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2013 Display: Margaret Desenfans

11 June 2013 - 12 January 2014

Dulwich Picture Gallery is pleased to announce a special display to celebrate the life of one of the Gallery’s founders, Margaret Desenfans (1731-1813). To mark the bicentenary of Margaret’s death, and to accompany the dramatic re-hang of the Gallery’s Permanent Collection, visitors can view the display from 11 June 2013 when the Gallery will reopen to the public.

Joshua Reynolds' magnificent portrait of Margaret - the only known image of her to date - will form the centrepiece to this display. Although the portrait had been listed as part of her husband’s collection in 1791, it was to remain in her own family’s collection until it was sold at auction in 1930. Assumed lost for over 70 years, many attempts were made by the Gallery to source its whereabouts, but to no avail. Reynold’s portrait finally re-emerged in 2002 when the Chief Curator was contacted by its current owner, who generously agreed to lend the painting to the Gallery.

Margaret Desenfans (neé Morris), the daughter of a wealthy Welsh entrepreneur, married the paintings collector and dealer Noël Desenfans in 1776. It was her substantial fortune that kickstarted her husband’s career and led to the acquisition of the majority of the paintings seen in the Gallery’s Permanent Collection today. When plans to build the Gallery were in jeopardy due to lack of funding in 1811, Margaret stepped forward and provided the missing funds, enabling the architect John Soane to build Britain’s first ever purpose-built public art gallery.

Her role was not just a financial one, however. Margaret contributed a lasting legacy to the Gallery by donating her fine collection of furniture and establishing a tradition of Royal Academician visits to monitor the welfare of her husband’s paintings. The display will also feature an original accounts book and a selection of silverware donated by Margaret to the Gallery, along with items of furniture which belonged to her, to exemplify the significance of her personal contribution to Dulwich Picture Gallery.

This display will rightly restore Margaret’s reputation as the remarkable woman she was, and a key figure in the founding of Dulwich Picture Gallery. Where the other two founders, Noël Desenfans and Francis Bourgeois, had the vision, it was Margaret, a lady of practical enterprise, who had the drive to bring their ideas into fruition