By Angus Trumble, The Times Literary Supplement (TLS), July 3, 2013
Book Review of James Stourton and Charles Sebag-Montefiore, The British as Art Collectors: From the Tudors to the Present, 352pp. Scala. £60.
Protesting against Napoleon’s plot in 1796 to confiscate the greatest masterpieces of painting and sculpture in Italy and remove them to France, the connoisseur, antiquarian and theorist Antoine-Chrysostome Quatremère de Quincy warned:
“England is the image of what Europe would become if the dismemberment which I fear were actually to occur. That nation has no centralized, dominant collection despite all the acquisitions made by its private citizens who have naturally retained them for their private enjoyment. What is the result? These riches are scattered through every country house; you have to travel in every county over hundreds of miles to see these fragmented collections: so that I can think of nothing less useful for Europe, or even for the arts of England itself, than what England already possesses . . . . Let us hope that these collections will be happily reunited and restored to the world of learning.”
This perception from Paris was partly right and partly wrong. Referring in 1844 to great English country houses with notable collections of Old Master paintings, Anna Jameson wrote: “I know not for my own part, more than one or two isolated instances in which admission was refused to an artist or stranger who came properly introduced, or whose name was known”. On his epic tours of inspection in the 1830s, however, Dr Gustav Waagen was often tormented by key-jangling housekeepers hovering at his elbow, poor light, and out-of-date lists, inventories and wall diagrams. Accessibility was a problem, and information often scarce.
The British as Art Collectors, liberally and beautifully illustrated, sets out the history of the art-collecting impulse in Britain from the beginning of the sixteenth century to the present. Shaping it into four densely packed, chronological sections, James Stourton and Charles Sebag-Montefiore deal, first, with “Royalty” (in other words, collecting at Court, above all the assembly and dispersal of the superb collection of King Charles I at Whitehall); “Aristocracy” (the principally eighteenth-century Whig Grand Tour and country-house phenomena which Quatremère de Quincy had in mind); “Plutocracy” (the transitional period brought about by the displacement effects of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars); and, finally, “Democracy” (which concerns the arrival of the public art museum in the early nineteenth century, its proliferation, and the gradual institutionalization, professionalization and broadening of the collecting impulse into our time).
But this is an over-simplification, for the history of collecting is really the history of individual shoppers, and, occasionally, partnerships or syndicates such as that of the coal and canal magnate the third Duke of Bridgewater, with budgets ranging from the merely large to the positively obscene, and not necessarily husbanded with corresponding degrees of wisdom. It is also the history of sweaty-palmed acquisitiveness, of rapacious greed, and also of processes of dissolution and loss – an invariably human story in which mostly anonymous crate-makers, removalists and shipping agents must figure prominently, while debt, disease, dispossession and death often interrupted grand schemes. Thus certain of Queen Christina of Sweden’s belongings, “The Death of Actaeon” by Titian (National Gallery), for example, which originated as one of the poesie commissioned by Philip II of Spain, turned by stages into a portion of Philippe-Egalité’s inheritance, and afterwards, at the Orléans sale which took place in London in 1798–9, became a golden opportunity for Sir Abraham Hume MP. The paradox of a study which seeks to isolate or make sense of a national collecting impulse is that the very objects that generations of collectors have pursued with vigour pass so easily back and forth across international boundaries, such that, especially in the seventeenth-century context, the collections of the Earl and Countess of Arundel and that of Cardinal Jules Mazarin begin to look rather similar in character, content, style of accumulation, and dispersal – indeed Mazarin competed aggressively with the Spanish ambassador to secure for himself sixteenth-century Italian paintings lately owned by Lord Arundel, with mixed success. Nevertheless, the Stuart Court, adorned not only by Charles’s ill-fated royal collection but also by those of the Duke of Buckingham, the Duke of Hamilton, the Earl of Pembroke and Lord Arundel, forms perhaps the most spectacular but short-lived episode in British connoisseurship.
“As a result of this brilliant burst of collecting, a visitor to London on the eve of the Civil War could have seen some of the finest pictures in the world all within a mile of the present National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, now home to several of these pictures. The mansions on the Strand included Suffolk House (shortly to be bought by Lord Northumberland and modernized as Northumberland House); York House (which still contained the Duke of Buckingham’s collections fifteen years after his assassination); Durham House (leased by the Bishop of Durham to the fourth Earl of Pembroke), Somerset House (which Charles I had given to Henrietta Maria); and Arundel House. Moving towards St James’s Park, St James’s Palace contained some of the King’s most magnificent pictures. On the other side of the park was Wallingford House (near the present Admiralty in Whitehall), home to the first Duke of Hamilton. Whitehall Palace, filled with great and famous pictures, stood opposite. Downstream at Blackfriars, Van Dyck’s collection of important pictures by Titian remained untouched after his death in 1641 . . . . ”
The Arundel collection of sculpture all’antica, classical Greek and Roman antiquities, books and prints, and Dutch, Flemish and Italian Old Master paintings, was formed with the aid of Lady Arundel’s Talbot (Shrewsbury) family fortune of land and minerals in the North and the considerable knowledge gained by Lord Arundel on his travels through Italy in the company of Inigo Jones, among thirty-four other servants. He met Rubens. He learned Italian. He saw Titians and Tintorettos in Venice, and Raphaels and Correggios and Carraccis in Rome. He trained himself to tell the difference between great, merely good, and terrible pictures, and he also employed agents such as the dogged William Petty, who endured extreme hardship while scouring Asia Minor for suitable acquisitions of sculpture. Only the refusal of a papal export licence prevented Lord Arundel from bringing to London the great obelisk that today stands in the middle of Bernini’s Piazza San Pietro in the Vatican.
