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Purchase Story

Letter from London, May 2017

Ian McKay | April 26th, 2017

Ian McKay, <[email protected]>

High-priced pictures by Titian, Klimt, Sisley, and even Atkinson Grimshaw feature in this month’s selection, and are joined in the six-, seven-, and even eight-figure world by a couple of erotically charged sculptures.

Also on offer are rather more prosaic and largely more modestly priced pieces of early furnishings, a beadwork box, simple lighting devices, old shoes, a warming pan, nutcrackers, even a coffee mill and more that were conveniently gathered under one roof as an “Oak Interior” sale.

Photographs of Old Father Thames and a couple of old seats removed from a famous aeroplane also add to the mix.


One Man in a Photographic Punt

With a camera that employed a lens capable of swinging round to scan progressive sections of the view he wanted to capture, and using a darkroom-equipped punt that can be seen in the foreground of the view of the River Thames at Windsor reproduced directly below, Victor Prout spent five years photographing views along that famous waterway.

Forty such panoramas, mounted on card with printed captions, were eventually published as The Thames from London to Oxford in Forty Photographs and a rare, complete example of the 1862 first edition of that work was sold for $20,065 at Bonhams on March 1.

The albumen prints, made from wet-plate collodion negatives, were loose as issued in the publisher’s now soiled but original morocco-backed cloth portfolio.

Two other photographs reproduced here show the weir and lock at Marlow and Magdalen College in Oxford, with the Botanical Gardens and the tower of the college, but if you have time on your hands and would like to see more views, there is a very interesting website address you might like to copy down.

Shown at top, The Thames at Windsor; middle, The Weir and Lock at Marlow; bottom, Magdalen College in Oxford and the Botanical Gardens.

Go to (www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4267248/How-little-Thames-changed-160-years.html), where you will find many more of Prout’s photographs, cleverly linked to specially commissioned colour versions of the locations as they look today.


Erotic Art, Passion and Desire--Or, Sex Sells

A little further there was a very pretty marble signed by Loysel, a true Paros of white frost and delicious grain: a naked woman thrown over [on?] her back and twisting in a tired stretch of limbs, her lips half open and her eyelids half closed, waiting for the impossible, for this work is called La Grande Névrose.”


Jacques Loysel’s La Grande Névrose sold at Sotheby’s for $2.33 million.

This was the critic Jean Lorrain’s description of a white marble figure, just over 36½" long, that he encountered on a visit to the Paris Salon in 1896 and which is seen, front and back, in the accompanying illustrations at right.

Regarded as the sculptor Jacques Loysel’s finest creation, it was exhibited several times over the next few years but was never sold, remaining in the sculptor’s studio until his death in 1925 and subsequently passing down through the family until being offered in London earlier this year, on February 16.

Lorrain’s description of La Grande Névrose, said Sotheby’s, “…successfully sums up the fascinating ambiguity of Jacques Loysel’s masterpiece, oscillating between carnal ecstasy and painful exaltation” and the saleroom’s lengthy catalogue notes on this “Great Neurosis” delve deeply into its inspiration and meaning.

Readers who wish to delve with the cataloguer into “a paroxysmal state of mental turmoil,” into 19th-century attitudes to nervous hysteria, and more, may do so at (www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2017/erotic-passion-desire-l17322/lot.7.html), but the fact that the sculpture was part of a sale called “Erotic: Passion & Desire” seems to me to be the true key to what proved to be stunning success. And the fact that the sale of this and other items in the auction was greeted on the Sotheby’s website with the words “Sex sells…” and references to bidders being “left hot under the collar” says far more, I think.

Loysel’s marble masterpiece was estimated at around $150,000/225,000 but ended up selling at a far higher sum—$2,332,130.


The tragic fate of Ophelia has been depicted by many artists—most famously by the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais—but sold for $385,310 at Sotheby’s on February 16 was the actress Sarah Bernhardt’s marble realisation of her watery end.

My second selection from the 107-lot “Erotic” sale is the Ophelia marble seen at left, which is the work of someone whose talents as a sculptor, or sculptress if you prefer, are well known, but who is far more usually referred to as one of the greatest actresses of all time, Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923). Born in Paris to a courtesan and an unknown father, Bernhardt found unprecedented fame as an actress across Europe and beyond and even starred in early silent films.

