Sir Robert Peel

Thirty members of the Society met at the St Mary's Centre on 17th April to listen to a presentation by Nigel Morris, Vice Chairman of the Peel Society, on the art collection of Sir Robert.

Whilst most members of the Society had come to the meeting fully prepared to listen to a presentation on the life and achievements of Sir Robert Peel as politician and social reformer, it came as something of a surprise - albeit not an unpleasant one - when Nigel Morris explained that Sir Robert was indeed one of the foremost art collectors of his day. So how did all this come about? How did Sir Robert Peel, twice British Prime Minister, become such an important and influential collector of contemporary art?

For the answer to this question, we have to go back into the Peel family history. The Peels originated from the Craven district of Yorkshire near Skipton, where they were of Yeoman farming stock. In the 18th century they moved to Oswaldtwistle, near Blackburn and ventured into one of the up-and-coming areas of textile manufacture. They chose to specialise in calico printing and, indeed, such was the fame of their parsley design that Robert Peel's grandfather soon assumed the nickname Parsley Peel. Whilst Parsley Peel established the family in textile manufacture, it was his third son Robert who, with his father, moved operations to Burton-on-Trent, away from the Luddite threats in the mills in Lancashire. But son Robert hankered after greater things, notwithstanding the fact that the Peel operation at Burton-on-Trent employed around 18,000 people at its height. So Robert left the family business and returned to Lancashire where he built a massive fortune in textiles. By 1790, he was so wealthy that he could afford to buy Drayton Manor, near Tamworth, together with 5,000 acres of farm and agricultural land. He became MP for the Staffordshire part of Tamworth (yes, Tamworth was divided between two constituencies, one in Staffordshire and one in Warwickshire). There he remained as MP for over thirty years, being knighted by William Pitt at the turn of the 19th century.

However, the subject of our talk, another Robert Peel, was born in 1788, with his father the other Robert Peel announcing that he would give his son in service to the nation. This of course turned out to be a truly prophetic comment. Young Robert was educated locally before moving to Harrow and then Oxford, where he was one of the first to gain a double first in Classics and Mathematics.

To complete the picture of a family history, the Prime Minister Peel of course became the second Baronet. The third, another Sir Robert Peel, fell upon hard times and sold the second Baronet's art collection to the nation where it formed a cornerstone of the newly emerging National Gallery.

The fourth Baronet, another Sir Robert Peel, proved equally disastrous at handling his family's affairs. The fifth was a bandleader married to Beatrice Lilley and the sixth Baronet was killed in the Second World War; thus extinguishing the male line. By 1935 Drayton Manor had been razed to the ground.

But to return to the second Sir Robert Peel, Nigel Morris entertained us to an exploration of his art collection. He lingered over pictures by Rubens, Van Dyck, Reynolds and many Dutch masters. In addition to his own extensive personal art collection, Peel used his position of influence as Prime Minister to ensure that the Government acquired other works of art to build up a national collection.

Yes Peel was certainly a polyglot. Chief Secretary for Ireland at the age of 24, founder of the Metropolitan Police, an economist who pioneered key fiscal legislation such as the Bank Charter Act of 1844 (which formed the basis of our current limited liability laws) and now we realise that he was also a highly influential art collector.

But just as this multimillionaire attracted a fortune (in present day terms) of 38 billion, it is salutary to appreciate that by the turn of the 20th century there was little left of the family fortunes. Nevertheless the family has truly left its mark on the cultural heritage of the United Kingdom. Next time you visit the National Gallery in London and venture into the rooms containing Dutch 17th and 18th century paintings, pause to consider that, but for the collecting instincts of the second Sir Robert Peel and the profligacy of the third and fourth inheritors of the title, the paintings would not be there at all.

Roger Hockney
April 2001