RAMM’s Fine Art collection comprises over 8,000 objects in an eclectic mix of paintings, watercolours, drawings, prints and sculpture, representing important British artists and also celebrating the Museum’s location in the South West.
The collection is strong in portraiture and has a large collection of landscape paintings, primarily of Devon and Exeter by local and national artists. Later the collecting policy broadened to take in other British and European art, including Victorian. There is also a collection of 20th century artworks.
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RAMM’s painting collection ranges from 16th to 20th century portraiture, landscapes, genre and Modern. Before the photograph, painting alone offered recorded evidence of what people or events looked like. Categories of paintings are very varied from portraiture to landscapes, still life to genre pictures, to modern British abstract paintings. RAMM’s painting collection covers all these areas across many periods. The collection contains works by Thomas Gainsborough, Thomas Patch, Francis Hayman, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Benjamin Robert Haydon, Francis Danby, William Powell Frith, William Etty, Stanhope Forbes, Terry Frost, Duncan Grant, amongst others.
Portraiture (or ‘portrait painting’) in England has a long history, and this is represented in RAMM’s collection. In the making of a portrait, the relationship between artist and sitter is a complicated one, in which physical likeness is affected by the artist’s style and the sitter’s intentions.
In the eighteenth century, portraits were a staple of artistic production, even in the provinces. Although the aristocracy and gentry dominated the ranks of sitters, artists were also keen to make self-portraits. In addition artists also wanted to record the likenesses of their families, friends and colleagues, along with writers, actors and fellow artists. Although the invention of photography threatened the portrait industry, it remained an important artistic genre and is still significant today.
The significant portrait collection at RAMM features works by early 17th century artists to well known artists such as Pompeo Batoni, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, Thomas Hudson and Richard Crosse.
Landscape and Locality
The landscape pictures in RAMM’s collection encompass wild moorland and wooded river valleys, spring orchards and ships on the shore.
The images in the collection are primarily of places removed from industry and urban growth. Whereby most of the pictures are of rural or coastal landscapes rather than their urban counterpart. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries this was to be expected; Devon was attractive to artists for its picturesque appeal at a time when landscape art was dominant. However, when twentieth-century artists chose to paint rural Devon they were working away from the preoccupations of the advanced art of their time.
After a successful exhibition on early Devon painters in 1932 more emphasis was placed on collecting works by local landscape artists. Paintings by artists born in or associated with Devon form a core of the Museum’s collection of paintings. The collection contains works by important artists from the mid 18th to the early 20th century. Included are works by Francis Towne, John White Abbott, Francis Hayman, Thomas Luny, John Gendall and a significant collection of works by William Widgery and Frederick John Widgery.
As well as the local artists and scenes, the Museum also holds a collection of landscape painting, in which are works by Richard Wilson, Joseph Wright of Derby and Thomas Patch.
There are superb examples from the Victorian period in RAMM’s collection which include works by William Powell Frith, Frank Holl, and Edward J Poynter (1836-1919). These paintings were acquired by the Museum via gifts and bequests and offer a unique insight into Victorian picture-collecting practice.
The paintings are primarily British and range from ‘sentimental’ paintings by Kate Greenaway and John Wainwright; to a post Pre-Raphaelite painting by Poynter; to Landscape and Portraiture by Danby and Frith. Frith’s work The Fair Toxophilites is of the artist’s children and is one of RAMM’s most well-known Victorian paintings.
RAMM also has a collection of early-to-mid 20th century paintings, prints and drawings. The Fine Art collection holds paintings by members of the Camden Town Group such as Walter Sickert, Harold Gilman and Lucien Pissarro. The collection also contains works by members of the St Ives School together with individual paintings by John Nash, William Roberts, John Minton, Duncan Grant and William Walcot.
The collection also holds works by Barbara Hepworth and the groups and schools with which they were associated (e.g. Bloomsbury School, Euston Road School). We also have a small selection of works by war artists acquired via the War Artists Advisory Committee by artists such as Paul Nash (1889-1946), William Lionel Clause (1887-1946) and Albert Charles Bown.
The Museum’s superb collection of watercolours consists of around 1500 works and shows the range and breadth of this very popular British medium. Watercolour has been prized by artists for its delicacy and luminosity. Effects of brilliancy and clarity are achieved by the layering of semi-transparent washes of pure colour on white or tinted paper.
Watercolour is a versatile medium, allowing a number of different effects to be produced through the use of various techniques. This versatility, alongside the medium’s small scale, and relative cheapness compared to oil paint, has added to its popularity.
Over the centuries, a wide range of artists have used watercolour. Medieval artists in Britain used the medium to illuminate manuscripts. Later in the 17th century watercolour was used by artists painting portrait miniatures. It was not until the 18th century, however, that a particularly British watercolour tradition began to develop.
