1934 The British Council is established as a voluntary organisation, with official responsibilty 'for cultural and social relations between the United Kingdom and peoples of other lands'. Its budget for the first twelve months is £881.
1935 First meeting of the Fine Arts Committee, with Sir Lionel Faudel-Phillips as Chairman. Committee members total 17 and include Kenneth Clark, Campbell Dodgson, Edward Marsh, Sir Eric MacLagan and John Witt. Lord Wakefield makes a donation of £1000 a year for 3 years, which the Committee decides to use for the purchase of drawings and prints. The Committee spends £25 from their funds to buy 250 frames 'suitable for black and white drawings', from the Department of Overseas Trades Stores.
1937 The Committee recommends that the Council funds should be earmarked for building up an initial collection of 250-300 works on paper. This collection to remain the property of the British Council and for use in putting together one or more exhibitions. Purchases expected to average £5 each.
1938 It is decided to allocate Lord Wakefield's donation to purchasing a collection of British graphic art of the 20th Century. Mr Campbell Dodgson appointed to recommend purchases for the collection. The first purchase for the so-called Wakefield Collection: John Austen's woodcut, The Old Plough (P2333).
1939-45 Purchases from the Wakefield donation continue, at a diminished rate.
1946 Twenty-five works are selected as a donation from the collection built up by the War Artists Advisory Committee for inclusion in what subsequently became known, for many years, as the Permanent Collection. A special grant from the British Council of £1000 in this year is spent on paintings for the Permanent Collection, to counterbalance the concentration of works on paper in the Wakefield Collection. The first oil paintings to be purchased for the Permanent Collection are Duncan Grant's Charleston Barn, 1942 (P1) and Ben Nicholson's Still Life with Fruit, 1926 (P2). By the end of the year 9 works had been purchased.
1947 Exhibition of 226 works from the Wakefield Collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, prior to a tour of the Dominions. So far, the Committee have only spent two-thirds of the original £3000 donation.
Sir Eric MacLagan appointed Chairman of the Fine Arts Committee.
£500 allocated by the Executive Board for the purchase of works of art to decorate the Council's Institute of overseas. The Committee delegates the task of selection to the Council's Institute overseas. The Committee delegates the task of selection to James Laver, Major A Longden, Director of the Department, and Lilian Somerville, a member of his staff, with the recommendation that, for reasons of economy, purchases should be confined to watercolours, drawings and prints. This becomes known as the Institute Collection and the first purchase is a watercolour design, The Princess, Turandot, Act II, 1947 (P2723) by Leslie Hurry.
Jack Isaacs succeeds James Laver as Adviser on purchases from the Wakefield fund, for a period of one year.
1950 Paul Shelving, 3 works on paper (P2754, P2755, P2753), presented by the artist.
£3000 of the Wakefield donation has been spent of the purchases of a total of 445 works.
1959 The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation allocates £10,000 to the British Council ‘for the purchase of contemporary British art, with the accent on younger artists’. The then Director of Fine Arts Department, Lilian Somerville, is asked to advise on these purchases which, while remaining the property of the Gulbenkian Foundation, are to be placed in the care of the Department for use in support of its activities.
1964 A further £10,000 is made available by the Gulbenkian Foundation, on the same terms as before.
1965 By the end of the year, 100 paintings, sculptures and works on paper have been purchased for a total of £19,995 from the Gulbenkian funds. The artists represented include Annesley, Blake, Davie, Hockney, Hamilton, Hilton, W Scott, P Phillips and Riley.
1970 The entire Gulbenkian Collection is called in and sent to Lisbon, for exhibition at the Foundation’s new galleries. Forty-two works are subsequently returned to the Council on long loan.
1976 The three remaining collections are amalgamated to form what is henceforth known as the British Council Collection. The entire Collection is renumbered starting with the 2,300 items of the Permanent Collection to which are added the 445 and 297 items in the Wakefield and Institutes Collections respectively.
1977 A British Council Collection and Purchasing Sub-Committee is established, to advise on purchases for the Collection and all aspects of security and conservation. The members of the Committee comprise the Chariman and three members of the British Council Fine Arts Advisory Committee, with the Curator of the Collection as its Secretary and other members of the Department in attendance, as the occasion may demand.
1980 British Council Representatives overseas were offered small groups or suites of graphics as mini-exhibitions within office premises where facilities made more ambitious exhibitions impossible. A successful circuit of Representatives exchanging sets of prints between them has now been established.
1982 The remaining forty-two works from the Gulbenkian Collection are all returned to Lisbon at the Foundation’s request for permanent display in their new centre for Contemporary Art.
A selection of larger works in the collection, mainly sculpture, was offered on long loan basis through representatives to museums overseas. A substantial number have subsequently been placed in museums and university buildings.
Following a recommendation in the Seebohm Report of 1979 that the Council should seek to ‘renew’ the collection by sales of existing work, the revenue to be available for new purchases, the collection of Sporting Prints already on long loan to the British Council Sporting Arts Trust, was offered to the Trust for sale and accepted. Some remaining prints still with the Council were deposited with Ackermans Ltd to be sold and a number of nineteeth century drawings and watercolours were sent to Thomas Agnew Ltd for advice on valuation and eventual sale.
David Nash, work on paper (P4261) presented by the artist.
1984 By the end of March the British Council’s Collection now totals over 4,500 works of art including graphics, photographs and multiples.
1986 Purchase of six prints from Martin Parr’s series The Last Resort Photographs of New Brighton, 1983-85 (P5434-P5439)
1989 Purchase of eight prints from Keith Arnatt’s series Objects from a Rubbish Tip, 1989 (P5487A-I)
1994 The British Council's policy to buy artworks early in artists' careers allows specialists from the Visual Arts Department to visit MA shows and keenly follow artists' progress. The seminal 1988 Freeze art exhibition organised by Damien Hirst and other Goldsmiths College students brought a new generation of artists to the forefront of British art. The British Council collected numerous works by these newly-labelled 'Young British Artists (YBAs) ' including work by Sarah Lucas, Anya Gallaccio and Damien Hirst.
2004 Acquisition of several works by an emerging generation of artists including a large sculpture by Toby Ziegler, I'm Ready For Love, 2002 (P7837) Liam Gillick’s Stable Block #1, 2001 (P7838) and, reflecting new concerns for rich media and digital art, the Collection's first interactive CDRom, Dan Norton’s ablab.org, 2004 (P7849), designed to be used whilst online.
Also acquired that year Anya Gallaccio, Preserve Beauty (New York), 2003 (P7871) and Thomson and Craighead, Decorative Newsfeeds, 2004 (P7954/0), the first piece of new media work to enter the Collection.
2009 By the end of March the British Council Collection totals approximately 8,500 artworks.
Content from 1934 - 1984, abridged content taken from 'Notes on the History of the collection' by Ian Barker, Assistant Director (Information) and Curator, Fine Arts Department, British Council published in The British Council Collection Catalogue, July 1984. Copyright the author and the British Council 1984.
Content from 1984 - 2009, copyright the British Council 2009.