Wednesday, June 23, 2010

How I Would Spend £18 Million

J.M.W. Turner's Modern Rome: Campo Vaccino (1839), to be sold by Sotheby's in London on July 7.


Overview of the sale at

Sotheby's exquisite sale catalogue [PDF]

Update via The New York Times...

LONDON, July 8 — A world record was set for Turner on Wednesday night when a landscape, "Modern Rome. Campo Vaccino," was sold for £29.72 million, or $45 million. The large canvas, 90.2 by 122 centimeters (35 by 48 inches), was acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles bidding through Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, the London dealers specializing in Old Masters and 19th century painting.

The panoramic view was done by the English painter from memory, without paying much attention to the many precise sketches that he had done in the course of his various trips to Rome. It is an impressionistic evocation of the city bathed in a golden sunset haze touched with salmon pink, and some liberties are taken with topography.

Very few Turners of this size and caliber remain in private hands — five or six at the most, according to David Moore-Gwyn, Sotheby’s distinguished expert in British painting. This one was acquired directly from the artist when it was included in the Royal Academy show of 1839. The buyer, Hugh A.J. Munro of Novar, was a close friend of the artist and the executor of his estate who oversaw the vast bequests made by his late friend to the National Gallery, which together with the Tate Gallery holds the largest collection of Turners in the world. “Modern Rome. Campo Vaccino” remained in Munro’s family until April 6, 1878, when his collection was dispersed at Christie’s London. It was then bought by Archibald, the fifth earl of Rosebery, and his wife Hannah (née Rothschild), for 4,450 guineas, a huge price at the time. The landscape remained in the hands of their descendants until a family trust consigned it this year to Sotheby’s.

The historical background of the picture, preserved unlined in its plaster gilt and glazed frame, played its part in the enormous interest aroused.

The price is in line with the previous record set when another large painting, a Venetian view of "Giudecca, la Donna della Salute and San Giorgio" appeared at Christie’s New York on April 6, 2006, where it fetched $35.85 million.

The likelihood of another Turner of remotely comparable importance coming up at auction in the near future is slim. While Wednesday’s picture cannot really compare with the greatest Turners in which the visible world is reduced to luminous impressions, now in the two London museums, a few professionals seemed disappointed that it had not gone for even more.

Awareness of a unique opportunity regarding the work of the greatest British painter of all times and of the urgency of acting there and then was evidently a factor in the wise decision of the Los Angeles museum’s board of trustees to go all out, despite the current mood favoring austerity and financial restraint.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Notes on Faraday Lectures Come to Light

The notes, bound in one volume, were compiled by Maria Herries, daughter of the politician and financier John Charles Herries, and cover many of Faraday’s lectures from the mid 1830s to 1850. Also included are letters to Maria Herries from Faraday’s close friend, The Reverend John Barlow, who took over the running of the Royal Institution from Faraday in 1843 and who, with him, introduced reforms to admit women members and ensure them equal access to lectures.

Next to nothing is known about Maria Herries, although women such as the popular-science writer Jane Marcet, whom Faraday called his "first instructress" (DNB bio here, Wiki bio here) and the painter Harriet Moore (Wiki bio here) played important roles in the shaping of Faraday's thought and legacy.

In one letter included in the Herries material, Barlow writes of his excitement at Faraday’s announcement of his discovery that all substances are magnetic. “Wonderful as was his discovery about light,” he says, “this seems still more surprising and comprehensive in what it leads to.” 

Faraday (1791-1867; DNB bio here, Wiki bio here) was one of the key figures of the Victorian era and, indeed, one of the most influential scientists in history. His discoveries laid the foundations of the field theory of electromagnetism and much of modern science. A modest man – he refused a knighthood and turned down the honor of burial in Westminster Abbey – Faraday was also a man of strong principle who declined to participate in the development of chemical weapons for use in the Crimean War. Passionate about education, he established the Royal Institution's Christmas Lectures for children and the Friday Evening Discourses for members – two series that continue to this day.

Shown above: Michael Faraday delivers a Christmas Lecture at the Royal Institution, c. 1855, with Prince Albert and his eldest son, Albert Edward (later King Edward VII), in attendance.

Further reading...

James Hamilton, A Life of Discovery: Michael Faraday, Giant of the Scientific Revolution (Random House, 2002)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Victorian Things: Galleon Tile Panel by William De Morgan

Galleon Tile Panel
William De Morgan (1839 - 1917)
Medium: painted earthenware tiles in oak frame
Dimensions: 60.5 x 153 cm
Created: De Morgan's Sands End Pottery in Fulham, London

Consisting of 40 handpainted six-inch-square tiles backed by unglazed stoneware tiles, this gorgeous panel depicts a colorful and exotic scene of sailing ships, birds, and cavorting sea creatures in a tropical setting [click on it for a larger version]. It was one of twelve designs created by William De Morgan (DNB bio here; Wiki bio here) between 1882 and 1900 for the luxury liners of the Peninsular and Oriental (P&O) Steam Navigation Company. Although all of the installed panels have been lost, four duplicate sets are known to survive, including this one, which was acquired in 2006 by the De Morgan Foundation in London from a private American collection. (The others are held by the Southwark Art Collection.)

