Interview: 5 minutes with... Frances Varley

on collecting, research, museums, and more...

Henry Martin: Hi Frances, welcome to the Impresario Project. I came across your research profile via the Terra Foundation, who have awarded you a Research Travel Grant to the US. Congratulations! I was then excited to see that you and I have some similar interests in American art: the formation of art collections, the interplay between identity and collections, the founding of museums, modernism and the tail-end of the long nineteenth century. I'd love to hear more about how you came to focus on these different strands in your research, if it's possible to articulate. (Big question, I know).

Frances Varley: Hi Henry! Thanks for having me! That is a big question but I’ll do my best. Collecting became my focus almost by accident. I’d done some research on Isabella Stewart Gardner (Figure 1) during my MA and had written an essay where I looked at what artworks might tell us about the person who owns them, rather than about the person who creates them. I didn’t really give the idea much more thought until I actually got started with my PhD last year. I was trying to find a way of bringing together all the themes that I’m interested in and collecting emerged as the perfect vehicle through which to do that.

Figure 1. Isabella Stewart Gardner, John Singer Sargent, 1888, Wikimedia Commons

For me collections bring together disparate things in order to express something fundamental about some aspect of identity. Collecting is instinctive and something we all do, whether that’s books, stamps, things you find on the beach. It’s a way of trying to represent and make tangible something that is otherwise so ephemeral.

With art collecting in particular, there’s an interesting complexity in that the collector is assembling and displaying objects that are the creative output of another person. The choice of frame, position, or relation to other pieces is a direct intervention in that creative process and adds new layers of meaning onto the original work. It moves beyond the artist and makes the art object something malleable and fluid; that to me is so rich in terms of analytical potential.

As you mention, the other key area of my work is the closing decades of the nineteenth century. It’s a period of huge global transition and instability, and one that set the foundations for the socio-political events of the Twentieth Century, and I think we’re still feeling the effects of it today.

Henry: Have there been any writers or publications that you've found particularly useful or impactful for your research?

Frances: I like to think about art as a product of, and a window into, a particular historical moment, so writers like T.J. Clark provide a great blueprint for that sort of social art history. It was written back in the 1990s, but The Painting of Modern Life is one of those books that I’ll always go back to. Tim Barringer is also a huge influence—particularly how he makes a case for the value of studying the art histories of the nineteenth century.

There are so many exciting voices in the field at the moment—Melody Barnett Deusner published a book last year which focuses on the networked histories of collectors of Aestheticism in Britain and America. The way she connects her case studies across time and place is a really informative model for me.

Beyond that though I think I’m always most informed by what I find in the archive. I love searching through Victorian periodicals, publications and correspondence and trying to immerse myself in the thought of the time.

Henry: Your current research is transnational (UK, and US) and I know that you have previously studied collectors in Leeds during the same time period. What do you think are the broad similarities and differences between collectors in the UK and the US at the time?

Frances: The transnational approach is quite new to me and has been a huge learning curve, but it’s definitely helping me to explore new directions and themes in my research. The relationship between collecting in the UK and US at the time is really intriguing, and shows just how connected the art worlds of both countries were at the time.

In the early part of the nineteenth century most private art collections in the UK were held by old aristocratic families in their country estates, but instability by the mid-century led to a lot of these collections being sold off in order to help shore up family incomes. This opened up a void in the market, where art was there to be bought, but the traditional buyers were absent. This gap was filled to an extent by the emerging wealthy industrial classes—the vast majority of whom made their money in the factory cities and ports of northern England. This includes people like Sir Henry Tate, whose collection eventually became the beginning of what we know today as Tate Britain. Likewise in the US, because the country was so young and there wasn’t a system of hereditary aristocracy, art collecting on a significant scale first occurred among those who had become impossibly wealthy during the industrial boom—names like J.P. Morgan and the Rockefellers.

One of the biggest differences though is the aesthetic taste of these groups. Generally speaking, the wealthy industrialists in the UK weren’t so interested in the Old Master works that the aristocracy tended to own. Instead they preferred contemporary British painting—for example the Pre-Raphaelites. I’d argue that this was a way of expressing themselves as culturally distinct from the landed aristocracy that they were beginning to replace in the social system. American collectors on the other hand wanted to develop an image of themselves as culturally-refined and historically-established—something that they associated with the European canon.

