Alfred Felton (1831-1904), the National Gallery of Victoria's (NGV) greatest benefactor, was born at Maldon, Essex, and migrated to Victoria in 1853. After some years on the goldfields, he established himself as a merchant in Melbourne and by 1861 was trading as a wholesale druggist in Swanston Street. In 1867 he went into partnership with F.S. Grimwade in the renamed Felton Grimwade & Co., which over the next 25 years grew into the largest drug house in the colony. Felton remained a bachelor, living frugally in a St Kilda hotel, although he did buy two large properties, Murray Downs and Langi Kal Kal, in partnership with Charles Campbell, which he used to house his growing art collection.
At his death in 1904, Felton left a residual estate of £383 163, which he willed to form a capital fund, the income from which was directed to be held in trust in perpetuity, one half to be distributed to charity and one half for the purchase of works for the NGV. The will directed that a committee of five be set up to administer the trust funds, specifying that it include two gallery trustees and one director of the Trustees Executors & Agency Co. Ltd, which administered the trust.
Felton's bequest transformed the NGV from a small regional picture gallery into one of international standing. The will stipulated that a European adviser be employed to recommend suitable works for purchase in the international art market, although all recommendations had to win the approval of the director, the trustees and the committee. Felton advisers have included some great names, such as Robert Ross, Sir Sydney Cockerell and Sir Kenneth Clark. Most purchasing was done on the London art market, and problems of communication often led to disappointment and frustration for the advisers and misunderstandings and loss of great works in Melbourne. However, in spite of a number of lost opportunities, the Felton Bequest has been the single most important factor in building the gallery's impressive collection and a continuing source of income to the city's philanthropic organisations.