The galleon panel, comprising what De Morgan called "two flank panels [of 20 tiles each] -- crusaders in wessels [sic] on the sea," was most likely designed for the SS Malta. Look closely at the ships' pennants. De Morgan has slapped on some ersatz heraldry: in addition to symbols associated with the Christian crusaders, he also uses (on the ship at right) the star and crescent, that potent symbol of the Christians' enemy, the Ottomans.

The De Morgan Foundation's website, which is in the process of being updated, offers some additional information about the panel here.

From 2002 until last year the foundation's collection of more than 1,000 ceramic pieces and 500 paintings and drawings was exhibited at the De Morgan Centre in southwest London. The centre closed to the public when the foundation lost its lease in a library operated by the Wandsworth Borough Council. A new venue for the collection, which is truly one of the nation's cultural treasures, is being sought.

Monday, June 14, 2010

In the Footsteps of Leighton and Carlyle

I admit it: I'm a house museum junkie. (I'm guessing you are, too.) Visiting the homes of the individuals I'm researching never fails to give me a frisson of pleasure at the thought that I'm walking where they walked (more or less) and seeing what they saw (more or less). They often provide intimate insights into past lives that are impossible to gain any other way. In the words of the biographer Richard Holmes, writing in Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1985), such places provide an essential reversal of perspective: instead of looking in from the outside, you are quite literally looking outward from within a allows the historian to recapture time by "turning the viewpoint inside out, if only for a moment." For more on the various delights of house museums, see this article by Tony Perrottet at 

The two house museums below -- the first an artist's spectacular palazzo in the middle of bustling London and the second a modest family home in a tiny Scottish village -- are not to be missed.

Even before its recent £1.6 million ($2.4 million) restoration was completed, Leighton House, the Holland Park home of the painter Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896), was a magical place to visit.

Designed by George Aitchison and built in several stages between 1865 and 1895, the house included private living quarters, an expansive working studio, and glamorous reception rooms that became the hub of Victorian artistic life in the last three decades of the nineteenth century. Its centerpiece is the gorgeous Arab Hall, built to accommodate Leighton's priceless collection of Islamic tiles. The meticulous 
restoration, undertaken by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which owns the house, involved extensive repairs to the original fabric of the building as well as the redecoration of the main rooms. There's no substitute for visiting this stunning temple of art in person but you can enjoy several of its glories -- including the Arab Hall, Narcissus Hall, and Leighton's studio -- by way of a cleverly designed interactive online tourRead more: The Guardian (26 May 2010); The Guardian (17 April 2010); The Telegraph (5 April 2010).

The Arched House in Ecclefechan, Scotland, in which the writer and historian Thomas Carlyle was born on 4 December 1795, reopened its doors to the public earlier this month. “Thomas Carlyle is one of Scotland’s greatest men and his birthplace provides an insight into the times he inhabited as well as his life," says Richard Clarkson of the National Trust for Scotland, which manages the house.

Built in 1791 by Carlyle's father and uncle (both of whom were master masons), the simple two-story, whitewashed house (shown above) is currently furnished to reflect domestic life in the early nineteenth century and contains a fascinating collection of portraits and some of Carlyle's personal belongings. It owes its name to the large keyed arch that divides the house in two and leads to a courtyard and garden. Carlyle reportedly was born in a small room directly above the arch. He lived in this house until he was 13, when he left to study at the University of Edinburgh.
Carlyle's grave is located in the nearby Ecclefechan churchyard. When he was buried there next to his parents in 1881, the village had fewer than 800 residents, approximately the same number it has today. Ecclefechan is located off the M74 about five-and-a-half miles southeast of Lockerbie. (You can also visit Carlyle's London house, which is decidedly more upscale than his humble birthplace; its peaceful walled garden is one of my favorite spots in the entire city. Another Carlyle home, Craigenputtock, located just 30 miles by road from Ecclefechan, is open to the public by appointment. Carlyle lived there with his wife, Jane Welsh Carlyle, from 1828 to 1834, when the couple moved to London. It remained a cherished retreat for the rest of Carlyle's life.) 

Do you have a favorite house museum? Please share in the comments.


Speaking of Lawrence Alma Tadema (see "Victorian Masterpieces at Auction" below), his original autograph stock book, found earlier this year nestled in a box of discarded 1960s girlie magazines, was sold in May for £25,000 at the Shropshire auctioneers Mullock's in Ludlow.

The morocco-bound ledger is an inventory of the paintings completed by Alma Tadema between 1851 and 1912 and those completed by his wife, Laura, between 1872 and 1909. It was uncovered by a vendor at a clearance auction in the London area earlier this year.

“The man who spotted it rang me up and asked me for my opinion as to whether he should bid for it,” says Mullock's historical documents specialist Richard Westwood-Brookes. "I told him immediately that what he had discovered was a true art historical treasure and he should try to get it at any price. In the end he paid just a few pounds for the whole carton, and then the underbidder asked him if he would sell him the magazines – which I gather he did.