The collection of watercolours features work by John White Abbott, Francis Towne, Samuel Prout, William Payne and George Townsend, as well as work by John Constable, Benjamin Robert Haydon, Frederick John Widgery and Edward Burra.
The Golden Age of British Watercolours
The period between 1750 and 1850 is known as the Golden Age of British Watercolours. At the beginning of this period, watercolour was used to represent topographical views, mainly picturesque views of town and country. At first, artists used watercolour to add colour to line drawings. Still working within the ‘tinted drawing’ tradition, Francis Towne and John White Abbott explored the more painterly effects which could be achieved with watercolour.
As artists began to explore the possibilities of the medium further, drawing became less important. By the 1800s, the British watercolour tradition was at its peak. Artists John Constable, Joseph Mallord and William Turner exploited the full potential of the medium to realise atmospheric effects of light and weather conditions.
Devon and Exeter in Watercolours
As well as reflecting the development of the medium, the Museum’s watercolour collection tells the story of its use in representing Devon and Exeter from the 18th century to the present day. The works demonstrate the special and long-lasting relationship of watercolour artists with the unique Devon landscape.
Drawing is the most immediate form of artistic expression. It is often the first step in most painting, sculpture and architecture. Some drawings are independent works in their own right. The Museum’s collection of drawings contains fine examples showing a range of drawing practices and techniques.
A large number of drawings in the collection tell the story of the importance of drawing to artistic training. Academies of art expected artists to have mastered the technique of copying from casts, followed by life models, before they were allowed to progress to paint.
Learning from life and the Old Masters
Artists not trained in the academy also drew from life and the antique as a means of understanding anatomy, or copied the works of the Old Masters to help them understand composition and technique. The collection contains works by Samuel Cousins, John Constable, Benjamin Robert Haydon, Philip Henry Gosse, Frederick John Widgery, Barbara Hepworth and Paul Nash. Drawings can also serve as a note or study for further work in the studio.
Collections of drawings
Benjamin Robert Haydon, Frederick John Widgery and John Constable are artists who used drawings as memory aids for later works. Bound volumes of over 100 drawings by Constable and Haydon were bequeathed to the city of Exeter in 1897 and entered the Museum’s collections in 1978. Frederick John Widgery donated a large selection of his own work to the Museum in 1931.
Prints are valued for their mechanical and technical aspects, as well as aesthetic merits. This collection contains a wide and fascinating range of subject matter and techniques in works dating from the 16th to the mid 20th century.
One of the largest groups represented in the collection is of topographical interest with subject matter relating to the buildings and landscapes of Exeter and Devon. They allow us to visualise the changing landscape through time. Some prints depict historic events in both city and county. Many of these prints date from the 18th and 19th centuries, when they were issued in book or folio form.
Commercial engraved portraits
Engraved portraits also form a second group of several hundred works from both Britain and Europe. These prints were produced for sale in large numbers during the 18th and 19th centuries. They depict an extensive range of subjects from the worlds of royalty, politics, science, literature and the arts, to eminent military and naval figures.
This collection contains outstanding examples of modern printmaking contained in the collections include late 19th century commercially-produced prints such as those by London Transport and Empire Marketing Board posters from 1910 onwards and 20th century limited edition lithographs such works by artists like Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash.
The Museum has a small sculpture collection which contains work ranging from Medieval to Modern.
The oldest piece is an impressive carved-oak altarpiece from the Netherlands, which dates from the late 15th century. There is a selection of works by John Angel (1881-1960) and other early late 19th and 20th century classical pieces by sculptors such as Antonio Canova (after), Frederick J Halnon (1881-1958) and Henri Fonderie (attrib.).
Other highlights include sculptural works and reliefs by such prominent modern British artists as Mary Martin, Barbara Hepworth, Michael Ayrton and Peter Thursby.
Without active acquisitions future generations soon become denied access to ideas and material culture from their past. To complement the 2007-11 development project a role for contemporary artists was created in the design process for the new build and the interpretation of the museum collections.
RAMM commissioned three artists whose work is an integral element to the museum now it is open. The works will remain as a permanent contemporary art legacy in the new life of the museum.
The artist selection was made on quality of work and ambition of ideas, proven ability to execute commissions and collaborate with others. It was important also to select artists whose practice is not principally making site-specific commissions of this kind and that the group reflected a range of artistic traditions and possibilities found in contemporary art.
Artists continued to be commissioned in a series of projects between 2012 and 2016. Further information can be found on the ‘past contemporary art commissions’ page.
Between 2018 and 2022 RAMM is working with contemporary artists on a range of commissions and projects inspired its varied and rich collections.