Through a new program, endowed by John F. O’Brien, a longtime Friend of the Yale Center for British Art, the Center recently received a David Wilkie (1785–1841) pen-and-ink drawing, Naval Figures Aboard a Ship. The process allowed eleven student guides from the Center to gain hands-on experience in acquiring art.
David Wilkie, Naval Figures Aboard a Ship, pen and sepia ink. Martyn Gregory Gallery, London
“I wanted students to understand the business aspect of the art world but also to come away with the understanding that art is accessible and can be a part of their lives,” said O’Brien, who majored in economics and history in college.
Students who have worked at the Center as guides for at least a year were eligible to participate. Scott Wilcox, the Center’s Deputy Director for Collections; Gillian Forrester, Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings; and Linda Friedlaender, Senior Curator of Education, met with students to provide training in connoisseurial skills and to acquaint them with the Center’s process for acquiring art for the collection. Subsequently, accompanied by Amy Meyers, the Center’s Director, the group traveled to New York and visited an art fair, Master Drawings in New York. They viewed sixteen objects offered by four dealers and made initial selections. Three teams of students presented their research, each advocating for a separate piece of art. The Center staff involved in the program made the final selection for acquisition.
Olga Karnas (SM ’16) and Daniel Leibovic (TC ’17) exchanged high-fives and hugged after convincing the judges to choose the Wilkie drawing. A drawing by James Ward (1769–1859), Fishing Boats on a Beach (pencil and gray wash), and one by George Rommey (1734–1802), John Howard Visiting a Prison (pencil on woven paper), were eliminated from the competition.
Leibovic noted that the Center has seventy-four works by Wilkie, but only four brown-ink sketches. “Among the sketches we do have, Naval Figures is undeniably the most raw, uninhibited, and embryonic exhibition of Wilkie’s process,” he said. He pointed out that the main figure in this sketch is drawn with a similar posture, garb, and facial structure compared to those in the other, more polished Wilkie sketches. Leibovic noted, “Together, we see that regardless of the briskness with which he sketched out his ideas, he still approached some things the same, such as placing emphasis on a main figure.”
“I was just really, really excited—and proud. I can’t wait to welcome the drawing home to the YCBA,” said Karnas.
As an undergraduate at Georgetown University, O’Brien began visiting galleries in Washington, DC, meeting and working with dealers. The experience proved invaluable as he formed a significant collection of Japanese prints and Italian paintings. In helping the Center to establish this program, he hopes to cultivate similar learning opportunities and relationships for future generations.
Additional participants in this year’s program included Yonadav Greenwood (BR ’16), Matthew Hennessy (TD ’17), Kathryn Kaelin (SY ’15), Caroline Kanner (JE ’17), Rebecca Levinsky (MC ’15), Anna Meixler (ES ’16), Daniel Roza (SM ’15), Katharine Spooner (TD ’16), and Ari Zimmet (CC ’17).
Friedlaneder emphasized that the program provides students an educational vehicle rarely available to college-level students. “Working with the galleries and art dealers in New York City as a living laboratory adds a new dimension to their appreciation and knowledge of art,” she said.
“An amazing network of people from across the world seemed to spring out of the woodwork and began interacting with each other in such a respectful and caring way. Everybody involved was driven by a deep love of art and their desire to pass on and share their knowledge and expertise,” said Zimmet.
Director Amy Meyers believes the program exemplifies the spirit of the Center, with its emphasis on research and education as it raises public consciousness about the importance of British art. She noted that the students’ hard work, research, and commitment, clearly evident in their thoroughly prepared presentations, reinforced the success of the program. “We are grateful that John truly understands our mission and is an integral member of the Yale Center for British Art’s family,” said Meyers.
O’Brien, who currently resides in South Carolina, lived in Connecticut for more than twenty years. He, too, still refers to the Center as home. “When I say ‘home’ that means it’s a place where you are welcome and where you belong. The Center matters to me, and I matter to the Center,” he said.