The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art – described by Sir Nicholas Serota, Director of Tate, as “one of the finest collections of early 20th century Italian art anywhere in the world” – opened in January 1998. Comprising some 120 paintings, drawings, watercolours, prints and sculptures by many of the most prominent Italian artists of the modernist era, the Collection is housed in a Georgian Grade II listed building at 39a Canonbury Square, London N1. The gallery was named Best Museum of Fine or Applied Art in the 1999 National Heritage/NPI Museum of the Year Awards and was a Highly Commended Small Attraction in the 2003 London Tourism Awards. It has a library of over 2,000 books, primarily on 20th century Italian art, as well as a shop and café, making it an unrivalled resource for students of important modernist movements such as Futurism and Pittura Metafisica.
The building was renovated with the help of a grant of £650,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and boasts six galleries on three floors, together with an art library, café and shop. The Estorick Collection is internationally renowned for its core of Futurist works including major paintings by the movement’s main protagonists Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Gino Severini, Ardengo Soffici and Luigi Russolo. The Estoricks were also interested in all figurative art created between 1890 and the 1950s and other major 20th-century Italian artists represented include Amedeo Modigliani (the first artist Eric Estorick collected in the 1930s), Marino Marini, Giorgio Morandi, and the Metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico. Nowhere else in Britain can works by these artists be seen in such rich profusion.
Since opening, the Collection has established a considerable reputation as an important venue for bringing Italian art to the British public and has achieved both public and critical acclaim for its artistic and educational programmes. Its innovative exhibition programme ranges from those devoted to Italian Futurists such as Giacomo Balla and Gino Severini to important shows addressing the social and political dimensions of artistic activity, such as Under Mussolini: Decorative and Propaganda Arts of the Twenties and Thirties. Other major artists highlighted have included Giorgio de Chirico, Giorgio Morandi, Zoran Music, Mario Sironi, Lucio Fontana, Fortunato Depero and Carlo Carrà. Exhibitions also include work by leading Italian photographers such as Vittorio Sella and Fratelli Alinari, as well as contemporary artists developing Futurist themes such as Luca Buvoli.
Italian Futurism was literary in origin and was launched by the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in February 1909 when the Paris newspaper Le Figaro published his manifesto. Marinetti wanted to break with the oppressive weight of Italy’s cultural tradition and to develop an aesthetic based on modern life and technology, particularly speed and the machine. The movement grew to embrace many different art forms - architecture, the decorative arts, painting, performance and theatrical design, music, photography, sculpture and typography. Marinetti’s impassioned polemic immediately attracted the support of the young Milanese painters Boccioni, Carrà and Russolo, who wanted to extend the ideas to the visual arts. The painters Balla and Severini met Marinetti in 1910 and together these artists led the dynamic first phase of Futurism. The acknowledged Futurist masterpieces of the Estorick Collection are Balla’s The Hand of the Violinist, Boccioni’s Modern Idol, Carrà’s Leaving the Theatre, Severini’s The Boulevard and Russolo’s Music, which will always be on public view.
Eric Estorick (1913-1993), an American sociologist, collector, dealer and writer, began to collect Italian works of art when he came to live in England after the Second World War. Born in Brooklyn, the only child of Jewish emigrés from Russia, Eric was gifted academically and went to New York University at Washington Square College where he obtained a B.A. in Sociology in 1934 and an M.A. the following year. He continued his studies at the New School for Social Research and supplemented his income by writing articles, which brought him into contact with writers, critics and actors in New York’s left-wing milieu. During his university days two developments occurred which proved crucial to his later career as a collector and dealer. The first was his discovery of The Gallery of Living Art in Washington Square College - a remarkable collection of major 20th-century works with masterpieces by Picasso, Léger, Mirò and Matisse amongst others - which was to have a profound effect on his own collecting. The second was his encounters with Alfred Stieglitz, the great American photographer and founder of the gallery ‘291’ on Fifth Avenue. Estorick later said “Meeting Stieglitz was one of the most important experiences of my life, bringing me to the heart of the world of art”.
In 1938 Estorick was made a Hayden fellow in Sociology and was an Instructor of Education at New York University between 1939 and 1941 having been unable to join the armed forces because of his colour blindness. He joined the United States Government Service in 1941, the year he published his first biography of Sir Stafford Cripps, then Britain’s ambassador in Moscow. Working on his second biography of Cripps brought him into contact with such leading politicians of the day as Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Hugh Gaitskell and Aneurin Bevan and he returned to Europe in 1946 to complete the work. During this period he began to buy drawings by Picasso, Gris, Léger and Braque.
