A Special Collections project: MS Sutton

By Felicity Cullen Davison (M Litt Dress and Textile Histories)
I have been working on the MS Sutton papers as the placement for my MLitt in Dress and Textile Histories, under the aegis of the Art History department. The MS Sutton Project was set up to assess the significance of the papers of Denys Sutton through a sampling exercise. The papers have been in Special Collections since the early 1990s and are described in box lists, but they have not yet been catalogued in detail and remain as a result largely unknown. The project will help to inform future decisions about this collection, specifically the secondary material within it.

Denys Sutton (1917-1991) was in his time a giant of the art world: a graduate of Exeter College, Oxford, he started out in the Foreign Office Research Department before being appointed in 1946 secretary for the International Commission for Restitution of Cultural Material, and in 1948, fine arts specialist for UNESCO. During the same period, he began to write as art critic for the press, leading to his appointment in 1962 as editor of the art magazine Apollo, which he would hold for twenty-five years.[1] He was a prolific writer with a lively and opinionated style, sometimes even sharp, contributing notably to The Financial Times and Country Life. He was also involved in the organisation of a number of exhibitions worldwide, and attributed his desire to entertain to his mother, who had been on the stage. [2]

MS Sutton represents a vast array of material collected by Sutton over the course of his distinguished career. His own particular interests – the nineteenth-century artists Whistler, Sickert, Degas, Corot and many others – are well represented among the numerous black and white photographs of artworks, collected either during exhibition preparations or for publication. There is also a wealth of documents relating to Sutton’s writings. The aim of the MS Sutton Project was to try to make some sense of all this eclectic material and to go some way towards assessing its value to researchers.

Extract from MS Sutton Acc 4761 Box 51

Extract from MS Sutton Acc 4761 Box 51

The uniqueness of the collection cannot be doubted: for those interested in Denys Sutton’s life and work, the completeness of the collection and the sheer variety it contains, with material ranging from the 1940s to 1991, will be very exciting. The high proportion of material linked to Apollo gives a sense of the sheer amount of energy Sutton put into his work.

The University of Glasgow holds fantastic resources for anyone researching Whistler, including correspondence and artworks; in amongst the papers is correspondence of Joseph Whistler Revillon, who catalogued James McNeill Whistler’s paintings. MS Sutton, where it touches on Whistler, complements this array of material, and is extremely useful to Whistler researchers, providing as it does an insight into earlier research and writing on the artist.

Cross-section of a box, MS Sutton Acc 4610 Box 83

Cross-section of a box, MS Sutton Acc 4610 Box 83

To the wider art history world, it has some value: auction and sales catalogues, sometimes annotated by Sutton, may provide useful information for provenance researchers. The main strength of the collection, however, lies in the background information that it provides: the wide array of exhibition leaflets, invitations, and catalogues will allow researchers to build up a detailed picture of the art scene in London, and to a lesser extent Paris, in the latter half of the twentieth century. The numerous press cuttings gathered in the collection also form a remarkable resource, collecting in one place a high proportion of art-related articles. Again, these are sometimes annotated or particular passages marked out as significant. It is not the cuttings in themselves that are of value since the articles they contain are archived elsewhere and are widely available; but the grouping of these articles by one man for specific purposes is remarkable and gives them meaning. This is especially true in the case of the articles concerning the 1989 restructuring of the Victoria and Albert Museum: conservative, and by this stage a veteran of the art history scene, Sutton’s collection of articles shows his own perspective on the matter only too clearly and focuses on the outrage the proposed changes generated rather than some of the more measured press coverage.

Recquisition slips, MS Sutton Acc 4610 Box 80

Recquisition slips, MS Sutton Acc 4610 Box 80

It remains only to be said that Denys Sutton’s memoirs have never yet been published, though MS Sutton does contain drafts. The collection would provide excellent material for a dedicated biographer; and Sutton himself, a colourful, cultivated man with a keen mind, who had the good fortune to meet a great many artists and influential figures of the mid-twentieth century, would surely provide an entertaining subject.

Access to the collection is at present restricted pending cataloguing; for more information, see the Special Collections catalogue or contact Special Collections.

[1] Sutton, Denys.” Dictionary of Art Historians, https://dictionaryofarthistorians.org/suttond.htm, accessed March 27, 2015
[2] Interview transcript, MS Sutton Acc 4612 Box 151.

Categories: Special Collections

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