Deeply sensuous in form and conception, this Ophelia, said Sotheby’s, also testifies to Bernhardt’s fascination with the morbid eroticism that surrounds Shakespeare’s heroine, but despite being the most famous actress of her day, Sarah Bernhardt had never performed the role of Ophelia at the time her marble was conceived. It was only in 1886 that she first appeared as Ophelia in a production of Hamlet, but her obsession with death—she even slept in a coffin at times—had already led to a lasting fascination with the tragic heroine.

Modelled in 1880, the relief accompanied Bern-hardt on her first tour of North America before being shown at the Paris Salon in the following year. It is thought to exist in a handful of versions in marble but the example seen at Sotheby’s is an important rediscovery.

The only other version whose location is now recorded is one that “The Divine Sarah” gave to the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen and which remains on display in the theatre foyer.

One other example was exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, so it is possible, I suppose, that it may still be in America.

A high-relief work, measuring 27½" x 23¼", it shows Ophelia in bust form, her head turned, her eyes closed, wearing a garland of flowers and enveloped by water which merges with her tresses. “Though seemingly depicted in the moment of her death,” said the cataloguer, her “...sensuous open-mouthed expression, overt nudity, and languid pose exude an undeniable eroticism. Unaware of her suffering, the heroine appears to embrace her death as an ecstatic consummation.”

This was another item sent to London for auction from France—which must really annoy French auction houses—but in this case it came not from Paris but from a private collection in Normandy. It sold for a five to six times estimate sum of $385,310.


Klimt's Blooms Dazzle, but Sisley's Snowy Street Is My Favourite

One really big money sale of recent times in London was the evening sale of Impressionist and Modern pictures held by Sotheby’s on March 1, which raised some $219 million in all. That in itself was a record for the saleroom and in Gustav Klimt’s Bauerngarten, which sold for $59,230,600, they set a record for one of the artist’s landscapes.

The Klimt picture, a flower-strewn canvas regarded as one of his finest landscapes, was painted in 1907 in the garden of the Mayr-Hof at Litzlberg on Lake Attersee—a favourite destination for the artist, who in the early years of the 20th century had taken to getting out of Vienna with his wife and family to relax and to paint.


Gustav Klimt’s Bauerngarten sold for $59,230,600.

My personal selection from this mega-sale, however, is a more conventional winter landscape, or townscape, by one of my favourite artists—and one who until May 21 is the subject of a special exhibition at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut. There, some 50 works from private collections and museums in Europe and North America have been assembled for an exhibition called Alfred Sisley (1839-1899): Impressionist Master. Curated by MaryAnne Stevens, the exhibition has been organised in collaboration with the Hôtel de Caumont Centre d’Art of Aix-en-Provence in France, where it will run from June 10 until October 15, but the Connecticut premiere will be its only venue in the U.S.A.


Alfred Sisley’s Effet de Neige à Louveciennes sold for $9,085,920.

One picture that will not be on show in Greenwich, but which the organisers are still hoping might be seen when the exhibition moves to Aix—where I hope to see the show—is Effet de Neige à Louveciennes, the picture seen here.

Signed and dated [18]74, this 21¼" x 25 5/8" oil was sold for $9,085,920 in the Sotheby’s sale and, as the cataloguer notes, it is a picture that reflects the artist’s fascination with the depiction of the unique quality of light in snow-covered settings.

Following the 1870 siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, Sisley decided to move with his family to the village of Louveciennes on the river Seine, some 20 or so miles west of the capital, before later moving to the neighbouring town of Marly-le-Roy.

During his time there, the Sotheby’s cataloguer notes, “Sisley painted a number of scenes of the village and its winding streets. He was particularly fascinated by the beauty of the Seine valley, and took delight in painting this new environment, trying to capture the effects of season, weather and time of day on the countryside, and experimenting with the effects of light and colour. The unique properties of light on a clear winter day, reflected off the particles of encrusted snow, presented temporal and tonal challenges that appealed to Sisley’s most profound sensibilities as a landscape painter.”

Previously believed to depict a landscape at Argenteuil, the location has since been identified by Richard Shone, author of a 1979 book on Sisley, as a path to the side of the Route de la Princesse in Louveciennes, not far from Sisley’s home.

