Research on Fernando Zobel at the British Museum (Aprille Tijam, Philippines, ITP 2019)

Written by Aprille P. Tijam, Senior Manager for Exhibitions and Collections, Ayala Museum (ITP2019, Philippines)

I returned to the British Museum in January 2020.  This time, through an arts mobility grant from The British Council’s Connections Through Culture UK-Southeast Asia (CTC UK-SEA) programme. The purpose of my trip was to conduct Research on Fernando Zobel: Fernando Zobel Collection and Donation to the British Museum. The morning of my first day at the BM was a courtesy call to the ITP team, Claire Messenger, Anna Cottle, and George Peckham! Over a cup of coffee, we exchanged information and wonderful stories.

Left to Right: Anna Cottle, Claire Messenger, Aprille, and George Peckham

It was simply marvelous to be reunited with the hardworking team standing behind the successful International Training Programme. My introduction to the Fernando Zobel Collection at the Prints and Drawings was initiated by Frances Carey, Chair of the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust, back in August 2019 while I was a participant of the ITP 2019 programme. The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust generously provided funding support to my ITP participation. Frances had the opportunity to meet Fernando Zobel in the 1970s while she was affiliated with the BM’s Prints and Drawings Department. She encouraged me to look into Zobel’s works in the BM’s collection. Claire ably assisted in providing me with access to this collection last year.

Fernando Zobel (1924-1984), a Spanish-Filipino artist, is largely represented in the Fine Arts Collection of the Ayala Museum. The collection consists of more than 200 pieces, including paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, memorabilia (commemorative stamps, Presidential Merit Award medal), handwritten letters, and Zobel’s donations of ecclesiastical objects. His works form part of the exhibition program Pioneers of Philippine Art: Luna, Amorsolo, Zobel, highlighting the influence of these three major artists in Philippine modern art history. Zobel introduced abstract art to the Philippines, lectured art appreciation at the Ateneo de Manila University, supported the struggle and development of Philippine modern art in the 1950s, and laid the foundation for the establishment of the Ayala Museum. Having learned that the BM carries Zobel’s works encouraged me to conduct cataloguing of Zobel’s works and his donations to the BM, as part of my continuing education of the life and works of Fernando Zobel.

This year, I was granted full access to the works by Fernando Zobel and the works by other artists he donated to the BM. Hugo Chapman, Simon Sainsbury Keeper of the Prints and Drawings Department and his team, Valeria di Tommaso (Collections Manager), Enrico Zanoni (Assistant Collections Manager), Rachel Finch (Assistant Collections Manager) and Grant Lewis (British Museum Getty Paper Project Fellow) warmly welcomed and assisted me with my research and cataloguing of the artworks.

Ayala Museum donated books on Fernando Zobel to the Prints and Drawings Department, received by Hugo Chapman, Simon Sainsbury Keeper.

One of my most important discoveries is that Fernando Zobel donated a selection of his prints and drawings to the BM’s Prints and Drawings Department. He also donated prints and drawings by other artists represented in the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español (Museum of Spanish Abstract Art) collection. The museum was established in Cuenca, Spain, in 1966 by Fernando Zobel and his co-director Gustavo Torner; Gerardo Rueda as the curator of the collections; and honorary curators Antonio Lorenzo, Eusebio Sempere, and Fernando Nuño.

In 1972, Zobel donated his works and works by important Spanish abstract artists of the 1950s and 1960s, including Eduardo Chillida, Manuel Mompo, Lucio Muñoz, Manuel Rivera, Gerardo Rueda, Antonio Saura, Eusebio Sempere, and Antonio Tapies. Most of them were friends of Zobel. After Zobel’s death in 1984, prints were donated in his memory—18th  century prints of Peoples of Spain donated by Christopher Mendez, a long-time friend of Zobel and the BM’s Prints and Drawings Department;  and 17th century print by Giovanni Fulcho donated by Mr. and Mrs. John Rowlands. Zobel’s donations were initiated and facilitated by John Kendall Rowlands, the Prints and Drawings Assistant Keeper in 1972, who later become the Keeper (from 1981 to 1991).  

Selfie with Mrs Lorna Rowlands at her home in Salisbury.

During my cataloguing and research time at the BM, I also had the opportunity to be introduced by Hugo to Christopher Mendez, an established prints dealer, who was also a good friend with Zobel. Later, Christopher introduced me to Mrs. Lorna Rowlands, the widow of John Rowlands. Previously unheard stories about Zobel as a friend and an artist were generously shared by his friends, who promised to stay in touch.