Flowers for Homestead at Dulwich Picture Gallery - Practical History

Leaflets distributed at a talk on Henry Frick's art collection, reflecting on the 1892 Homestead strike, and the origins of the wealth of the industrialists whose collections founded many of Britain's major art galleries.

As a small gesture in the field of historical memory and forgetting, flowers and a poster with the following text were placed on 21 July 2000 at the entrance to Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London, where a talk on the art collection of Henry Clay Frick had been scheduled. In addition leaflets were left in the Gallery shop, and the text was e-mailed to both the Frick Collection and Dulwich Picture Gallery. It was also e-mailed to various radical lists such as a-infos and aut-op-sy, inviting people to send their own messages to the galleries1.

Our aim was not simply to correct the historical record about Frick, but to pose some broader questions about who gets remembered with monuments and who gets erased from history.

Flowers for Homestead
Henry Clay Frick (1849 -1919) is best known now for the art collection he founded, the subject of a talk at Dulwich Picture Gallery by his great great grand-daughter on July 27th 2000. The Frick Collection was established in his New York mansion with a bequest on his death in 1919.

How easy it is to buy a place in posterity, so long as you can pay the asking price. The stories of the great cultural benefactors – the Fricks, Carnegies and Tates - rarely ask about the origins of their wealth. A history of the Frick collection refers to him only as 'the Pittsburgh coke and steel industrialist'; a tribute to Andrew Carnegie talks glowingly of 'the Captain of Industry', 'the world's richest man' who gave it all away. No mention here of Homestead, Pennsylvania2.

But our memories are not for sale. For us Frick will always be remembered for his role in the Homestead strike in 1892 when he employed armed company goons to shoot workers at the Carnegie Steel Company (Andrew Carnegie was conveniently out of the country to avoid getting blood on his own hands).

Was it guilt that made Frick and Carnegie philanthropists? Maybe, but it is their names that are immortalised in galleries and libraries, not the anonymous steel workers who created their wealth and were shot down at Homestead.

It’s a similar story with Dulwich Picture Gallery with its origins in Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift, now Dulwich college 3. The good burghers of Dulwich may raise a glass to Edward Alleyn (1566-1626), but who drinks to the prostitutes who worked in his brothels on the South Bank? Close to the site of the Bankside stews the latest art gallery, the Tate Modern, bears the name of a sugar magnate not those who worked on his plantations. Across the road at the old Tate Britain there is no trace of the prisoners who suffered in the Millbank penitentiary on the same site4.

Step inside Tate Modern and see some of the work of the 1990s ‘Young British Artists’ cultivated and commissioned by that modern day Frick, Charles Saatchi. Nothing illustrates better how little this wave of artists have to say than their dependence on a man who made his money from, among other things, helping Thatcher stay in power with his advertising5.

It’s not just in art that the wealthy patron and philanthropist is making a comeback. Cash starved facilities like Lambeth’s Carnegie Library in Herne Hill Road are facing closure at the same time as New Labour is making ‘public services’ like schools and hospitals increasingly dependent on private sector finance.

There are too many monuments to Frick, Tate, Carnegie, Saatchi, Alleyn and all the other assassins and pimps. Since Frick’s memory is going to be invoked on this site next week, we have placed this small memorial to some of those erased from such stories.

These flowers have been placed here in memory of those killed by Frick’s gunmen and in memory too of Alexander ‘Sasha’ Berkman (1870-1936), an anarchist who on 23 July 1892 shot and wounded Frick in response to the Homestead massacre. Berkman was sentenced to 22 years in prison for wounding one man and died in poverty. Frick was never prosecuted for causing the deaths of many and died rich enough to found an art collection.

Taken from the Practical History website.

  • 1. One message sent to the galleries and forwarded to us was from Ronnie Williams, who wrote as follows: 'I wish to register my objection to The Dulwich Picture Gallery giving time and space to a descendent of Henry Clay Frick, who hired killers to open fire on workers during the Homestead strike in 1892 in the U.S.A. I come from Liverpool of which it was once said every brick was cemented with the blood of an African. Therefore I grew up in the shadow of shameless exploiters of the labour of others, Tate being among the worst examples. I therefore resent people like Frick, Tate and Saatchi having any say in the running of cultivated pursuits such as fine art. I applaud the action of Alexander Berkman in trying to rid the world of such a 'man'. Far better to have invited a decendent of one of Frick's victims and enlightened people as to the true nature on this individual. Yours,R. Williams.'
  • 2. For the history of the Homestead strike, see: http://libcom.org/history/1982-homestead-strike
  • 3. Edward Alleyn (1566-1626) was an actor and theatrical entrprener who owned three brothels on the South Bank (see: Joseph Lenz, Base Trade: Theater as Prostitution and also Jessica Bourner, Wrong Side of the River: London’s Disreputable South Bank in the sixteenth and seventeenth century . On his death he bequeathed his art collection to Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift (later known as Dulwich College), which he had founded in 1619. Dulwich College established Dulwich Picture Gallery in the early 19th century to house its art collection.
  • 4. The Fenian prisoner O’Donovan Rossa (1831-1915) has given us a first hand account of the brutal conditions in Millbank in the 1860s, where he endured strip searching, beatings, freezing conditions and a punishment of ‘four months in solitary in dark cell on penal diet, with the first twelve days on bread and water’. See O’Donovan Rossa, Irish rebels in English prisons, 1882 (reprinted Brandon Press, Dingle, 1991). The Tate has recently allowed some criticism of its history in a digital art piece by Graham Harwood on its website. See Introduction to the Foundations of Tate Britain.
  • 5. Charles Saatchi has recently bought ‘My Bed’ by Tracey Emin for a reported £150,000. ‘She had protested against the idea of her art being owned by the man whose advertising expertise had kept Mrs Thatcher in power. But, at 37, she appears to be mellowing… Emin says she knew she had matured when ‘I was at Vivienne’s [Westwood] party, Mrs Thatcher was there and I didn’t spit at her’. Emin and Saatchi are believed to have made up at another party.’ (‘Saatchi and Emin make up as he buys her unmade bed for £150k’, Independent on Sunday, 16 July 2000).