Following the execution of Charles I, Parliament appointed commissioners to conduct what Jonathan Brown, in his Kings and Connoisseurs: Collecting art in seventeenth- century Europe (1995), has described as “the sale of the century”, and while King Philip IV of Spain and Cardinal Mazarin were among the beneficiaries of that hasty and ill-conceived process, so was Lord Northumberland. Parliament was not the late King’s sole creditor. Nevertheless, in this way great but drastically undervalued pictures such as Titian’s “Allocution of Alfonso d’Avalos” and many others were permanently removed from England, and the Stuart, Arundel, Buckingham and other collections fruitlessly dispersed.
At times these complex collecting narratives run parallel with and are even indivisible from the history of architecture in Britain, especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and it is the strong taste associations between Arundel and Inigo Jones, for example, or Lord Burlington with William Kent, or Lord Spencer with James “Athenian” Stuart, or King George III with Consul Smith, or the first Duke of Northumberland with Robert Adam, that gives this history its strongest claim to Britishness as against the distinctive and somewhat contrasting approaches taken by Louis XIV and Le Nôtre, or King Charles III of Spain and Count Floridablanca, or Catherine the Great, Botzkowsky and Diderot.
This study also traces the evolution of connoisseurship, the exercise of personal taste and judgements of quality on the gradually shifting grounds of “scientific” knowledge, which of course meant different things at different times, and developed most rapidly through the eighteenth century. It is also a history of markets, of elementary issues of supply and demand; an account of the activities of semi-professional agent-dealers, artist-agents, librarian-antiquaries, ad hoc negotiators, spies, and, at times, crooks and con artists. Joshua Reynolds, for example, was an active collector but also, at times, almost as active a dealer. In 1785, he colluded with James Byres of Tonley, the Rome-based agent who started off as Edward Gibbon’s bear-leader, to deceive the Roman authorities by substituting copies after Nicolas Poussin on the walls of the Palazzo Boccapaduli, for which export licences would certainly have been declined, the better illegally to remove the originals to England where Reynolds immediately sold one to the Duke of Rutland for £2,000. Cardinal Alessandro Albani, meanwhile, was the prefect in charge of protecting Roman antiquities and archaeological discoveries in the administration of his uncle Pope Clement XI, but enriched himself by selling many such objects to British customers from the rooms of his palazzo in the Via Salaria. He was also a well-paid double agent for the Austrians and the British (specifically in relation to the troublesome Old Pretender, with whom he was intimate). Such patterns have unfortunately persisted into our time. On a foggy winter morning in 1933, for example, the agent-general of Victoria crossed Trafalgar Square carrying a suitcase full of gold sovereigns and delivered it into the hands of a representative of the Soviet presidium in exchange for Tiepolo’s “Banquet of Cleopatra”, lately and illegally removed from the Hermitage in St Petersburg, thus snatching it from under the nose of Lord Duveen and the other trustees of the National Gallery, not 150 paces away. This was at around the time when Duveen sold privately to Mr and Mrs Benjamin Franklin Jones of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a painting which purported to be an autograph version of “The Cottage Door” by Thomas Gainsborough, but which Duveen knew was a poor copy and certainly not painted by Gainsborough. The incriminating correspondence survives in the archives of the Getty Center in Los Angeles.
The primary sources for this enormous collecting narrative consist of lists, inventories, privately published catalogues, and many other forms of documentation beginning in the seventeenth century and flourishing ever since – not always helpfully. In respect of her own user-friendly Companion to the Most Celebrated Private Galleries of Art in London (1844), Anna Jameson summed up the problem:
“I have at least endeavoured to be accurate. I say, endeavoured, for as to achieving complete accuracy, those alone can tell who have tried how difficult is the mere attempt; those alone who have tried what it is to hunt a fact, mis-stated, through a dozen volumes – to trace a name mis-spelled – to ascertain a date – to decide between opposing authorities – to compare disputed points – or, hardest of all! To knock down a charming theory or a pretty story with a dry row of figures – to take from some favourite picture its pretension to authenticity, and stick a doubt or a lie on the face of it.”
