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Owen, Francis Philip Cunliffe- (DNB00)


OWEN, Sir FRANCIS PHILIP CUNLIFFE- (1828–1894), director of South Kensington Museum and organiser of exhibitions, born on 8 June 1828, was third son of Captain Charles Cunliffe-Owen, R.N., and Mary, only daughter of Sir Henry Blosset, formerly chief justice of Bengal. He was originally intended for the sea, and at the age of twelve entered the navy, but he was obliged by weak health to abandon the profession after five years' service in the Mediterranean and the West Indies. In 1854 the influence of an elder brother, Lieutenant-colonel Henry Charles Cunliffe-Owen [q. v.], obtained him a post in the Science and Art Department, then recently established through the initiative of Sir Henry Cole [q. v.] This able administrator perceived in Owen talents not unlike his own, and in 1855 appointed him as one of the superintendents, under himself, of the British section of the International exhibition held at Paris in that year. Thus commenced the work for which Owen showed a special capacity, and in the execution of which he obtained for himself a unique reputation. To Cole and Owen must be largely attributed the success which attended the establishment of international exhibitions; for, if the original idea was due to Cole, its successful development was largely the work of Owen. With less original power than Cole, Owen had an equal capacity for organisation, and an even greater facility for taking up new ideas and carrying them to a successful issue. Both had singular personal influence. Cole's masterful individuality overpowered opposition; Owen's charm of manner and natural geniality prevented it.

Owen's successful administration in Paris in 1855 led to his appointment in 1857 as deputy general superintendent of the South Kensington Museum, and in 1860 he was promoted to the post of assistant director, Cole being director of the museum and secretary of the Science and Art Department. In 1862 the second great London exhibition was held, and Owen acted as director of the foreign sections, a post for which his knowledge of foreign languages specially qualified him. In 1867 another exhibition was held in Paris, and Owen was second in command to Cole as assistant executive commissioner. So much credit did he obtain by his assiduous labours that when a commission was appointed to provide for the representation of England at the Vienna exhibition in 1873 Owen was made its secretary, and successfully coped with the special difficulties of the post. In the same year Cole retired from the two posts he held at South Kensington, and one of them, the directorship of the museum, was conferred upon Owen.

The next international exhibition was that held at Philadelphia in 1876. Owen was appointed executive commissioner for Great Britain, and visited America for the purpose of making the preliminary arrangements. Circumstances, however, led to his resignation of the appointment, which was afterwards filled by Sir Herbert Sandford. In 1878, however, he again had charge of the British section at the exhibition held in Paris. There he was extremely popular, alike with his own countrymen, the French officials, and the representatives of other countries. At the close of the exhibition he was created a K.C.M.G. and C.I.E. (he had received the C.B. after Vienna), and was also the recipient of many foreign decorations, including that of grand officer of the Legion of Honour.

Owen subsequently turned his foreign experiences to useful account in his own country. When a scheme was put forward for a fisheries exhibition in 1883, its promoters were glad to secure his assistance. The proposal, as it came to him, was no more attractive than the scheme for annual exhibitions which had collapsed in Sir Henry Cole's hands in 1874. Owen introduced an element of amusement and popularity, and the Fisheries exhibition became the fashionable lounge of London for the summer of 1883. He followed this up with the Health (1884) and Inventions (1885) exhibitions on a similar scale, and completed the series with the Colonial and Indian exhibition of 1886. For this a royal commission was appointed, with the Prince of Wales as president and Owen as its executive officer. The plan was well received in the colonies, and the exhibition proved in every way, pecuniarily, socially, and politically, a great success. Owen was made a K.C.B., but a serious disappointment followed. The Colonial and Indian exhibition developed into the Imperial Institute, founded in 1887, on the occasion of her Majesty's jubilee, and it was anticipated that its management would have been given to Owen. The direction of the institute was, however, placed in other hands.

In 1893 Owen retired, after some years of failing health, from his post at the South Kensington Museum. Though he made no pretence to expert knowledge, and never professed any special enthusiasm for art, he took great interest in his official work, and found in it abundant scope for his administrative powers. It was, however, in the more public life connected with exhibitions that Owen's real happiness lay. The popularity he deservedly obtained was a keen pleasure to him, and he always seemed restless when, in the intervals between one exhibition and another, his energies were confined to the routine work of the museum. He died at Lowestoft on 23 March 1894.

He married, in 1854, Tenny, daughter of Baron Fritz von Reitzenstare, of the royal Prussian horse-guards, and had a family of two sons and six daughters.

Lady Cunliffe-Owen died at Kirkley Cliff, Lowestoft, on 24 Oct. 1894, aged 63.

[Obituary notices in Times 24 March 1894, Standard 24 March 1894, Journal Society Arts 30 March 1894; notice in the World, 23 Oct. 1878; personal knowledge.]

H. T. W.