On returning to New York on the Queen Elizabeth he met Salome Dessau and by the end of the voyage they were engaged. Salome (1920-1989) was the daughter of a textile manufacturer who had left Leipzig for Derby in 1932 and settled in Nottingham, where she and Eric married in October 1947. During their honeymoon in Switzerland, Peggy Cripps, Sir Stafford’s daughter, introduced them to Arturo Bryks, an art therapist and teacher. Bryks changed Eric’s career forever by introducing him to Umberto Boccioni’s book Pittura Scultura Futuriste (1914) which marked the beginning of his passion for Italian art. Before returning to England the Estoricks travelled to Milan with Bryks and visited the Novecento artist Mario Sironi’s studio where Eric bought “hundreds and hundreds of drawings and as many pictures as I could get into my Packard Convertible Roadster”. For Estorick the art of Sironi was central to the evolution of his collection and occupies a prominent place to this day. Another artist Estorick met through Bryks was Massimo Campigli who became a great friend and at one time Estorick owned over 80 pictures by him.
Between 1950 and 1953 Eric worked for Marks and Spencer where he put the company’s archives in order, wrote a history of the business and staged art exhibitions in the Executive Dining Room. Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s he was conducting an increasing number of art transactions and was involved with mounting various art exhibitions in England and the United States, while his collecting of Italian art was particularly active between 1953 and 1958.
In 1956 the Director of the Italian Cultural Institute, Count Umberto Morra, made an approach to John Rothenstein of the Tate Gallery to collaborate on an exhibition which was to be called Modern Italian Art from the Estorick Collection. This led Estorick to return again to Italy on another major buying trip when he met and bought works from Giacomo Balla, Carlo Carrà, Ardengo Soffici and the widow of Luigi Russolo. The 1956 exhibition at the Tate Gallery generated enormous press interest in both Italy and Britain and the show later went on a regional tour. A further exhibition was held in Berlin in 1957, a Canadian tour was arranged in 1958 and shows took place in Los Angeles, the South London Art Gallery in 1959 and in Holland, Austria and Germany in 1960.
Around this time Estorick became a full-time art dealer and opened the Grosvenor Gallery in London in 1960. His success as a dealer came partly from his American contacts. He advised Paul Getty in the late 1950s and also sold pictures to Hollywood actors, directors and producers including Lauren Bacall, Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, Edward G. Robinson, Billy Wilder and Charles Vidor. Estorick also acted as a representative for Ann Douglas, wife of Kirk Douglas. Eric and Salome travelled extensively on buying trips, visiting Russia no less than 14 times between 1960 and 1964. His international taste was reflected in the exhibitions held at the Grosvenor Gallery with art from Russia, the Far East and South Africa as well as Eastern and Western Europe. Estorick held the first groundbreaking exhibitions of the works of René Magritte in 1961 and Alphonse Mucha in 1963, which led to his introduction to Erté (1898-1990), the Russian theatre and ballet designer, who at the age of 75 was selling his drawings for as little as £25. Estorick masterminded a revival of interest in Erté’s work which continues to the present day.
The Grosvenor Gallery closed its Davies Street premises in 1974, and retained an office for private dealing in South Molton Street when the Estoricks went to live in Barbados in 1975. It re-opened under the direction of Ray Perman in Albemarle Street in 1993, the year of Eric’s death, with an exhibition of works on paper by Mario Sironi. Since then the gallery has shown works by such artists as Alexander Calder, André Derain, Henri Matisse, Henry Moore, Sam Francis, Marc Chagall, Victor Newsome and Victor Edelstein.
Although a number of Estorick’s Italian works were sold at auction in Milan in 1961 he retained the acknowledged masterpieces in the collection and the Tate Gallery requested a long-term loan of key works which lasted from 1966 until the Estoricks went abroad. In 1968 the Italian Republic conferred the title of Cavaliere on Estorick, followed in 1970 by the higher honour of Commendatore for his services in promoting Italian art.
In 1979 the Italian government showed interest in purchasing the Italian collection but the family refused, as they did other offers from major museums in the United States and Israel. Although increasingly frail after his wife’s death in 1989, Estorick and his children Isobel and Michael had other ideas and six months before his death Eric set up the Eric and Salome Estorick Foundation to which he donated all his remaining Italian works. He instructed that his Murnau landscape by Wassily Kandinsky and a rare Cubist still life by Marc Chagall be sold to endow the Foundation and the family felt that Estorick’s adopted country should be its home. Michael Estorick, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, found Northampton Lodge and it was acquired by the Foundation in September 1994 to house the collection. He and his sister Isobel donated the art library of over 2,000 books specialising in early 20th-century Italian art including many rare and out-of-print publications.
Eric Estorick lived his life through art and his bequest provides an opportunity for others to understand his statement that “I have always regarded art as being the God Centre of the Altar at which I have always knelt and in front of which I shall die and die happily”. As Roberta Cremoncini, Director of the Estorick Collection, said: “The Estorick Collection is a fitting tribute to a passionate and generous collector and provides the British public with access to a magnificent collection of modern Italian art”.