If French collections of English 19th-century art now consist more than just of a few recent acquisitions, it is due to the exceptional personality of a somewhat forgotten Englishman, Sir Edmund Davis (1862-1939).
Edmund Davis' life story is pretty extraordinary. Born in 1862 in Tuorak, near Melbourne (Australia), he attended school at the Lycée Chaptal in Paris (his mother was of French extraction), where he was a pupil of Victor Leclaire (1830-1885), a French painter of flowers. He then left for South Africa aged 17. There, he took up trading ostrich feathers, and later collected guano. In 1888, aged 26, he founded his first company. In 1889, he married his cousin, Mary Zilla Halford, who shared his passion for painting: she sent work to several annual Salons in Paris. A short while later, the couple settled in London. At the apex of his career, his mining companies exploited resources in at least three continents: Africa, Asia and Oceania. He thus became "the king of chrome", controlling nearly all the mines in the world.
His art collections were renowned in such varied fields as painting and ancient sculpture, with works by Rembrandt, Houdon, or great English masters such as Hogarth, Reynolds and Gainsborough, contemporary British paintings by Burne-Jones, Rossetti, and lastly a considerable collection of pieces by Rodin which he had bought from the artist himself. His collections filled his many residences - his London house, his mansion in Chilham, near Canterbury, his palace in Venice or the Villa La Fiorentina in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. Edmund Davis, an accomplished patron of the arts, was to bequeath a large part of this exceptional collection to a few chosen institutions such as the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris, in 1915, and the National Gallery of South Africa in Cape Town in 1935-36.