ESSAY Harry HeuserNWR Issue 110
Bigotry and Virtue: George Powell and the Question of Legacy
When the collector, George Ernest John Powell (1842–82), decided to bequeath his artworks, books, antiquities and curios to what was then the University College of Wales in Aberystwyth, he wrote to Principal Thomas Charles Edwards saying that it was all he possessed of ‘bigotry and virtue’. It is a curious turn of phrase to sum up a legacy – and a rather unlikely way of attracting an institution of higher education to it. The inverted commas were Powell’s. The phrase was borrowed, they signal, and had been chosen advisedly. Might they be hinting at irony into the bargain? A cultured gentleman whose library contained numerous French volumes and whose summers were spent on the coast of Normandy – in a cottage he named Chaumière de Dolmancé after a character in a book by the Marquis de Sade, no less – Powell would probably have recognised ‘bigotry and virtue’ to be a corruption of bijouterie (trinkets) and vertu (articles of value and artistic merit).
Yet the English meanings suited him as well. Not only did he expect academics to deliberate whether the objects he had amassed amounted to treasures or trinkets, he also realised that, by making his collection public, his own character would come under scrutiny.
Bigotry. Virtue. There is a note of bitterness in those words – and for good reason. Some years before Powell approached Principal Edwards upon learning that the university had established a museum of its own, his ambition of making a difference in Aberystwyth by gifting his collection had been thwarted by the town council. Accepting though they were of what they acknowledged to be the potential nucleus of a museum and hence a cultural asset to the seaside resort, the council had failed to provide adequate rooms for its storage and display. Powell had given them an ultimatum and, after the deadline lapsed, he withdrew the offer. The debate about the gift and Powell’s revocation of it were well documented in the local papers.
Powell followed it all from his lodgings in London and chronicled it by pasting newspaper clippings into a leather- bound album. That album, too, would become part of his bequest, a tangible reminder to future generations of the injustice Powell felt he had suffered. As he expressed it with considerable fervour in his letter to the university, dated 4 March 1879, he had been ‘[r]epulsed by the more than coldness and indifference’ with which his offer was received in what he described as the ‘general Methodistic gloom’ of his ‘dear but benighted town’. Not that this is quite what happened, given that the council had succeeded in getting ratepayers to adopt the Public Libraries and Museums Act of 1855, a necessary step for making the building of a museum for Aberystwyth possible. Powell felt himself rebuffed all the same, and he may have wondered whether there was anything more to that perceived ‘coldness’. Yet he could not bring himself to pursue the matter in person by returning to the place of his childhood and youth.
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(PhD, City University of New York, 2004) is a writer, educator and curator. He is the author of Immaterial Culture: Literature, Drama and the American Radio Play, 1929–1954
. Together with his husband, Robert Meyrick, he has written on English and Welsh art, including monographs of painters Claudia Williams and Gwilym Prichard, and is curating art exhibitions at Aberystwyth University, as well as the Royal Academy of Arts in London. His essay, ‘Please Don’t Whip Me This Time: The Passions of George Powell of Nant-Eos [sic]’, will appear in the anthology Queer Wales
, forthcoming from the University of Wales Press next year.
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