Frances Fowle, in an Italian exhibition catalogue, wrote about the present work in such a splendid and clear documentary manner that I have quoted it here at some length, as indeed did the Sotheby’s cataloguer.

“This is one of Sisley’s most effective snow scenes, conveying the crisp atmosphere and sharp contrasts of light and shade on a sunny winter’s day.

“…At Marly, Sisley often painted from the comfort of an upstairs room, but in this picture he has clearly placed his easel en plein-air. The paint is applied with sharp, stabbing brushstrokes. Streaks of pale yellow and blue animate the sunlit areas of snow, while cooler greys, greens and lilacs create the deep wedge of shadow that dominates the foreground.

“Three figures dressed in the same pale blue and lilac hues recede into the distance along a diagonal path, but our attention is drawn to the figure in the woollen bobble hat, who is brought to life with the minimum of strokes. Hands thrust deeply into pockets, cheeks aglow, he stumps through the snow along the sunlit path.

“The light captures the gable end of a distant house and the tips of the wicket fence, enclosing a market garden on the left; but the major part of the composition is given over to the intensely blue sky and the broad expanse of snow. Bold touches of black pepper its uneven surface, indicating a temporary thaw before evening brings a heavy frost.”

The first recorded owner was a Rouen-based industrialist and collector, François Depeaux, who between 1880 and his death 40 years later, amassed an impressive collection of hundreds of Impressionist and post-Impressionist works, and one 1906 auction of his pictures contained this and no fewer than 45 other Sisleys.

Effet de Neige à Louveciennes was purchased in that sale by Depeaux’s brother-in-law, Edmond Décap, and it remained in his family until 1929. For the past two decades it has been in another private European collection.

The picture featured in two exhibitions in the early 1930s but was not again seen in public until 1998 and 1999, when it was included in the Impressionists in Winter: Effets de Neige exhibition that toured in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and New York City.


Fly Concorde Again--In the Comfort of Your Own Home

Something a little different in the seating line for the aviation enthusiast. These two leather seats once whizzed back and forth across the Atlantic on Concorde, but their jet-set careers came to an end when, following the Paris crash of 2000, that beautiful machine was permanently grounded.

In a Christie’s South Kensington “Interiors” sale of January 11, however, this pair of seats found a new home at $6835.


The Nutcracker Suite--In Five Crushing Movements

Among the many smaller items to be found in the Bonhams “Oak Interior” sale of March 15—a sale that figures prominently in this month’s selection—were the six old nutcrackers pictured here.


Carved with the face of a wide-eyed man, this 6" high example is a lever-action boxwood nutcracker that is dated to the 17th century and is of either English or French origin. It sold for $7930.


Sold at $8385 was this finely patinated example of early 18th-century northern European origin and of similar size. Again a lever-action boxwood nutcracker, it is scratch-carved with the date 1730 and modelled as a man with his hands at his waist.

There is, however, some disagreement in old nutcracker circles as to that date. When Owen Evan-Thomas described and illustrated this piece in a 1973 book called Domestic Utensils of Wood, he read the date as 1780. It is more likely, however, said the Bonhams cataloguer, that the date reads 1730, citing a nutcracker “…probably made by the same hand, showing a woman holding open her womb to reveal a child, and which may well have been a companion to this nutcracker.”

That one was part of the collection of Jonathan Levi and was sold for $3655 by Christie’s South Kensington in a “Treen for the Table” sale of November 2006, when it was described as “probably circa 1700.”

The male figure offered in the recent Bonhams sale was last seen at auction at South Kensington in 1995, when it was part of Owen Evan-Thomas’ own collection.


The large 18th-century fruitwood table nutcracker with lever action, 12¼" high, is of North European origin and modelled as a bearded man with bared teeth of bone, wearing a cap and with his hands holding a shield at his waist. The lever is formed as the head of a dog and a scroll-ended acanthus leaf, while the man is raised on a waisted, acanthus-wrapped baluster on a spreading circular and square socle.

It sold at $5335.


This rare parcel-gilt and polychrome decorated lever-action softwood nutcracker is of the 18th century or earlier and probably German. Modelled as a soldier wearing a plumed hat and armour, the figure has a parcel-gilt collar with masks at the shoulders, a pleated red skirt, and black boots. He stands on a rounded triangular moulded base and is 9" high.

