I have just been reading the fascinating catalogue marking the donation of Alec Cobbe’s career archive to the Victoria and Albert Museum. There is also an accompanying display currently on view at the V&A.
Alec Cobbe is a polymath who initially worked as a paintings conservator (although he prefers the older description ‘picture restorer’), but later became known for his sensitive rehangings of historic picture collections. He is also an artist, designer, musician and collector.
Alec Cobbe grew up in Newbridge House, County Dublin, which had been rebuilt in the 1740s by his ancestor Charles Cobbe, Archbishop of Dublin. In the 1750s and 1760s the house was filled with pictures by Archbishop Cobbe’s son Robert and his wife Elizabeth.
Alec Cobbe’s early experience of Newbridge, as well as his training as a conservator, informed his sensitivity to the historic settings of works of art. In the catalogue Julius Bryant puts Cobbe’s career in the context of the re-evaluation of picture hangs in museums and historic houses over the last forty years or so.
Apart from advising the National Trust, and becoming a Trust tenant at Hatchlands Park, Alec Cobbe has also been involved with picture rehangs in the private apartments at Petworth and at Harewood House, Kenwood and Hatfield House. He has also designed some striking historicist showcases, for instance for Powis Castle, Windsor Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
In 1984 Hatchlands was in need of a new purpose, having recently been a school and with little in the way of original contents. Alec Cobbe was invited by the National Trust to display his collections of painting and historic keyboard instruments there and to make it once more into a living family home.
The catalogue not only provides an overview of Cobbe’s career and of the changing attitudes to historic houses, but it also touches on some fundamental questions about what it is that we value about the past.
As Julius Bryant puts it: ‘Once one accepts that all historic interiors have gone for good (for not only their historic contents, but also our way of perceiving them, have changed) then the latest ‘restoration’ project can be judged against values other than ‘accuracy’. In admiring a restored room as a work of art and design we can also ask how well it shows the collections, what it tells us about the use and display of the space over the centuries, and how well it conveys what Alexander Pope called ‘the genius of the place’.