The diminution of connoisseurship in the academic and museological worlds has prompted a reaction of sorts, which usually reflects the ideological leanings of the perpetrator. A recent article in the Observer quoted Brian Allen, former director of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and a trustee of the British National Portrait Gallery, bemoaning the fact that universities are 'no longer training historians to tell their William Hogarth from their Francis Hayman'. Allen attributes this failing to the fact that students are 'more likely to focus on some aspect of the sociology of view painting in 18th-century Europe.' He opines 'the best scholars coming through in the field of British art are from Italy, where [...] they're better equipped to deal with the rigours of older art where you have to know languages, classical mythology, Greek and Roman history.' This deficiency is also applicable to Britain's national art museums, which he claims have few real experts left. Noting that Tate Britain has recently made three of its specialist curators redundant, Allen declares 'There's hardly anybody left.' While there's a smack of the reactionary in these observations, their substance isn't in doubt and it's not the first time that the problematic has been raised: historical visual knowledge – specifically the reading of an object from the viewpoint of a trained individual, if you will – is significantly less regarded both academically and museologically.
Similar trends have been observed in New Zealand although, given the systemic poverty of resources committed to both the academic study of art and design history and public collections of the same material, this degradation is difficult to measure. It is telling, though, that art history no longer has departmental status at the University of Auckland and will shortly lose its only professorial chair, a situation already prevailing at the University of Canterbury. The University of Otago intends closing its Department of Applied Science, which includes its design school. Institutionally the Auckland Museum gives every appearance of further downgrading the status of its remaining curatorial staff in favour of a management-heavy cohort of Taylorised technocrats; it doesn't even bother listing its acquisitions in its latest annual report. Te Papa has also endured a renewed bout of managementitis with the appointment of a chief executive with no museological experience let alone a scholastic background, but 'an exceptional track record in senior executive roles'. Te Papa's most recent annual report lists no acquisitions of any note in the fields of art and design and, with a couple of notable exceptions, exhibits an absence of publications of any significance by its staff in the same fields.
Perhaps the most visible local manifestation of this national dearth of institutional learning came in 2013 when, acting against the advice of external expertise, the Alexander Turnbull Library acquired at auction a portrait of Hamiora Maioha allegedly painted by Gottfried Lindauer (1839-1926). Subsequent forensic examination has proven it to be a forgery. While the library admitted its failure, it justified its stance by suggesting that the disputed attribution had merely been a disagreement of experts. It failed to acknowledge that its own, anonymous, 'experts' evidently had no claim to the designation, certainly in respect of the work of a well-known, well-documented, locally-based, painter.
While they may now be institutionally disregarded, connoisseurs have been critical in developing many of New Zealand's public collections, usually at their own expense. In the field of books and manuscripts George Grey (1812-1898), Thomas Hocken (1836-1910) and Alexander Turnbull (1868-1918) are pre-eminent. All three also collected ethnographical material, art and decorative arts although their activities in the latter fields are usually unrecognised. Other significant New Zealand connoisseurs might include the members of the extended de Beer family who made a series of extraordinary gifts to the Dunedin Public Art Gallery and the expatriate James Tannock Mackelvie (1824-1885) whose accumulations bequeathed to Auckland in 1885 are now held between the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki and the Auckland Museum.
|Press (27 May 1935), p. 20|
Between 1936 and 1943 Humphreys-Davies developed what was probably the most significant collection of Asian art formed in New Zealand at the Auckland Museum. The collection was based around a series of donations made by Humphreys-Davies and his first wife Ethel. Yet, so completely has he been airbrushed from the museum's institutional history that the little biographical information it provides about him not only ignores his scholarship and the exhibitions he organised during the 1920s and 30s, but mistakes the date and place of his birth, exiles him from his adopted country for significant periods of time, diminishes his war record and eliminates his wife from the credit lines of the pieces that she gave jointly with her husband.
