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Colvin, Sidney, Sir

    Image Credit: Wikipedia

    Full Name: Colvin, Sidney, Sir

    Other Names:

    • Sir Sydney Colvin

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1845

    Date Died: 1927

    Place Born: Norwood, Croydon, Greater London, England, UK

    Place Died: Kensington, Kensington and Chelsea, London, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Subject Area(s): drawings (visual works) and prints (visual works)

    Career(s): curators


    First director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge University; British Museum Keeper of Prints and Drawings (1883-1912). Colvin was the son of Bazett David Colvin (1805-1871), a commercial agent in India, and Mary Steuart Bayley (1821-1902). Colvin was raised and privately tutored the family home, The Grove, Little Bealings, near Woodbridge, east Suffolk. As a boy he knew John Ruskin, whose work he emulated. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1863 graduating at the top of his class in Classics in 1867. The following year he was appointed a fellow. Colvin moved to London, writing art criticism for the Pall Mall Gazette, the Fortnightly Review, and the art journal The Portfolio, among others. Colvin’s literary friends included Robert Browning (1812-1889), and Algernon Swinburne (1837-1909), Henry James (1843-1916), and Joseph Conrad (1857-1924). Through Edward Burne-Jones, Colvin entered the circle of Dante Gabrielle Rosetti from 1868 to 1872. A member of the Society of Dilettanti since 1871, he acted as its honorary secretary from 1891 to 1896. He collected essays from The Portfolio as a book, Children in Italian and English Design in 1872. A Selection from Occasional Writings on Fine Art appeared the following year when Colvin was elected Slade professor of fine art at Cambridge. As Slade professor, he regularly lectured on classical sculpture and his professorship was renewed four times. Colvin fell in love with a married woman, Frances “Fanny” Jane Fetherstonhaugh Sitwell (1839-1924) in the 1860s. A great beauty unhappily married, she left her husband, Reverend Albert Hurt Sitwell (1803-1894), in 1874 to be Colvin’s partner, though the two lived separately. Archaeology and especially sculpture captured Colvin’s interest. He visited the excavations in progress at Olympia in 1875. Colvin was named director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, in 1876. Colvin began assembling a collection of plaster casts of classical sculpture from which to lecture. This became the core of the classical collections which fellow lecturers such as Charles Waldstein, whom he hired, taught from. He resigned from the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1884, succeeded by Waldstein, and his Slade professorship to become keeper of the department of prints and drawings in the British Museum. As keeper, he hired Lionel Cust, a civil service transfer from the War Office as an assistant. Though Cust had been a poor performer in the War Office, he shone in the Department under Colvin, and later became Director of the National Portrait Gallery. Colvin became a member of the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1893. His attempt to become director of the National Gallery the following year was thwarted. His facsimile of (supposed) Maso Finiguerra drawings, A Florentine Picture-Chronicle appeared in 1898, a purchase from Ruskin. Colvin raised the department’s already high profile of scholarship and collections to new levels. He reinstalled the collections and added new exhibition space. His attention to art was wide-ranging; an 1899 exhibition of Rembrandt’s etchings, for example, displayed the artist’s work for the first time in chronological order. His colleagues in related works-on-paper divisions over the years included Laurence Binyon. He lobbied the government in 1895 to buy the collection of works on paper assembled by the art collector John Malcolm of Poltalloch (1805-1893). Colvin was crucial to the career of the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894). He encouraged Stevenson and introduced him to editors and publishers. Stevenson fell deeply in love with Frances; his lifelong he considered Colvin his literary mentor and friend. After Stevenson’s death in 1894, Colvin edited an edition of Stevenson’s works the same year and published Stevenson’s letters to him, Vailima Letters in 1895, and additionally, collections, Stevenson’s Letters in three separate editions in beginning in 1899. Nine years after the death of her husband, Sitwell and Colvin married in 1903. At the Museum, Colvin hired Arthur Mayger Hind as his assistant [keeper]. He and Hind issued important print catalogs, Early Engraving and Engravers in England in 1905 followed by Catalogue of Early Italian Engravers, 1910, in which Hind play the greater role. He applied for directorship of the British Museum in 1909 but was again unchosen to run a large museum. He was knighted in 1911. He retired from the Museum in 1912 and was succeeded by Campbell Dodgson. A biography of John Keats appeared as John Keats, his Life and Poetry, his Friends, Critics and after-Fame in 1917. Colvin’s own memoirs were published in 1921 as Memories and Notes of Persons and Places. Frances, now Lady Colvin, died in 1924. Colvin himself died at his home, Kensington, at in 1927 at age 81. His cremated ashes are interred in his wife’s grave, Church Row cemetery, Hampstead. In addition to the Malcolm collection, Colvin added the prints and drawings bequests of William Mitchell (1895), Henry Vaughan’ (1900), and George Salting (1910).

    Selected Bibliography

    Catalogue of Early Italian Engravings Preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum. London: Department of Prints and Drawings, British Musuem, 1910; edited, with Cust, Lionel. History of the Society of Dilettanti. London: New York, Macmillan, 1914.


    Colvin, Sydney. Memories & Notes of Persons & Places, 1852-1912. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1921; Lucas, Edward Verrall. The Colvins and their Friends. London: Methuen & Co., 1928; Beard, Mary. “Mrs. Arthur Strong, Morelli, and the Troopers of Cortés.” in, Donohue, A. A. and Fullerton, Mark D., eds. Ancient Art and its Historiography. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 151, mentioned, Mehew, Ernest. “Colvin, Sydney.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; [obituary:] “Sir Sidney Colvin. Art Critic And Friend Of Stevenson.” Times (London) May 12 1927, p. 16.


    Contributors: Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen


    Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen. "Colvin, Sidney, Sir." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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