“Alma-Tadema has listed everything he ever painted and everything which has been attributed to his wife, so this is a definitive record of what is and what isn't an original painting by him," says Westwood-Brookes. "Of particular interest are the copious notes which he wrote about both sets of paintings – and also the indication that some of them were overpainted, altered, and given different titles. There are also details on where paintings were exhibited and who the original customers were.”

The book also contains a number of original poems written by Alma Tadema, each assigned to specific pictures.

At the Mullock's sale on May 27, the ledger attracted international interest from private, trade, and institutional bidders, but sold to an anonymous buyer.

Shown here : Lawrence Alma Tadema and Laura Alma Tadema.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Victorian Masterpieces at Auction


Works by some of the most important British painters of the nineteenth century will be auctioned at Christie's later this week, including Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema's Under the Roof of Blue Ionian Weather (1901) (shown above), which is expected to fetch at least £1,000,000. [Note: it sold to a private buyer in Europe for £1,026,850 / $1,516,657 --KT]

The market for Victorian paintings and drawings has been on fire for the last several months, and the sale on Wednesday, comprising 108 lots, is expected to realize approximately £6 million. The star lots include, besides Alma Tadema's masterpiece, Chloe (1893) by Sir Edward John Poynter (estimate: £600,000-800,000) and The Sea Maiden (1894) by Herbert James Draper (estimate: £800,000-1,200,000). Works by John Ruskin, Frederic, Lord Leighton; Edward Burne-Jones; Edward Lear; George Frederic Watts; J. W. Waterhouse; John Lavery; John Everett Millais; and Laura Knight will also be sold.

Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema (DNB bio here, Wiki bio here), one of the great exponents of High Victorian classicism, worked on Under the Roof of Blue Ionian Weather for more than two years as a commission for the financier Ernest Cassel. The title is adapted from Shelley’s "Letter to Maria Gisborne." The painting bathes the viewer in glorious sunshine, the generous sweep of marble benches with reclining sitters against an azure sea and sky suggesting infinite beauty and tranquility. It received extensive critical acclaim when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1901.

Poynter's Chloe (above) was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1893, three years before the artist's appointment as president of the Royal Academy (Poynter's DNB bio here; Wiki bio here). The rich tapestry of colors and textures in this highly decorative work is enhanced by the graceful elegance of the sitter and the presence of music in the form of pipes, a lyre, and a small bird. [Note: this painting was unsold -- KT.]

Draper's The Sea Maiden (above) was the artist's first popular success when it was shown at the Royal Academy in 1894 (Draper's Wiki bio here). Studies for the background were made in the Isles of Scilly and in Devon, where Draper joined a fishing trawler at sea to observe the nets being hauled in; afterward he made a model of the boat to examine the way it caught the light. This work belongs to the genre of mermaid subjects that figures so prominently in Victorian art, including Sir Edward Burne-Jones’s The Depths of the Sea (1886) and J. W. Waterhouse’s The Siren (1900). Unusually, Draper’s sea maiden has no fishtail, an artistic decision guided by the authority of Swinburne's tragedy Chastelard (1865). [Note: This painting sold to a private buyer in the United States for £937,250 / $1,384,318 -- KT]

Read the auction results press release here.

Kevin Bacon and the Pre-Raphaelites

The literary magazine Lapham's Quarterly has an interesting take on the "Six Degrees of Separation" idea, which posits that everyone in the world is connected to everyone else in the world by a chain of no more than six acquaintances.

One popular version of this idea is
a game in which players link any living actor -- through his or her roles in films or commercials -- to the American actor Kevin Bacon within six steps. By expanding the number of connections to accommodate historical figures, the editors of the magazine have managed to show that a host of eminent Victorians are connected to Mr. Bacon, whose movies include Footloose, Flatliners, A Few Good Men, Apollo 13, Mystic River, and The Woodsman.

The social flowchart “
Friends, Lovers, and Family” (shown at left, click for a larger version) is a color-coded web revealing the surprising connections between 70 art-world personalities, including writers, painters, architects, and actors. The Bacon connection to the Victorians goes roughly as follows: Kevin Bacon > Edmund Bacon (Kevin's father, a noted urban planner) > Buckminster Fuller > Margaret Fuller > Ralph Waldo Emerson > Walt Whitman > George MacDonald (1824-1905), the influential Scottish author (DNB bio here; Wiki bio here). From MacDonald, Bacon's links to the Victorian great and good expand exponentially to include John Ruskin, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (and through Millais and Rossetti to the other Pre-Raphaelites and their circle), William Morris, Ford Madox Brown, Lewis Carroll, and Elizabeth Siddal, among others.

Through his father, Bacon is separated by just four degrees from Thomas Carlyle and Leigh Hunt. Even Queen Victoria can be linked to the star of Animal House (through her son Prince Leopold, a lover of Alice Liddell and godfather of her second son; it was Alice Liddell who inspired Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland).
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