‘Portrait of William Roscoe’ by Sir Martin Archer Shee
William Roscoe (1753 -1831) acquired a large number of the paintings in this part of the collection between 1804 and 1816. He was a successful Liverpool lawyer and Radical politician whose interests included history, poetry, botany, languages and art. Remarkably, he was, on the whole, a self-educated man.
Much influenced by the example of the Renaissance patrons - he wrote a notable history of Lorenzo de Medici in 1796 - Roscoe was eager to promote cultural development in the expanding commercial centre of Liverpool. He was active in the formation of both the Liverpool Royal Institution and the Athenaum Library, and became himself a significant collector, starting first with books and then extending his interest to prints and finally ‘primitive’ - that is fourteenth and fifteenth-century - paintings and drawings.
Unfortunately, the threat of bankruptcy in 1816 forced Roscoe to sell off his collection. Writing about these works in the sale catalogue obviously intended as a memorial to the collection, Roscoe stated that they had been acquired ‘chiefly for the purpose of illustrating by reference to original and authentic sources the rise and progress of the arts in modern times as well as in Germany and Flanders as in Italy.
They are therefore not wholly to be judged of by their positive merits but by reference to the age in which they were produced. Their value depends on the authenticity and the light they throw on the history of the arts.’ A substantial number of Roscoe’s works have been reattributed since he published this catalogue so that in one sense his faith in their ‘authenticity’ was misplaced.
However the pictures are authentic in the sense that Roscoe did acquire genuine medieval paintings and that they do provide a comprehensive overview of the development of art at that time.
After the sale a large group of Roscoe’s works found their way into the collection of the Liverpool Royal Institution, mainly due to the determined spirit of William Rathbone, Radical merchant and close friend of Roscoe. Here the collection was extended and finally given to the Walker Art Gallery by the Institution in 1948.
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