Only two critical evaluations of Humphreys-Davies' cultural activities have been published: a passing notice of his role as one of a number of New Zealand collectors of ukiyo-e in an article by David Bell in 2008; and an informed analysis of his 1937 'Exhibition of Chinese art' by James Beattie and Lauren Murray in 2011. Both papers suffer from knowing little about the man, his background and the material he collected. This post provides a preliminary biographical overview and focuses on Humphreys-Davies as a collector of ukiyo-e.
Humphreys-Davies was born in Newport, Monmouthshire, Wales, the second son and second of four children of the Guernsey-born Mary Rosalie Dutch Satterley (1847-1920) and George Humphreys Davies (1848-1915), a surveyor, valuer and co-author (with Edward Boyle) of The principles of rating practically considered (London: Estates Office Gazette, 1890), a text deemed recently to be an 'admirable account' and 'invaluable mine of information' concerning English local taxation. Davies was a fellow of the Institution of Surveyors and a successful businessman who ultimately established an architectural and planning office in the City. By 1891 the Davies family had moved to the Old House, Brooke Green, Hammersmith in London.
Humphrey-Davies matriculated at Pembroke College in Oxford but while taking terms from 1899-1901 did not graduate. Coming down from Oxford, he was commissioned in December 1901 into the 30th (Pembrokeshire) Company, 9th Battalion of the Imperial Yeomanry, a volunteer cavalry regiment, raised in 1900, that was despatched to South Africa to fight in the latter stages of the Anglo-Boer War. He appears to have had an active time there and was awarded clasps to the Queen's South Africa medal for service in Cape Colony, Orange Free State and Transvaal. He also appears to have contracted pneumonia, typhoid and bacillary dysentry, afflictions that had a lasting impact on his sporadic military career.
In September 1902 Humphreys-Davies relinquished his commission and for the next six years nothing is known of his activities although there are suggestions he may have worked in Malaya; he wrote a 157 page illustrated, unpublished account of his travels in the region in 1930, delivered a lecture on the development of the Malay peninsular to the Auckland Museum in 1932 and subsequent press interviews are sprinkled with references to '35 years of fossicking in out of the way places – Malaya, Bali, Sumatra [and] Celebes'. However in 1908 he caught black water fever and was repatriated to England. It was most likely a medical response to this debilitating disease that prompted him into emigrating to New Zealand in 1909. He took up sheep farming: in the supplementary roll of the Taumarunui electorate for 1911 he is listed as a farmer, living on the Meringa Station, some 22 kilometres north east of Taumarunui. Shortly after he seems to have acquired a property 'Glenalvon' at Rangataua near Ohakune that, in April 1912, he allegedly on-sold to a Jane Solloway, the Taumarunui-domiciled wife of a builder who converted an existing building on the property into a boarding house. By January 1914 he had taken up the lease of a farm 'Arawata', on newly opened land near Ohura; at that year's Ohura Agricultural and Pastoral Association show at Niho Niho he won the first of many prizes for champion sheep.
With the declaration of war in August 1914 Humphreys-Davies, rather than enlisting in New Zealand, rejoined his regiment in England. It is possible that this decision was precipitated by a court action against him lodged in April by Mrs Solloway who sued him for damages amounting to £1044/1/9 in the Hamilton Supreme Court <Archives New Zealand (Auckland) BCDG A1492 14616 Box 9 A196>. She alleged he had failed to provide proof of ownership of the Rangataua property, which had led to her eviction by the former landowner. The action appears to have lapsed. Departing Wellington on 21 August 1914, Humphreys-Davies arrived in San Francisco on 17 September where, four days later, he married Ethel Dorothy Patton (1879-1938), a trained nurse and the daughter of a mining engineer who had spent part of her childhood in New Zealand. The newly married couple proceeded to London – probably the last time they travelled 2nd class – where Ethel worked as a nursing sister first in Dieppe with the French Red Cross and later at the Life Guards Military Hospital in Regent's Park, London.
Ethel Patton was independently wealthy and this may explain Humphreys-Davies' decision in 1915 to dispose of his leased farm in remote Ohura. Humphreys-Davies' father who died in 1915 left an estate valued for probate purposes of £40,000 (the equivalent of £1.4 million today); he was bequeathed a £5000 trust fund, suggesting that his earlier New Zealand farming venture may have had a paternal subsidy. Following his mother's death in 1920 he seems to have had little contact with his family.
