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Witt, Robert [Clermont], Sir

Date born: 1872

Place Born: Camberwell, London, United Kingdom

Date died: 1952

Place died: London, United Kingdom

Creator of the research photographs collection of the University of London ("Witt Library"); art collector. Witt was the eldest son of Gustavus Andreas Witt (b. 1840) a wool dealer, and Johanna Frederiko Helene de Clermont (Witt). He attended Clifton College, Bristol, and New College, Oxford, graduating with a degree in history in 1894. He served in the British army and as a war correspondent (with Cecil Rhodes) seeing action during the Matabele (Ndebele) uprising of 1896. He returned to London, qualified as a solicitor (attorney) in 1897, where he spent his career rising to senior partner at the offices of Stephenson, Harwood, and Tatham. From the first, Witt maintained a strong interest in art. After marrying his classmate, Mary Helene Marten (1871–1952) in 1899, the two began collecting photographs of works of art. The Witts built their hobby into an enormous library of eventually 750,000 images. In 1902 he wrote his first art book, a primer on approaching art, How to Look at Pictures. In 1903 together with David Lindsay (Earl of Crawford and Balcarres) (1871-1940), Wallace Collection keeper Claude Phillips (q.v.), the artist D. S. MacColl (1859-1948), and the art museum director Roger Fry (q.v.), he founded the National Art Collections Fund. The fund, which raised money by subscription for the purchase of pictures, elected him its first honorary secretary, which he held until 1920. When the collector and director of the National Gallery, Dublin, Sir Hugh Lane (1875-1915), died in the sinking of the R.M.S. Lusitania in 1915--leaving conflicting will and codicil to the disposition of his excellent French Impressionist collection--Witt inveighed (futilely) to keep the Collection at the National Gallery, London, where the pictures had been placed on extended loan. Witt was named a trustee of the National Gallery in 1916, a position he held almost unbroken until 1940, and the Tate Gallery, the same year (1916) until 1931. In 1918 he was appointed C.B.E. in 1918. In 1920 he became chair of the Art Collections Fund, which grew into the most important fund-raising unit for art in Britain under Witt's leadership. Witt's library and picture collection were so important that he wrote a catalog of his collection in 1920 (supplement, 1925) concentrating on the artist's represented. Inspired by his library, Helen Frick (1888-1984), daughter of the collector Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919), set out to build a library for the Frick Collection in New York after Witt's model. Like Witt, Frick wrote the catalog, assisted by Witt, for the Frick Art Reference Library. A similar catalog was written by the British-trained Japanese art historian Yukio Yashiro (q.v.) for the Tokyo Museum. He was knighted in 1922. During the 1930s, Witt was active in organizing the annual winter exhibitions of foreign art at Burlington House. The introduction to the Italian catalog of 1930 was written by him. In 1932 Witt, together with Samuel Courtauld (1876-1947) and Arthur Hamilton Lee (Viscount Lee of Fareham, 1868-1947) founded the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London. He received an honorary D. Lit. from the University the following year. In 1942 he became an honorary fellow at his alma mater, New College. In 1944 Witt deeded his house at 32 Portman Square and vast image collection as a research library for the Courtauld Institute. He retired in 1945 because of ill health and was named president, the Fund's first. The National Gallery, London, organized a special show in his honor featuring the art purchased under his direction of the Fund. He died at his Portman Square home at age 80. The library was moved to the institute at nearby 19 and 20 Portman Square. Also donated were his large collection of nearly 4000 old master drawings to the Institute as well. These included works by at that time lesser-known artists, including Guercino and Gainsborough.

More than a collector, Witt saw the need to make art information available to scholars. His photographic archives were compiled at a time before art books were heavily illustrated or the advent of image databases.

Home Country: United Kingdom

Sources: Dictionary of National Biography ; Troutman, Philip. Italian Old Master Drawings, Witt Collection, Courtauld Gallery. Wellington, New Zealand: National Gallery, 1973; [obituary:] "Sir Robert Witt." The Times (London) Mar 27, 1952, p. 8.

Bibliography: Dutch Art: an Illustrated Souvenir of the Exhibition of Dutch Art at Burlington House, London. London: Anglo-Batavian Society, 1929; How to Look at Pictures. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1929; and Cook, Herbert F. Illustrated Catalogue of Pictures by the Brothers Le Nain. London: Burlinton Fine Arts Club, 1910.