By , on 20-Oct-2010

The Art Gallery of NSW could widen its appeal to many new collectors as a result of a new bequest, writes our special correspondent.

Antique dealers and collectors visiting the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) from today - and into the far future - will encounter a display of  English and Continental porcelain and Italian majolica they never in their wildest dreams might have expected to be permanently exhibited there.

The Urbino ‘istoriato’ plate, representing a scene from Roman history, Gaius Popilius Laenas before the King of Syria.

In a complete volte face the AGNSW has put out five display cases of decorative arts from schools of collecting that it had previously - seemingly - eschewed, de-accessioning works that had come into its possession either by sale or through donation to other institutions, most notably Sydney's Powerhouse Museum.

The absence of western European decorative arts has robbed the gallery of its ability to describe itself as an art museum enjoyed by other institutions such as the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.

The AGNSW now has more of this material on display than the Powerhouse, especially since the recent early dismantling of the Inspired exhibition to make way for a cafe.

The volte-face comes about as a result of a bequest by Mr Kenneth Reed, son of a wharfie who became a stevedoring tycoon. He took Ken, now 74, to the AGNSW when Ken was a boy and so engaged him with the institution..

Mr Kenneth Reed said yesterday that this had a big bearing on his decision to make the bequest.

Moreover, his walls were also becoming full (the bequest comes with a large number of paintings) and, living in Macquarie Street, he would be able to walk across to the AGNSW and see some of them there.

He often walked to the Sydney Opera House to see the other passion which has engaged his philanthropy, ballet, he said.

The director of the AGNSW, Mr Edmund Capon, said that the majolica in particular enhanced the display of the gallery's existing Italian paintings in the James Fairfax Gallery.

He said that the promised gift of the collection was legally tight and sealed, "bound and gagged."

Mr Reed said that the bequest came with the stipulation that it not be de-accessioned as this was what had happened to the Sinclair Gillies collection, also a bequest, in the 1990s.

He also hoped the gallery had improved its security, one of the reputed concerns of Mr Fairfax, one of whose paintings had been stolen from the  building. Mr Fairfax only this year sold some of the best works in his collection that the gallery had hoped would come in its direction.

Both Mr Reed and Mr Capon insisted that the paintings were of museum quality, although the total value of the collection, just over $7 million including the porcelain, suggests that while pleasing and of academic interest they cannot be described as truly majestic or gobsmacking works by the towering masters of European art.

Both the porcelain and the paintings were acquired largely through London and Paris based dealers Robert and Judy Jones, the former of whom Mr Reed described as his mentor. Mr Jones had a stroke but had hoped to be at yesterday's launch of the collection at the gallery.

This was not possible, however, as he was too ill. Judy Jones died two years ago. They are remembered as two of the great characters of the saleroom, Judy sometimes bidding in disguise (helped by a big blond wig.)

Robert's conversion from placing porcelain crowns (he was trained as a dentist) on the right teeth  to placing antique porcelain and paintings of crowned heads of the state’s the best homes might superficially be seen as much a roads to Damascus conversion, as Mr Capon's new appreciation of 18th century English cups and saucers.

However, Mr Capon insisted yesterday that the de-accessed Gillies material porcelain was nowhere near the quality of the Reed gift..

 Besides, it came with Old Masters paintings much needed to flesh out the collection.

Numbering over 70 items in total the Ken Reed bequest will represent "a most significant addition to the gallery’s European collection" Mr Edmund Capon said.

The Art Gallery is to receive 25 old master paintings, 25 pieces of 18th-century porcelain and 22 pieces of 16th-17th century Italian maiolica.

Mr Capon said some of the pictures could have been specifically selected to complement those already in the Gallery’s collection.

Abraham Bloemaert’s Cimon and Iphigenia, for example, represented a 17th-century Dutch take on a story famously represented by Lord Leighton in his late masterpiece in the Sydney collection.

Its subject matter also echoed Jacques Blanchard’s superlative Mars and the Vestal Virgin which the Gallery acquired in 2008.

Mr Richard Beresford, Senior Curator of European Art said the great Dutch banquet still life by Abraham van Beyeren would become one of  the greatest still life paintings in the gallery’s collection.

"The absence of any major example of Roman Baroque painting has now been brought to an end as the Gallery is to receive Andrea Camassei’s finished sketch (or modello) for an altarpiece in St Peter’s , Rome showing St Peter baptising Sts Processus and Martinian ., he added.

The Gallery’s representation of the British school would also be transformed by the addition of portraits by Lely, Romney and Hoppner none of whom were previously represented in the collection, he added.

"The Hoppner is also an important addition as it represents the famous French dancer Mlle Hilligsberg who enchanted London audiences in the late-18th and early-19th centuries."

"The decision to display 16th-18th century ceramics alongside paintings of the same period will add a new dimension to the Gallery’s collection," said Beresford.

The Italian maiolica included a superb Urbino ‘istoriato’ plate representing a scene from Roman history (Gaius Popilius Laenas before the King of Syria) dating from about 1545.

"Urbino plates of this kind (i.e. decorated with a single painted scene covering the whole upper surface) represent the height of sophistication in Italian Renaissance ceramics." he added.

The Reed collection also included a two-handled vase of c 1530-40 with the gold lustre decoration characteristic of Deruta. There were examples of wares from Montelupo, Pesaro, Faenza and Venice.