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Ralph Bernal

François Briot, dish, Pewter with cast reliefs, France, ca. 1585, bought by the Museum from the Bernal collection in 1855

François Briot, dish, Pewter with cast reliefs, France, ca. 1585, bought by the Museum from the Bernal collection in 1855

Ralph Bernal was a British politician and collector; following his death in 1854, many objects from his collection were purchased by the Museum at auction.

Ralph Bernal was born in Colchester on 2 October 1783. He was educated at the Reverend John Hewlett's school at Shacklewell, Hackney, and at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he graduated BA in 1806 and MA in 1809. Bernal was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn in 1804 and was called to the bar on 8 February 1810. He chose instead to pursue a political career and was elected to the House of Commons in 1818. Over the years, Bernal represented several different constituencies (Lincoln, Rochester, Weymouth) as a Whig MP until he lost his Rochester seat in 1852. He was a prolific collector of glass, plate, ceramics and miniatures; his fortune derived from estates in the West Indies which he had inherited in 1810.

In 1853, Bernal became president of the British Archaeological Society. Twice married, he died at 93 Eaton Square, London, on 26 August 1854.

The Government declined an approach by the Society of Arts to purchase the collection en bloc; instead it was sold at auction in 4,294 lots by Christie and Manson in 1855, 730 of which were acquired for the Museum of Manufactures at Marlborough House.

Information in the V&A Archive

ED84/44: Minutes relative to the acquisition of Art Objects – for the benefit of the Schools of Art

List of objects in the Art Division, South Kensington Museum, acquired during the year 1852-1867: arranged according to the dates of acquisition. London: HMSO, 1868

Report on the sale of the Bernal Collection, including a list of descriptions transcribed from the sale catalogue, in the Third Report of the Department of Science and Art. London: George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode for HMSO, 1856

Henry Cole: diaries: typed transcripts, 1822-1882

Other archival sources: see the Artists’ Papers Register

Selected printed works

Bohn, Henry G. A guide to the knowledge of pottery, porcelain, and other objects of vertu. Comprising an illustrated catalogue of the Bernal collection of works of art, with the prices at which they were sold by auction, and the names of the present possessors. To which are added an introductory essay on pottery and porcelain, and an engraved list of marks and monograms. London: H. Bohn, 1857. NAL pressmark: 23.L

Christie and Manson. Catalogue of the celebrated collection of works of art from the Byzantine period to that of Louis Seize of that distinguished collector Ralph Bernal ... Messrs Christie & Manson at the Mansion No 93 Eaton Square commencing on Monday March the 5th 1855. London: Christie and Manson, 1855. NAL pressmark: 602.AA.1683

[Obituary]. Annual Register, or a view of the history and politics of the year 1854. London: F. & J. Rivington, 1855

Davies, Helen. ‘Bernal, Ralph (1783–1854).’ In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. NAL pressmark: 920.041 DIC

To locate material in the National Art Library, please search the Library Catalogue.

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