It is related, say Bonhams, to another example sold by Christie’s South Kensington in September 2010. Both nutcrackers have the same wide faces, rectangular lever opening action incorporating their lower jaws and voids between the figure’s crooked elbows.

The Bonhams example made $6405 and the Christie’s example, which was described as a figure of a Turk and dated to the 17th century, sold at $1945.


Sold for $10,675 at Bonhams was a lot offering two brass screw-action nutcrackers. On the left, just under 2" high, is a late 17th-/early 18th-century example, of either English or Dutch origin and dated to circa 1700, the thumbpiece pierced with a heart and engraved with lobes and lines. At its base is a seal matrix or print of a spray of flowers.

On the right, just over 3" high, is a rare Charles II period nutcracker with a thumbpiece in the form of an arched crown. The underside of the base plate is engraved “Ruth Gifford / 1676” and Bonhams note that nutcrackers are traditionally thought to have been given as love tokens to mark an engagement or marriage.


An "Oak Interior" Is More than Just Tables and Chairs

Running to some 350 or more lots, a Bonhams sale of March 15 called “The Oak Interior” certainly contained a great many items of furniture, but it was a wide-ranging one and the eight items that I have selected to feature here also include kitchen equipment, candlesticks, and even a pair of shoes.

Four other items from the Knightsbridge sale feature in a separate story in this month’s “Letter” called “The Nutcracker Suite.”

In his scholarly work on Oak Furniture: The British Tradition (first published in 1979), Victor Chinnery illustrates several examples of boarded glass cases and notes that “cheap and coarsely-made drinking glasses were fairly plentiful even in middle class homes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but owing to their fragile nature some special system of storing them was a necessity. The answer,” Chinnery explains, “was a lightly-built case of shelves, known as a glass case, glass perch or glass cupboard which first made an appearance toward the end of the sixteenth century. These were sometimes provided with doors in the same manner as a food cupboard, but the usual seventeenth century version has open shelves.”

Described as a rare Charles II period boarded oak mural glass case of circa 1660, the 24½" wide example in the Bonhams sale (A) has a triangular pediment fronted with stylised leaf-carved and punched-decorated applied edge mouldings and two shelves, each enclosed within a twin arcade with central stiff-leaf carved support. The upper arcade is carved with stiff-leaves, the lower with a simple linear and punched-decorated design. Also stamped with ownership initials “DT” to each boarded side, it sold at $25,920.


A: Charles II period glass case, $25,920.

The most expensive thing in the Bonhams sale was something even earlier, a fine Charles I period joined oak six-leg refectory table (B), dated to circa 1640. Raised on six inverted baluster-turned legs joined by run-moulded stretchers, it is a little over 10' long.


B: Charles I period oak refectory table, $60,990.

It has a three-plank and end-cleated top and the front and side frieze rails are linear-carved with scrolling flora and with spiral and scroll-carved spandrels, while the rear frieze rail features simple run-moulding and plain spandrels. Chinnery, in the abovementioned study of oak furniture, suggests that tables with one plain frieze were intended for use against a fixed wall bench or with seats placed against a wall.

Once in the Cyril Bradshaw collection at Little Wolford Manor in Warwickshire, it was in 1957 given as a somewhat unusual 21st birthday present to John Fardon—from whose own collection it sold at Sotheby’s in April 2013 for $67,780. This time out, rather quickly it has to be said, and at a time the exchange rates are very different, it sold at $60,990.

Possibly made in the English county of Somerset, 1600-10, a joined oak and polychrome-decorated coffer (C) was sold for $24,395. It has a two-plank hinged lid and three slightly recessed panels to the front. Each end panel is set within a guilloché-carved arcade decorated with plants—that to the left with a pomegranate, rose, acorns and possibly a hop flower, and that to the right with orchid-type flowers and strawberry-shaped leaves. The central panel is carved with a large single carnation and scrolling tendrils.


C: Early 17th-century oak coffer, $24,395.

Just 12½" wide and worked mainly in blue, green, brown, and white beads, the lid of a Charles II beadwork box of circa 1660 (D1 & D2) depicts a gentleman standing alongside a young woman who is seated beneath a tree and playing a lute. A palace or other grand house is visible in the distance.