The Humphreys-Davies' returned to New Zealand in July 1919. Ethel purchased a large, well-worked in farm, 'Freshwater' at Kawakawa Bay, near Clevedon. Aside from a tragic accident in 1923 that saw Ethel's visiting sister killed when a bus she was travelling in collapsed into a river, the couple led a comfortable life for much of the 1920s. Humphreys-Davies bred championship Corriedale sheep, showing his livestock at the Clevedon Agricultural and Pastoral Association Fair. He was also involved with a number of 'patriotic', ex-officers' organisations such as the British Legion and the Household Brigade Old Comrades' Association. The local press reported the activities of the dapper Captain Humphreys-Davies and his wife: he had received a message of thanks from the Queen for a donation he had collected on the occasion of her birthday from the first class passengers on RMS Tahiti; he was a member of the Northern Club; he was entertained by fellow members of Auckland's Oxford Society on his return from one of his overseas excursions; they were the generous donors of 135 acres (54.6 hectares) of 'uncut bush' on the Kawakawa-Orere road to the nation; and in regular attendance at Auckland social gatherings throughout the 1930s. To all appearances, the Humphreys-Davies' led the sort of life enjoyed by affluent sheep farmers around the country, except for the fact that Auckland was a short distance away – they usually travelled to Auckland by motor launch – making their rural retreat somewhat less isolated than that enjoyed by most of their peers. Seemingly affectionate, the marriage was nonetheless childless.
From 1927 the Humphreys-Davies' public profile underwent a major shift. From being regarded as a well-travelled bon vivant George emerged as a connoisseur, a collector of antiquities and an expert on South East Asia; Ethel effectively disappeared from public gaze. On 17 May, the Auckland Star reported Captain C (sic) Humphreys-Davies had given two academic studies by David Wilkie (1785-1841) plus £1 for framing to the School of Architecture at Auckland University [College] and on 25 October an exhibition of 120 'Japanese colour-prints' from the collections of Mr H S Dadley and Captain G Humphreys-Davies opened at the Auckland Art Gallery in a recently renovated space that had previously contained the Russell donation of plaster casts (now partly held at the Auckland Museum). The exhibition was accompanied by a 30 page part-illustrated catalogue and extensively reported in the Auckland press, employing information provided by Humphreys-Davies who also delivered two public lectures. The exhibition was intended to run for four weeks, but having attracted an unexpected 4,000 visitors, it was extended for a further ten days and Humphreys-Davies delivered a further lecture.
|Title page and frontispiece of Catalogue of a loan collection of Japanese colour prints: owned by Mr H S Dadley and Capt G Humphreys-Davies ([Auckland]: Auckland City Council, Library Committee, 1927).|
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
a number of Japanese colour prints, enough almost to make a show in themselves, and if you would like them I have a ms of a pamphlet about them which could be printed, also about 20 films which I had done through a colour screen, and possibly an illustrated catalogue could be made and sold. I myself would contribute and buy £5 worth. There are other collectors of Japanese colour prints, Mr Dadley is one, who I am sure will assist.
Barr responded to Humphreys-Davies' offer with some alacrity; five prints were borrowed from him for the etchings exhibition and, following an inspection of the two ukiyo-e collections, it was decided to defer the proposed exhibition of drawings in favour of one devoted to Japanese prints <Auckland Art Gallery Archives, Exhibitions 1927, letter from J Barr to G Humphreys-Davies, 2 June 1927>. In accepting Humphreys-Davies' proposal, Barr noted that Gulliver would undertake the hang and would supplement the prints with 'some other wood block prints to round off the exhibition'. In the event the other prints were restricted to a display case of wood blocks and impressions, demonstrating the technical aspects of the wood block printing process. Barr was also keen to publish Humphreys-Davies' manuscript, declaring that the gallery intended 'doing the best possible within the financial limitations which unfortunately exist'. This was a bit of an exaggeration given that both Humphries-Davies provided the text and images gratis, along with £5; Dadley made a donation of £7 which more than covered the cost of printing.
