Pre-Felton works bought or commissioned on his advice

Alma-Tadema The Vintage Festival 1871 {1888} NGV [PA]
Creswick & Ansdell England 1850 {1878} NGV [PA]
Dyck [van] (after) Mystic Marriage of St Catherine {1869} NGV [PA]
Goodall (F.) Rachel going to the Well 1867 {1867} NGV [PA]
Graham Autumnal Showers 1869 {1869} NGV [PA]
* Hodgson Arab Prisoners 1870 {1871} Loc? [PA]
Long A Question of Propriety 1870 {1871} NGV [PA]
Long Queen Esther 1878 {1879} NGV [PA]
Moloney after Murillo Virgin of the Rosary {1870} NGV [PA]
Pettie Arrest for Witchcraft 1866 {1876} NGV [PA]
Richardson Corrie Echen 1880 {1880} NGV [WT]
Rivière Deer Stealers 1875 {1876} NGV [PA]
Scheffer Temptation of Christ 1854 {1886} NGV [PA]
Schenck Anguish {1879} NGV [PA]
Thompson Quatre Bras 1875 {1884} NGV [PA]
Webb (J.) Rotterdam at Sunset 1868 {1869} NGV [PA]
Weber (O.) First Snow on the Tyrolean Alps {1868} NGV [PA]

A pioneer Victorian squatter who had made his fortune and then settled in London, Thomson was asked by Redmond Barry to advise on purchases for the NGV in 1866, citing his “familiarity with Art” and “extensive experience with Artists.” However, Thomson’s record as adviser over a period of some 24 years (interrupted briefly by the appointment of Herbert and Ruskin as advisers in 1871-73) has met with significant criticism, even during his lifetime, and certainly since.

As Leonard Cox concluded in his NGV history (1970), Thomson managed to recommend fewer than 20 pictures over the long period when he was adviser; and some of his choices now seem very mediocre. Ann Galbally (1987) commented even more harshly that Thomson’s “crushingly middlebrow taste” was a stumbling block, citing Schenck Anguish {1879} NGV [PA] as an example. However, shifting taste in regard to such pictures (as noted in the linked entry on Schenck’s picture) should also be acknowledged.

Some of the negative commentary on Thomson’s activity as adviser relates particularly to considerations of other works on the market at the time. For instance, Cox quotes Lady Eastlake’s indignation at discovering that Thomson had missed purchasing a fine Constable which she had recommended to him in 1867 (for only £150). Indeed, his persistent refusal to consider purchasing either Constable or Turner (whose later work he described as ludicrously over-priced) seems  remarkably wrong-headed, especially given the sums paid for other recommendations, e.g. almost £600 for Graham Autumnal Showers 1869 {1869} NGV [PA], in itself by no means a poor work, but hardly “the greatest landscape produced since the death of Turner,” as Thomson called it in his recommendation (quoting some unnamed authority).

Thomson has also been criticized for recommending and commissioning replicas and copies, sometimes purchased for significant sums, notably Alma-Tadema The Vintage Festival 1871 {1888} NGV [PA], a replica of a larger original of 1870 (Hamburg, Kunsthalle); the price of £4,000 set a new record for the NGV.

Earlier, Long Queen Esther 1878 {1879} NGV [PA], was commissioned from the artist, then at the peak of his fame, for £1,600. In the 1894 and 1905 NGV catalogues, this Orientalist canvas was also described as a replica. However, Ted Gott quotes Long’s own explanation that he painted this work and a variant shown at the Royal Academy in 1879 (no longer extant?) simultaneously, varying them in some details and in scale: refer linked entry.

Right at the start of his period as adviser, Thomson was instrumental in obtaining (on behalf of the Commissioners of Fine Art) Goodall (F.) Rachel going to the Well 1867 {1867} NGV [PA], bought for £300. This work was also described at the time as a replica, and was still catalogued as such by Galbally & others in 1992. However, it has been re-assessed recently as possibly the original painting shown at the Royal Academy in 1867, the basis for several smaller variants (see linked entry for details).

Another Orientalist recommendation by Thomson, * Hodgson Arab Prisoners 1870 {1871} Loc? [PA], de-accessioned in the 1940s, surfaced again more recently, selling for a hammer price of £1,800 at auction in London in 2006. Characteristic 19th-century works like this, as well as Thompson Quatre Bras 1875 {1884} NGV [PA] (voted the most popular picture in the NGV in 1906) should probably be regarded as Alfred Thomson’s most successful recommendations as adviser, rather than dwelling on lacklustre examples like Pettie Arrest for Witchcraft 1866 {1876} NGV [PA] or the pompous baronial imagery of Richardson Corrie Echen 1880 {1880} NGV [WT].

Finally, whatever the particular limitations of Thomson’s own attitudes and judgement, it should also be noted that they were of a piece with more widespread patterns of taste and conservatism in the period, including the views of Redmond Barry and the other NGV Trustees who took his advice: see particularly the incisive critiques of Bonyhady (1991), Bonyhady & Sayers (2000) and others. The difficulties arising from his period as London adviser also prefigured similar problems experienced during the 20th century with various Felton Bequest advisers based in England, as detailed by Poynter (2002/2008).

Refs.

Much of the commentary here relies on the detailed analysis by Leonard Cox, NGV (1970), esp.p.391 (conclusions) and pp.19ff.; see also index; the 1867 letter from Elizabeth Eastlake to Thomson regarding Constable is quoted by Cox on p.22, but dated incorrectly to 1862. See also Galbally, NGV (1987), esp.p.22 (quoted); and her more detailed comments in Galbally & others, The First Collections (1992), e.g. pp.56-57 (cat.15: Goodall’s Rachel) and 59 (cat.18, for Peter Graham’s Autumnal Showers). See also individual painting entries as noted; and Bonyhady, Images in Opposition (1991), esp.ch.1

There are also various references to Thomson’s recommendations in Matthew Potter, British Art for Australia, 1860-1953: The Acquisition of Artworks from the United Kingdom by Australian National Galleries, Routledge, 2019 (refer Index): yet to check in detail. There do not appear to be any extant images of Thomson