The beauty of a line
Jeremy Musson enjoys a select exhibition of English nude studies and portrait drawings from an astonishingly rich regional collection
In 1949, when the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery opened in Bedford, it might have remained a collection of ceramics and objets d’art dating principally from the 18th century, but Higgins, the philanthropic brewer who founded it, wanted the collection to have a life of its own and so he wisely left a trust fund specifically for the further acquisition of works of art. In 1951, the gallery’s board decided to specialise in English watercolours and works on paper, advised by Graham Reynolds of the V&A (Higgins’s will specified somebody from a ‘recognised artistic authority’).
From 1955, Reynolds was succeeded as adviser by two experts, Edward Croft-murray of the British Museum, who advised on pre1850 art, and Ronald Alley of the Tate, advising on art after 1850. They both kept an alert eye on the market and nominated the artists whose works should be collected and the type of work that should be represented (dealers would send possibilities up by train for approval). Their knowledge and interest in drawings—which were especially affordable in the 1950s and 1960s—meant that the gallery bought many important works by most English masters of note.