So, when British aristocrats sold off their collections, it was often American millionaires that were buying them up. There’s a—slightly troubling—epithet from the time that talks about a two-way trade across the Atlantic. Paintings went westwards to the US, and wealthy heiresses came to the UK to marry into ailing aristocratic families.

What’s striking then, for me at least, isn’t so much the similarities or differences as the ways in which the collecting worlds of both countries were so connected and dependent on the other.

Henry: Are there any American artists, collectors, patrons or dealers you are particularly drawn to?

Frances: So many! I’d never really encountered any American art from before the Second World War until I did my MA—when I did, I absolutely fell in love with the Aschan School (Figure 2). They aren’t really the focus of my research, but I think the way they explore the darker, grittier side of the urban experience to be so fascinating. Studying them definitely fuelled my interest in thinking about the city as a site for art historical analysis.

Figure 2. McSorley's Bar, John Sloan, 1912, Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve already mentioned her but Isabella Stewart Gardner is fascinating. She was a rather eccentric Gilded Age collector who built an art museum in her home in Boston. She used her house as a stage for her pieces and requested that everything stay exactly where it was after her death. I’ve actually never been to the museum, but it's on my list as soon as I can get to the US, whenever that might be…

Henry: If you're anything like me, you've probably felt the challenge of not being able to visit a museum over the past sixteen months. Museums come in for a lot of criticism these days (for many legitimate and important reasons), but they can still offer very important and positive experiences. Was there a recent or formative exhibition or display that impressed you in the past?

Frances: That’s really true—the museum is certainly a focal point in a lot of necessary discussions of colonialism and imperial legacies. In a way I think that’s why I’m so drawn to Victorian museums—most of the institutions at the centre of these discussions are products of the nineteenth-century. I find that having an understanding of where these museums came from and the intellectual context from which they evolved is important when it comes to rethinking them today.

I grew up not far from the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and I love to go back whenever I manage to get home. They have a great collection of works by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth—who were both local to the area—but also Ai WeiWi, Andy Goldsworth, Anthony Caro, Eduardo Paolozzi. The way the sculptures sit within and interact with the landscape is so beautiful to me, and gives a completely different experience of the work than when it's isolated in a gallery space. I think it opened my eyes to the way in which art could inform and be informed by its surroundings, and that’s always stayed with me, particularly when it comes to thinking about the effect of a particular work within a collection, display, or museum space.

I’m incredibly lucky to be living in London where there’s a glut of groundbreaking exhibitions. I’ve really enjoyed a lot of the Barbican’s recent shows—Toyin Ojih Odutola’s A Countervailing Theory was so raw and powerful, and I loved the way the installation responded to the space. I managed to see it last summer when museums were (briefly) reopen here. There was quite a strict one-way route because of COVID-19, which took you through the exhibition, but then also through the labyrinth of the Barbican itself and out through its incredible botanic conservatory. Moving through the art space, followed by brutalist concrete and then tropical plants was such an interesting way to experience the whole space.

Figure 3. Toyin Ojih Odutola, 'Semblance of Certainty', from 'A Countervailing Theory', 2019, Barbican, Credit: Toyin Ojih Odutola and Jack Shainman Gallery.

Henry: I hope that your time in the US brings you closer to finding answers to your burning research questions. I wonder, is there a work of art there that you are especially looking forward to seeing? Alternatively, if that question is too difficult to answer; here's another. If I could grant you a wish where you have some afternoon tea (or a pint, if you'd rather) with a character from history, who would it be, and why? (You're not limited to art history here).

Frances: That is another tough question! I’m not sure if there’s one work of art, but I’m looking forward to spending time in the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. Having a museum space that is entirely dedicated to American art is such a unique and exciting thing as an art historian with transatlantic interests, so I can’t wait to explore the collection and really immerse myself. I’m especially intrigued by their collection of folk art and works by untrained artists.

As for a character from history, I’d definitely indulge my art historical interests and have afternoon tea (and maybe some champagne…) with Isabella Stewart Gardner. I’m so compelled by how forthright and independent she was as a woman and as a collector. I think she’d also be a real Gilded Age hostess and show me a great time!


Frances Varley is a PhD candidate at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London. Her research interrogates how art collections were used as tools in the negotiation of individual, communal, and regional identities in Britain and the United States in the late-nineteenth century. She is interested in how theories of place can influence art historical scholarship and the ways in which explorations of the local can be inflected in global and transnational studies. >> TWITTER >> INSTAGRAM.


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