which approaches to collecting developed in response to local unease, transition, and questions of identity will serve as a counterpoint from which to explore the diverging lived experiences of Rylands and Dorsey. 





  • PhD: The Courtauld Institute of Art
  • MA History of Art: The Courtauld Institute of Art. Special Option: New York – London – Paris, 1880-1940
  • BA (Hons) History: Somerville College, University of Oxford


Awards, Grants, and Fellowships

  • Terra Foundation Research Travel Grant (2021)
  • Courtauld Scholarship (2020)
  • Alice Horsman Award, Somerville College (2018)


Other Activities




Research Interests

  • British and American art, c.1850-1920
  • Regionalism and place
  • Centre/periphery relations
  • Identity and self-definition
  • Collecting and collectors
  • Social and public functions of art

Share This

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Close