Unlike people, who these days leave a trail of telephone records, credit card information, fingerprints and so on, objects travel light, and lists – even catalogues (particularly unillustrated ones) – do not always help to identify who owned what and when, correctly. According to Horace Walpole, the fourth Lord Wharton owned “twelve whole-lengths, the two girls, six half-lengths”, all by Van Dyck, “and two more by Sir Peter Lely”, which is hardly comprehensive. From our vantage point, a further problem to that of tracking down the pictures is to ascertain if they really were what Wharton believed them to be, and to determine what has become of them since. Yesterday’s Van Dyck full-length portrait may now be regarded as a weak studio production, or vice versa.
Long periods when travel on the Continent was impossible are vitally relevant to the uniquely British aspect of this history. The War of the Austrian Succession, for example, had the effect of bringing Canaletto from Venice to London. So are brief moments such as the year following the Peace of Amiens in 1803, when many painters long confined to England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland were at last able to flock to Paris and explore the Louvre. A relatively scarce supply of paintings in England by Titian (both genuine and misidentified) helped both to nourish but also to distort the overriding and longstanding taste for his work, particularly among oil painters. Indeed, the development of “art in Britain” into that vigorous thing we now call “British art” gradually took place through the seventeenth century against the background of access (or otherwise) to such Old Masters as are here traced to mostly private hands.
“Waves” of taste or fashion are also crucial. Daniel Defoe wrote of “the Custom or Humor, as I may call it”, brought by Queen Mary II from Holland, “of furnishing houses with China-ware, which increased to strange degree afterwards, piling their China upon the Tops of Cabinets, Scrutores, and every Chymney-Piece, to the Tops of the Ceilings, and even setting up Shelves for their China-Ware, where they wanted such Places, till it became a grievance in the Expence of it, and even injurious to their families and Estates”. Similarly, phases of eighteenth-century Greek and Roman antiquarianism, George IV’s flamboyant, indeed insatiable goût français, and the fad for Spanish art which followed the Peninsular War, each had a discernible impact not only on wider collecting trends in Britain, but also on what shaped the vision of British artists themselves.
Perhaps the principal pleasure of The British as Art Collectors, however, is the intelligence and effectiveness with which a mass of contemporary illustrative material is marshalled to open a window onto cultural worlds. If at times the text is weighed down by lengthy descriptions of who owned what when, there is also a wealth of information, current and historical, in purely visual form – for example an 1884 pre-sale photograph of the huge collection of maiolica at Narford Hall, in which the overriding and essentially High Victorian requirement of density and near-perfect symmetry of display was rolled out over Andrew Fountaine’s eighteenth-century collection long after his death like an ugly carpet, so that the polyglot character of his far more lively, mid-eighteenth-century taste was all but obliterated. A picture such as Johan Zoffany’s “Sir Lawrence Dundas and his Grandson”, by contrast, not only identifies most of the sitter’s seventeenth-century Dutch landscape paintings on the walls behind him, but allows us to grasp how they were framed, grouped and hung against blue damask, and accompanied by mostly small Italian and French bronzes, the biggest of which is ingeniously made to stand before a gilded mirror. Several large volumes, modest furniture, and a splendid Turkey carpet complete this picture of effortless cultivation. James Roberts’s watercolour “portrait” of the Prince Consort’s dressing room at Osborne House shows a number of the early Italian religious pictures together with a suggestive male-and-female double nude not too far from the washstand. These were purchased on the advice of Ludwig Gruner, who as director of the Dresdner Königlichen Kupferstich-Kabinetts maintained healthy freelance agency arrangements. Meanwhile, such purely imaginative groupings as William Frederick Witherington’s “A Modern Picture Gallery” (1824) at Wimpole Hall stand as gauges not of collecting realities or achievements, but rather of usually unrealizable ambitions. There is even a black-and-white photograph of a room temporarily occupied by the sculptor Jacob Epstein, impressively stuffed with large African sculptures. All these and many other images provide valuable information about the taste of the individuals who not only inhabited each room, but also gathered and contemplated its contents.
If innumerable works of art form the building blocks of this book, time and again particular rooms and interiors constitute its mortar, from the palatial aggregations of Carlton House, Woburn Abbey, Waddesdon Manor, and John Julius Angerstein’s 100 Pall Mall, all the way down to F. R. Leyland’s Peacock Room (now in Washington, where it travelled via Detroit) and Sir Philip Sassoon’s Rex Whistler Room at Port Lympne in Kent, and, indeed, the Saatchi Gallery in its latest iteration. “Where will collecting in Britain go from here?”, the authors ask in conclusion. Wealthy individuals such as Sir Percival David, Simon Sainsbury, Anthony d’Offay, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charles Saatchi, David Khalili and Frank Cohen among others have led, and in several cases continue to lead, just as their wealthy forebears did. But it remains to be seen whether their respective achievements evolve into secure portions of the national patrimony, or else evaporate, only to return once more to an international art market in which the Russians, the Saudis and the Chinese are becoming ever more active.
Angus Trumble is Senior Curator of Paintings and Sculpture at the Yale Centre for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, and the co-editor, most recently, of Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century, which appeared earlier this year.
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