By contemporary New Zealand standards, the catalogue was sophisticated in both appearance and content. It is evident that Dadley and Humphreys-Davies not only owned significant collections of ukiyo-e but also the latter had an authoritative, if Eurocentric, knowledge of the subject. The tenor of Humphreys-Davies' introductory essay is surprisingly radical, emphasising the point that ukiyo-e should be seen as an art, 'essentially popular in their origin and purpose', emphasising the fact that 'The pictures dealt with the subjects of everyday interest and were sold in the streets of old Tokio in large numbers at a very low price'. It demonstrates an interest in the technical aspects of production. It anticipates the patronising reaction of a local audience in attempting to explain the absence of perspective. And it contextualises the images into recent western cultural history, explaining that the prints 'have exercised a great influence over modern Western art, and men like Monet, Degas and Whistler came under it to a marked degree'. Few visitors to the exhibition would have little knowledge of, let alone sight of works of art by Monet, Degas and Whistler.
In the Auckland Art Gallery's archived copy of the catalogue there are a number of pencilled annotations to the catalogue entries. These are, according to a note initialled by Barr on the inside cover, 'the work of a visiting Japanese who had studied Japanese colour prints'. On the outside back cover of this catalogue there is a further, semi-erased, pencil, inscription: 'Mr I Kitakoji / Glad to see / [Knows it ... has been interesting] / Representative / Nothing like it outside of London / Arrangement good'. The 'visiting Japanese' was the aristocratic poet Isamitsu Kitakōji 北小路功光著 北小路, 功光, (1901-1989) who was appointed lecturer in Japanese at the University of Sydney in 1926. Notwithstanding his literary distinctions and his relationship with the Showa emperor – he was a cousin – he resided in Sydney briefly; his 1927 visit to New Zealand was made on his return to Japan.
As well as praising the exhibition's content and presentation, Kitakōji, who claimed a degree in aesthetics, attributed a number of works that were either unidentified or misidentified and corrected some of the translated texts. Kitakōji was not alone in his flattery of the exhibition. Barr was obviously won over by the exhibition's success, mediating retrospective notices in Art in Australia and the British magazine, Connoisseur that noted the generosity of the lenders, comparing the largesse of 'these two New Zealand connoisseurs' to 'the generosity of American collectors to their museums'.
|Title page and frontispiece of Catalogue of a loan collection of Japanese colour prints: from the collection of Capt G Humphreys-Davies ([Auckland]: Auckland City Council, Library Committee, 1934).|
Harry Dadley died two months prior to the Humphreys-Davies' departure for east Asia leaving an estate valued at some £80,000 (the equivalent of $9.5 million today). There were two bequests: his collection of Asian art was left to the Auckland War Memorial Museum, which would receive 'such of the curios as the curator may select as suitable' and the remainder was 'set aside on the determination of certain life interests as an endowment fund for the establishment and maintenance of a home for crippled children'. By default, Humphreys-Davies became involved in the selection of Dadley's 'curios' for the museum's collection, a process that in December 1935 saw him appointed honorary curator of Chinese art – a position shortly retitled honorary curator of the oriental collections.
Curiously Bell's 2008 paper fails to acknowledge the existence of Dadley's collection while in 2013 Mathew Norman observed only that 'Dadley died in 1933 and his collection did not feature in the 1934 exhibition where, again, the catalogue enables us to identify works from Humphreys-Davies's collection which are now in the Gallery's collection (sic).' <M Norman, 'From the collections: historic Japanese woodblock prints', in Fragile beauty: historic Japanese graphic art (Auckland: Auckland Art Gallery, 2013), 13-23, p. 23>. A close reading of the two Auckland Art Gallery exhibition catalogues suggests he may have acquired up to five of Dadley's prints – including works by Chōbunsai Eishi 鳥文斎 栄之 (1756-1829) Utagawa Kuniyoshi 歌川 国芳 (1797-1861) and Toyokuni V Kunisada III 歌川国貞 (1848-1920) – although this, obviously, cannot be confirmed without supporting documentation. Moreover, the Auckland Art Gallery's collection of ukiyo-e, with the exception of twenty-nine prints given by the estate of Thomas Gulliver – who also died in 1933 – is comprised almost entirely of the collection Humphreys-Davies sold to Mackelvie Trust in December 1946 <Auckland Libraries NZMS895 Series 9 Folder 2>.