D1 & D2: Charles II period beadwork box, and cover detail, $19,820.

The front panel features a lion and unicorn, while the side panels are decorated with insects, birds, animals, trees and flowers and the whole is bound in silver thread braid.

The pink silk- and paper-lined interior has compartments for bottles (two of which are present—though it was not stated whether they are contemporary) and sliding divisions reveal hidden drawers and a tray lined with mirrored glass.

Purchased in 1978 from Trevor Micklem Antiques in Devon for what at today’s exchange rates would be $2320, it this time brought $19,820. (A comparable box, from the Irvin and Anita Schorsch collection, was sold by Sotheby’s New York in January 2016 for $15,000.)

An 18th-century boxwood apple corer or cheese scoop (E), 5½" long, could be of either English or Welsh origin. Of somewhat curious construction, it has as a handle a sort of open lantern, decorated and carved with the initials “HB,” that contains a free moving ball. It sold at $425.


E: 18th-century apple corer or cheese scoop, $425.

An early 18th-century fruitwood, brass, and steel coffee mill (F) is French and dates to circa 1710. With a finely wrought steel crank, it has a hopper fitted with a hinged cover and a collar pierced with fleur-de-lis motifs. The body of the mill is inlaid to the top with more brass fleur-de-lis motifs between brass string scrolls and to the lower section it has pierced and engraved steel walls. There is a turned steel handle on the front of the coffee drawer. It sold at $3810.


F: 18th-century French coffee mill, $3810.

Tradition has it that a pair of English ladies’ shoes of circa 1700 (G) belonged to a member of the Aylesbury family of Packwood in Warwickshire, perhaps Mary Wilson, who married a Thomas Aylesbury in 1692.


G: Pair of ladies’ shoes, circa 1700, $4575.

The Packwood Aylesburys were related to Frances Aylesbury, who married Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon and Lord Chancellor, and whose daughter, Anne, married the future King James II of England. Quite a stretch in genealogical and association terms—but it adds a little colour to the tale.

The shoes themselves remain vividly coloured and brought $4575.

A 32" high pair of 16th-century polychrome-decorated gilt gesso pricket figures (H) of Italian, probably Tuscan or Umbrian, origin are modelled as angels on bended knees, wearing flowing, belted robes and each holding a pricket candlestick. They sold at $24,395.


H: Pair of Italian pricket candlesticks, $24,395.

Though it will not be possible to see as much in this small-scale reproduction, this Charles I period brass warming pan with a wrought-iron handle (I), dated to circa 1635, is centred by the figure of “Nobody,” bearing a sword and a shield, and wearing oversize hose—surrounded by the legend “WHO BVRND YE BED NOBODE.”


I: Nobody’s warming pan, $1830.

Several warming pans bearing a version of this curious legend are recorded and the figure of “Nobody,” the auctioneers explain, has been for centuries a conveniently invisible character on whom mishaps and misdemeanours can be blamed.

They cite a 1507 broadsheet that begins with the line “Nobody is my name, I bear everybody’s blame” but suggest that this particular image derives from the first, anonymous publication in 1606 of a play called Nobody and Somebody. It apparently includes a woodcut of the character wearing a pair of breeches that envelop him to his neck, so that he appears to be all legs and literally “no body.”

The warming pan sold for $1830.

There were large numbers of rushnip or rushlight holders in the Bonhams sale—a cheap and once commonplace form of lighting in which rush-pith, dipped in tallow, was burned to provide a weak but inexpensive light source.

Seen here, however, is a pair of steel, brass and fruitwood examples (J) that combine the simple rushnips with candleholders. Thought to date from around 1800 and to hail from my neighbouring county of Sussex, the pair sold at $8385.


J: Pair of rushnips-cum-candleholders, $8385.

An extremely rare Charles II period boxwood and horn lidded snuffbox (K), dated 1661, sold for $9150. The carved boxwood top and base are fixed to the box’s horn sides with tiny brass nails. The lid is centred by the date and around it are found the words “THE YEARE OF OUR LORD GOD,” while the sides bear the legend “LET THE FREE MAN COME FILL BUT LET THE / CLOSE MAN STAND STILL BUY AS WEL AS I.” The base is centred by the date 1610 and engraved “FRANCIS CLARKE HIS AGE IULY 8.”


