Delving into Delacroix: An Introduction to the Lee Johnson Archive

By Dr. Fiona Gatty and Emma Walshe

The National Gallery’s current exhibition, ‘Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art’, has catapulted the nineteenth-century French painter, his influence, and his legacy to the forefront of art conversations everywhere. Here at the History of Art Department, we have been prompted by this to return to and appreciate our very own connection to Delacroix—the Lee Johnson Archive.

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The Lee Johnson Archive, housed in the History of Art Department

Professor Lee Johnson (1924-2006) was a leading scholar on Eugène Delacroix. His extraordinary catalogue raisonné (first published in 1981 with the final supplement emerging in 2002) was, and remains, a monumental contribution to Delacroix studies. Volumes 3 and 4 won the prestigious Mitchell Prize in 1987, awarded in recognition of their outstanding and original impact on the field of visual arts. Johnson also published extensively on Delacroix and French art, and was the editor of Delacroix’s letters from 1817-1863.

On his death in 2006, Johnson’s archive was bequeathed to the History of Art Department here in Oxford. Rescued from the fire that tragically took Johnson’s life, the initial priority was to re-house the collection of his papers in conservation quality archival boxes. In light of Johnson’s continuing posthumous relevance as the primary authority on Delacroix, two of the next most important decisions were, firstly, how the integrity of his system could be maintained and, secondly, how to enable researchers to access and use his archive. After the most flimsy and vulnerable material was protected, the archive team established a basic index of his files which maintained the character of Johnson’s collection, preserving his own themes and classification system. Aims and objectives were then set for the next phase of the archive’s cataloguing: to create a cross-referencing system that would enable the full scope and range of Johnson’s ephemera and thoughts to be easily traced and accessed.1

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Archival boxes keep the collection safe and organised

These files, which now amount to 109 boxes, are accompanied by books from Johnson’s own personal library, many of which are richly annotated. It is the collection of a connoisseur, built over decades, and vast in its scope. The archival boxes are packed to the brim with handwritten memos, ideas, gallery postcards, transcriptions of journal entries, and musings on ownership changes and rejected works. Johnson’s correspondence with other art historians such as Anthony Blunt and Erwin Panofsky provides further insight into the emotionally complex nature of art historical relationships and rivalries within the discipline itself. Photographs of Delacroix’s paintings and preliminary studies are the visual storyboard onto which Johnson’s typewritten discussions with museum curators, auction houses, and art specialists shed light.

Box 81, for example, is full of unexpected materials that Johnson collected as a student during the mid-1950s and is a rich and interesting example of personal archiving, providing insights into Johnson’s mind as he constructed and compiled his catalogue raisonné. Ripped-out notebook pages are labelled “Notes on Delacroix drawings worldwide (in alphabetical order by towns)” and chronicle museum and gallery holdings with painstaking detail. There are postcards of Delacroix paintings and sketches sent to Johnson by his friends from all over the globe. One bundle of material is labelled “photos and postcards of It. [Italian] architecture and painting collected as student”, featuring short potted histories of each piece of art on the verso, composed by Johnson as he contemplated their appearance.

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Box 81, which includes material collected by Johnson as a student

The depth of Johnson’s research and the enormity of his archive also reveal the unexpected in Delacroix as well as in Johnson. A series of photographs taken of pages from a Delacroix sketchbook housed in one of the Rijksmuseum’s private collections not only depict detailed anatomical sketches; muscled shoulders, the play of light and shadow on skin, but on others…Delacroix doodles abound! A charming and reassuring insight into Delacroix’s own procrastinations, the awkward star shapes, undirected curled lines, misshapen dots, and bizarre geometric patterns cover several white sheets, the familiar and comforting refuge of anyone who has ever been faced with a blank page, a pencil, and a disturbing lack of ideas.

During the course of the cataloguing and re-organising process, enquiries from museum curators at the National Gallery of Canada, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Santa Barbara Museum and the Wallace Collection (amongst others) demonstrated that Johnson’s archive is still an important resource for those confirming the attribution of potential acquisitions or determining the provenance of items coming up for auction. Some enquiries were spurious attempts by dealers to force an attribution; for others, the archive provided additional evidence to support a major acquisition. One enquiry even gave a fascinating insight into the ongoing debates surrounding the disputed ownership and restitution of looted works of art during World War II. During the course of the archiving process, conversations were also begun with the Musée Delacroix about their ongoing digitisation project of Delacroix’s correspondence.2

These enquiries and the legacy of Johnson demonstrate the turbulent process of authenticating and rejecting works of art, in which Johnson is the ever-present shadow. To a Delacroix expert, the archive provides an invaluable backdrop and paper trail for the creation of a truly impressive catalogue raisonné. The challenge to Johnson’s standing as an authority in the recent Santa Barbara exhibition Delacroix and the Matter of Finish demonstrates the dominance of Johnson’s legacy even ten years after his death, and the extent to which his word became the final answer on any attribution. To a lecturer or student, the archive is a rich example of an eminent art historian’s methodology and connoisseurial expertise, both in his approach to his subject and to his own personal archive.3 To anyone with even the most remote interest in the visual arts, it is a fascinating and wonderfully human body of materials, reflecting a lifelong devotion to scholarship.

Reviewing The National Gallery’s exhibition for The Observer, Laura Cumming suggests that “if ever there were a show worth waiting for it would be an almighty survey of the full strangeness of Delacroix”.4 Exploring the Lee Johnson Archive provides a glimpse of the magnitude of any such endeavour. Looking through it, we begin to comprehend the scale and ambition of Delacroix’s oeuvre, and of the “almighty survey” conducted by Professor Lee Johnson himself. To fully realise the untapped potential of the archive, perhaps the time has now come to consider the second phase of cross-referencing the archive, to reveal the deeper richness of the legacy that the History of Art Department has inherited.


Interested in learning more about the Lee Johnson Archive? Contact us at vrc@hoa.ox.ac.uk.

Dr. Fiona Gatty wrote her doctoral thesis on ideal beauty in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century French art and art criticism. During her time spent at Oxford’s History of Art Department, she led the team that re-boxed and indexed the Lee Johnson papers.

Emma Walshe is the Visual Resources Assistant for the History of Art Department. She completed both her Masters in English, 1700-1830 and her undergraduate English Literature degree at Trinity College, Oxford.

The National Gallery’s exhibition, ‘Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art’, runs until 22 May 2016.


Footnotes

1 At present, whilst a researcher might find some of the information they need relating to a particular work in the relevant file, later notes (those possibly relating to another work, an exhibition, or placed in the ‘to be filed’ box) mean that a complete review of the whole archive is potentially necessary.

2 The database, Correspondances d’Eugène Delacroix, is currently in its trial phase.

3 Eik Kahng, Delacroix and the Matter of Finish (Santa Barbara, California: 2013), pp. 10, 36, and 40.

4 ‘Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art’: review for The Observer by Laura Cumming (21 February 2016).

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