Humphreys-Davies' exposure to the reality of imperial Japan evidently shocked him, probably more than his discovery that ukiyo-e were no longer sold cheaply on 'the streets of old Tokio'. Interviewed on the day of his return he declared it 'the most highly-organised, efficient and industrious nation that has ever existed' that it was – as an Auckland Star headline writer put it – a 'danger to the [British] empire and that the Japanese 'envisaged the possibility and probability of war'. Even as he was travelling through east Asia Japanese military forces were surrounding Beijing following Japan's annexation of Manchuria in 1932 and its subsequent withdrawal from the League of Nations. The extended press coverage given to Humphreys-Davies' opinions on his return, while in keeping with the tenor of contemporary New Zealand reporting of Japanese issues, was extraordinary given that hitherto it had restricted itself to reporting his quotidian activities. His comments on the growth of Japanese militarism and the concomitant expansion of its trade were not only published at length in the Auckland newspapers but also reported in Wellington and Christchurch press, although not without criticism. An anonymous letter to the editor in the Wellington Evening Post ridiculed Humphreys-Davies' apprehensions, suggesting that Captain Humphry Davis (sic) had got it all wrong, ingenuously quoting Emily Lorimer's benign observation that the Japanese 'savours poetry, as everyone sincerely loves Nature, and friends invite each other not to bridge but to a cherry viewing [...] not to talk golf but to make verse.'
Direct experience of Japanese culture, or perhaps, more accurately, an awareness of the recent availability of significant numbers of Chinese artefacts, augured a change in the focus of Humphreys-Davies' collecting; he now turned to collecting Chinese decorative arts in earnest. The Japanese invasion of north China had released a flood of looted objects onto the market. In a 1935 interview, Humphreys-Davies addressed what was described as 'the moral aspect of collecting', observing that 'the history of nearly all the most valuable objects d'art in the world has been one of robbery, cheating and violence. If the collector went to deeply into the history of any object of the kind he would never start his collection.' Humphreys-Davies' collecting of ukiyo-e was a part of the final stage of the diaspora of Japanese art and design that had begun with the arrival of Europeans in the 1540s and effectively finished in the interwar period as Japanese reasserted their right to control their cultural heritage. Seen in this light, the 1934 exhibition seems more of a sales promotion than a celebration of Humphreys-Davies' connoisseurship in the uncomfortable context of what culturally was still a European settler outpost.
|A selection of Humphreys-Davies' ukiyo-e can be seen framed on the rear wall.|
Press (29 May 1935), p. 18
But from 1933 Humphreys-Davies’ collecting focus was on Chinese objects; he asserted he had been collecting this material since his youth and regaled journalists with stories that ‘He found his first collection piece in an old shop in Bayswater, London. It was a valuable sacrificial wine jar, on which the markings were emblematic of eternal life.’ During his travels in east Asia in 1933 he acquired some seventy-five pieces from China and ‘Chinese merchants living in Japan’, a number of which he subsequently placed on display at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. The combination of an institutionally-endorsed exhibition along with a slew of press interviews in which Humphreys-Davies emphasised his connoisseurship and eye for a good bargain proved an effective marketing tool not only for the exhibitions but also for sales, which were conducted with a degree of discretion. Aside from Dadley who evidently had his own sources of supply, there were other collectors of ukiyo-e in Auckland – not least Gulliver – including Gordon Minhinnick, the staff cartoonist of the New Zealand Herald who, through Humphreys-Davies, lent a print to the 1935 Christchurch exhibition. It is known that Humphreys-Davies sold at least one print, Hishikawa Moronobu 菱川 師宣 (1618-1694) Picnic under the cherry trees (c. 1680) to the Christchurch collector Gordon McArthur; there were, undoubtedly, other sales.