K: Boxwood and horn snuffbox, $9150.

Parish records show that a boy named Francis, the son of John Clarke, was baptised in Othery in Somerset on the 8th of July in that year, along with his brother, and the parish registers also record the marriage of John Clarke to Joane in 1596.

Finally, there is the James I period joined oak “adolescents’ chair” of a type known as a caqueteuse (L), from a French word meaning to cackle or chatter. The 39½" high chair was catalogued as likely to have been made in Salisbury (Wiltshire), 1610-20, and to be “in the manner of the acclaimed Humphrey Beckham workshop.”


L: Caqueteuse or child’s chair, $10,675.

Formerly in the Robert Spencer collection and a chair illustrated and discussed in Tobias Jellinek’s Early British Chairs and Seats 1500 to 1700 (2009), it is also comparable with another caqueteuse armchair attributed to Humphrey Beckham’s workshop that is now in the collection at Hall’s Croft, Stratford-Upon-Avon, Warwickshire. The latter is another of three pieces illustrated in Victor Chinnery’s Oak Furniture: The British Tradition.

Beckham, born in 1588, together with other members of his family, had a considerable influence on the work of joiners and carvers in the Salisbury area at the beginning of the 17th century.

The chair sold for $10,675.


Grimmy's "Summer Phantasy" Is Much Loved Scarborough Fare

Autumn leaves on suburban avenues, moonlit vistas, damp docksides—these are the sort of subjects that come first to mind where the paintings of John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893) are concerned, but every now and again something different pops up* and Sand, Sea and Sky: A Summer Phantasy, the picture seen here, is certainly in that category.


Atkinson Grimshaw’s Sand, Sea and Sky: A Summer Phantasy was sold by Sotheby’s for $348,445 and, above it, a detail showing the family group mentioned in my report.

Signed and dated [18]92, so completed just a year or less before he died, it is almost certainly set on the sands of the very fashionable Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough that he so loved. An oil on paper work, laid on canvas and measuring 12" x 18", it was sold for a double estimate $348,445 at Sotheby’s on December 15 last year.

The catalogue notes reveal that it was bought by the consignor’s father from Richard Green, who in a catalogue issued in 1990 for an Atkinson Grimshaw exhibition held in conjunction with fellow dealer and Victorian picture specialist Christopher Wood wrote the following:

“The cool, pearly light, and the small figures are reminiscent of Boudin; the tonality is reminiscent of Whistler; and yet Grimshaw has created here something uniquely personal and uniquely original. Who would have guessed that the painter of moonlight, and grimy Docks, could paint like this? Like all great artists Grimshaw never ceases to surprise.”

For a few years, Atkinson Grimshaw had rented a house (named “The Castle by the Sea” after Longfellow’s poem) from Thomas Jarvis, a local brewer who was a patron as well as his landlord, and the resort remained very important to him thereafter.

By the 1870s, it was not unusual for large numbers of visitors to spend weekends, bank-holidays or longer vacations at such resorts as Scarborough, Brighton (Sussex), or Ramsgate (Kent)—something made increasingly possible by the expansion of the railways, which in time also opened up to the working-class day-trippers what had once been the preserve of the middle classes.

“It was also an opportunity,” said the Sotheby’s cataloguer, “to be seen and admired, to observe and be observed and the clothes worn by the adults that now seem so incongruous to us demonstrate that for the nineteenth century visitor to the seaside it was important to be seen in your finest clothes whether comfortable or not.”

“The minute detail demonstrates a level of technical skill that is exceptional,” said the Sotheby’s cataloguer, “with each grouping of figures given characterisation and individuality. In the foreground on the right is a young family, the daughter holding the hand of her mother whilst her father holds binoculars to his eyes to look out to sea. The elegance of the family is reflected in the woman’s fashionable hat and parasol and the gentleman’s blue and black striped blazer.”

This unusual picture may also have benefitted from its exposure in the Atkinson Grimshaw: Painter of Moonlight exhibition held in the years 2011 and 2012 at both the Mercer Art Gallery in Harrogate (Yorkshire) and London’s Guildhall Art Gallery.

