Over the years, Harrow has been the home of a number of famous people – and this is especially true for the Stanmore area, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Between those like Edward Adrian Wilson, Queen Adelaide or Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding, Stanmore has an extensive history of famous and important individuals residing within its borders.
These have all been the subject of past articles, and this week we shall again be looking at a famous figure in Stanmore’s history – though one quite unlike the rest in a number of ways. His name was Charles Drury Edward Fortnum – an art collector who provided the British Museum with a number of relics from across the continent, and, during this career, a notable resident of Stanmore.
Fortnum was not from Stanmore, though – and, indeed, whilst he was born in London in 1820, it would be some time before he settled locally. Before this, for five years Fortnum was a resident of South Australia, where in 1840 he acquired a cattle ranch. His time working the ranch served to fuel his passion for collection – in this case the collection of insects, birds and reptiles. These he presented to the British Museum and to Oxford University – establishing two connections that would come into considerable use when his art collecting career started in full.
In 1845, Fortnum left his Australian ranch behind for Europe – with the intent of putting together a collection of art, especially minor arts of the Italian renaissance. Yet first Fortnum had to find a way to finance this passion – a need that drove him to marry in 1847. Wedding one Fanny Matilda Keats, this gave him access to the wealth of the then rather modest grocery store Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly.
With an advance of £4,000 from his wife’s fortunes, Fortnum chose Stanmore to settle – buying and repairing what was known then as Great House (now Hill House) on Stanmore Hill. Here Fortnum would also become an alderman of the Middlesex county council, and eventually also a deputy-lieutenant of the county too.
The house served his interests nicely – with wide views, a vineyard and walled orchards, and a number of shelters for livestock. Yet as was his nature as a collector, much of his time was spent away from the homestead. For large swathes of the year, Fortnum would take off with his wife to the European mainland in search of artefacts and relics from the past – especially those found in the Italian peninsula.
In the mid-nineteenth century, this was a much more dangerous task than is perhaps first thought. This period saw the struggle for Italian independence – a time when Italy as a nation was still an idea in the minds of hopeful nationalists – making the peninsula rife with conflict, and all the chaos that comes with it.
Fortnum was undeterred however – as he would be throughout his life. He travelled the region despite the carnage of war, visiting convents and palazzos alike in search of the relics he sought – trading them for cash or other goods – and eventually amassing an impressive collection of items of an otherwise mundane nature, yet from hundreds of years before.
During these years, Fortnum also took to other areas of Europe and the Mediterranean, and by the end of the 1860s had a collection including the likes of bronzes and glassware, from Egypt, Italy, Greece, East Asia and Germany. These he brought back with him to his home in Stanmore – turning the house into a display of history and past cultures from across the continent and globe.
Yet, as with all things, this was not to last. As the decades wore on, despite the pair’s tenacity, waning health caused to obstruct the Fortnums’ desire to travel, and though they kept this up as long as they could, eventually Fanny Keats died in 1890 – a moment marked by the lowering of the blinds at Great House in Stanmore. In the years after, Fortnum would remarry.
On both occasions, as was more acceptable at the time, Fortnum married his cousins so as to consolidate his hold on the Fortnum family fortune – a fortune which he put to use in pursuing his passion for arts collection, recovering the artefacts of history. In 1899, however, his story would come to an end also. He passed away peacefully in his bed in Stanmore, and was buried in Highgate cemetery soon after.
However, Fortnum has a tangible legacy still felt to this day. Following his death, the remainder of his collection housed in Stanmore was given to the British Museum – and that which was not found here could be at the Ashmolean museum in Oxford, where an entirely new wing had needed to be built to accommodate Fortnum’s successes.
This wing remains at the museum to this day, and it honours the man who facilitated it with the name the Fortnum Gallery. More locally, though, the Fortnum story was immortalised at St. John’s Church in Stanmore – where Fortnum dedicated a window depicting St. Matthew and St. Mark in the church to his first wife’s memory.
The story of Charles Fortnum, then, is another example of the rich and varied history rooted in the local area. In past weeks, we have looked at esteemed military commanders and famous royals, but with Charles Drury Edward Fortnum, we have the story of a local resident whose thirst for past artefacts kept history alive and visible in a way that continues to do so to this day.
Without people like Fortnum, our past would long have dissolved into the ambiguity of words scrawled across books and pages from centuries ago, any and all tangibility lost with it. His story is worth recalling – least of all because it took place within our own local area.
Written by Harry Turner.