Notwithstanding his newly-awakened enthusiasm for Chinese ceramics, which would culminate in his extraordinary 1937 'Exhibition of Chinese Art,' Humphreys-Davies retained and probably enhanced his ukiyo-e collection. However his circumstances changed markedly the following year. On 29 December 1938 Ethel Humphreys-Davies died, 'unexpectedly'. While she left her 'beloved husband' a life interest in her trust, her real estate – notably the farm in Kawakawa Bay – was left to her Californian nieces <Archives New Zealand (Auckland) R9393673/BBAE/1570/A645/42/P34/1939>. The property was put up for sale, Humphreys-Davies resumed his role as honorary curator of the oriental collections at the Auckland Museum and, rehearsing the patriotic fever of his comfortable days, opened an office under the aegis of the British Legion to recruit former officers back into military service in anticipation of the 'inevitable' war. It was a short-lived venture: two months later he left New Zealand for Europe, arriving some five weeks before the declaration of war. Notwithstanding his official connections – his nephew was private secretary to the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain – Humphreys-Davies' services were not required and he returned to New Zealand in November having visited Paris where he 'renewed his acquaintance with M René Grousset, director of the Cernuschi Museum'.On his return and on behalf of the British malacologist J R le B Tomlin and his wife he presented the Auckland Museum with part of an intended gift of English porcelain. But soon after, apparently frustrated at being excluded from the war, he once again sought to be involved in the conflict. The New Zealand Herald announced he was leaving in March to take up permanent residence abroad with the intention of offering his services to the War Office but 'If his application is not successful, he will proceed to France, where he has plans for opening a rest home for pilots of the Royal New Zealand, and French Air Forces'. He arrived in London, appropriately enough, on ANZAC day 1940, France surrendered in June leaving Humphreys-Davies' plans for a French rest home in tatters. It is unclear how he was occupied between April 1940 and 17 October 1943 when, describing himself as a sheep farmer, he departed Liverpool for New Zealand on the MV Port Alma.
Back in Auckland he lodged at the Northern Club and resumed his work at the Auckland Museum with a directed sense of vigour. In December 1943 he began the process of donating his remaining collection of Chinese art to the museum, including examples acquired recently in Britain, notably pieces from the Charles Rutherston collection, a Gandhara stone head and a large wooden Lohan that he stated had recently been exhibited in Nottingham. In early 1944 he purchased a six-roomed bungalow on half an acre of ground in Manukau Road, Epsom but soon after disposed of it and purchased a house divided into two flats in Gillies Avenue, a tonier part of the same suburb. Later that year he remarried a Frances Sophia Leslie née Maclean (1909-?), apparently a demonstrator at an Auckland appliances store.The marriage was not a success and by 1946 the erstwhile wife was living at Castor Bay and Humphreys-Davies was, once again, moving abroad. The Gillies Avenue flats were sold, along with their contents, the collections gifted or sold for what appears to have been token amounts and on 15 January 1947 he left New Zealand for the last time.
Humphreys-Davies retained the bulk of his collection of ukiyo-e until December 1946 when, through Barr, he sold 184 prints and nine 'illustrated books' to the Mackelvie Trust for £250 (the equivalent of NZD20,000 today) <Auckland Libraries NZMS895 Series 9 Folder 2>. The disposal seems to have marked the end of his collecting activities.
George Arthur Wenham Humphreys-Davies died aged 68 on 10 December 1948 at the Anglo-American Hospital at Petit Juas in Cannes. In his will – his estate was valued for probate purposes at £6000 in New Zealand and £3370 5s 2d in England – he left £50 to his former housekeeper, £500 to the Auckland Museum 'for the publication of his catalogue of Chinese art, or any other purpose' with the remainder divided between three Auckland and one Christchurch-based women. His catalogue of the Auckland Museum's collection of Chinese art remains unpublished.
Grateful thanks to Jo Upton, Sylvia White and Richard Meager for archival assistance in England and Caroline McBride and Ron Brownson of Auckland Art Gallery/Toi o Tāmaki for assistance and advice.