* In the October 2015 issue of M.A.D., in a piece headlined “‘Grimmy’ in the Lamplight, Moonlight and a Golden Autumn Glow,” three of the pictures illustrated showed off those familiar themes, but the fourth was Starboard Light, another example of the artist’s later works sold at Christie’s South Kensington.

At the time, the auctioneers drew attention to the influence on Atkinson Grimshaw’s work of his friend and neighbour James McNeill Whistler, who is said to have once remarked, “I considered myself the inventor of nocturnes until I saw Grimmy’s moonlight pictures.” Perhaps more relevant in this context is the fact that, as noted in that same report, Dead Calm - on the Mersey, another of these simple works of his last days, had made $493,765 in a December 2014 sale held by Christie’s.


Is the Insect Waving at Us?

 Offered in a March 14 “Home & Interiors” auction at Bonhams was this Victorian silver-gilt and porcelain vinaigrette and scent bottle with somewhat unusual decoration.

A little over 4¼" long and produced by Sampson Mordan of London in 1871, it is modelled as a horn—the mouthpiece unscrewing to reveal the scent compartment and the lid hinging open to reveal the grille.

It was the decoration, which includes bamboo and insects—perhaps suggesting some Oriental influence—that caught my eye. The detail shows, next to the kite registration mark, an insect which seems to be waving at the viewer.

It sold at $2280.


The Titian Boys--Who Are They, and Who Painted Them? 


The double portrait of two boys by Titian (and studio assistants?) was sold for $2.66 million by Sotheby’s.

Sold at $1.75 million, a rare painted wooden cover made for one of the official accounts books kept by the Siena city authorities from the 15th century onwards was one of the items I featured in the March “Letter” but another of the star turns in that same, December 7, 2016, Sotheby’s sale of old master pictures was something that, on the face of it, was rather more conventional.

However, as well as being one of the more expensive of the artist’s works seen at auction, the exceptional early Renaissance portrait of two boys by Titian and his studio that sold for $2,664,030 was also a rarity in being both one of the first of very few double portraits known in Renaissance painting and in its representation of children rather than adults.

The identification of the boys has long been the subject of debate. A strong case for their being Girolamo and Francesco, the sons of Benedetto Francesco Giuseppe Pesaro, has been made in the past, but that is not firmly proven, and a recent hypothesis, said Sotheby’s, proposes that the boys may in fact be someone else’s twin sons.

Both boys are in a musical mode. The one on the left grasps the neck of a lute, while his companion (brother?), whose instrument may be the recorder, rests his hand on an open part-book for chamber music.

The notation on that part-book is too indistinct for the composition to be identified, but a second, unopened volume is inscribed to its vellum cover with the letters “TF,” for Titianus fecit. More on that below.

Comparison with the very few other Titian portraits of children has led to this work being dated to the early 1540s, as does the style of the boys’ fur-lined gowns, worn over red doublets with openings fastened by paired gold rosettes. Their hairstyles—cut short and brushed forward—are also of the period, it seems.

The painting was acquired for one of the consignor’s forebears in Venice in 1828 but the first clear, rather than implied, reference to the painting appears only a few decades earlier, in a 1797 inventory drawn up at the time of the fall of the Venetian Republic, when many art collections were being dispersed.

In that inventory of paintings at the Ca’ Pesaro palazzo at San Stae, the main Venetian residence of the illustrious Pesaro family, a double portrait of the boys is listed among the 80 works (of a total of 331) hanging in one of two camera de’ quadri, and it was that which led to the original identification.

The 1828 purchase had been arranged by James Irvine (1759–1831), a picture dealer who was in northern Italy at the time, searching out pictures that Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo could hang at Fettercairn, his newly rebuilt house in Kincardineshire, Scotland. Having paid what would today be about $230 for the picture, Irvine wrote to Sir William to advise him of its purchase, but his client never got to see it. He died that very year, but this and other works were inherited by his granddaughter, Lady Clinton, and have been at Fettercairn ever since.

It has more recently come to be argued, and widely accepted, that while Titian may have painted the heads of the boys from life, the somewhat less accomplished remainder of the picture was left to one or more of his studio assistants.

Claims that it might not in fact be by Titian at all, but by one of those assistants, Girolamo Denti, or by another artist altogether, Lambert Sustris, have not so far found much support.


Originally published in the May 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest

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