“Fine Portraits are what I particularly desire to have ”
GEORGE, 2ND EARL OF WARWICK writing to Sir William Hamilton in Italy in 1779
The portraits and subject paintings offered here have both a distinguished history and fascinating pedigree. The vast majority were acquired by George Greville, 2nd Earl of Warwick, an avid collector who made it his life’s work to adorn the family seat, Warwick Castle. The family had acquired the castle in 1604 from James I and after the vicissitudes of the Civil War it had fallen to Robert Greville, 4th Lord Brooke, to transform the principal rooms in the 1670s. Further improvements were carried out by Francis Greville, 1st Earl of Warwick, aided by his wife, Elizabeth Hamilton, during the third quarter of the 18th Century. She was the daughter of Lord Archibald Hamilton, himself a considerable collector, and sister of Sir William Hamilton, British Envoy in Naples. The latter’s exceptional interest in works of art was to have a considerable bearing on the taste of his nephew, the 2nd Earl. The charming portrait by Hoare of Bath included in the Day sale shows the young Elizabeth with her brother, William.
The 1st Earl died in 1773 and his eldest son George entered into his inheritance. In terms of the paintings at the castle, we fortunately know what these consisted of as the antiquarian Thomas Pennant visited in 1776 and left a list of the pictures amongst his papers (Warwickshire Record Office CR 2017/TP10). At that time, Canaletto’s famous views of the castle and its grounds were kept in the family’s London house. At Warwick, the pictures were family portraits including the famous image of Lord Rochester “crowning his monkey with laurel for finding a mislaid paper", and a collection of Italian paintings attributed to Bassano, del Sarto, Leonardo, Manfredi, Marratta, Mola, and Palma. There was also a single Rembrandt of a Girl at a Window which Pennant noted was “gayer than his usual manner”. What is so revealing about the taste of the 2nd Earl is that none of the latter paintings were to remain in the collection after the dramatic transformation that he undertook.
He inherited in his mid 20’s after an extensive education, Eton followed by both Edinburgh and Oxford Universities. He made the Grand Tour in 1776/7 and on his return to England became a Member of Parliament, Fellow of the Royal Society, and Fellow of the Society of Antiquarians. He married in 1771, Georgina, the only daughter of Lord Selsey and the following year saw the birth of their son. Then a double tragedy struck, in the death of both wife and his father and it does not seem that he turned his energies to the castle and its collection until after his second marriage to Henrietta Vernon in 1776. In A Narrative of the peculiar case of the late Earl of Warwick from his Lordship’s own manuscript (London 1816), he writes engagingly that it happened “that a most valuable coal mine was discovered by Mr. Vancover on my Warwick Estates” which enabled them to improve the interior of the castle:
“…the floors, the windows, the ceilings, the chimney pieces, the wainscots, the furniture were all put in by me, they are the most beautiful in the Kingdom…The marbles are unequalled, perhaps in the whole Kingdom…I collected a matchless collection of pictures by Van Dyck, Rubens, etc.”
The last sentence is something of an understatement. When an inventory was taken in 1806, by which time the Earl was on the verge of bankruptcy, he owned thirty-one paintings by or attributed to Van Dyck and twelve by Rubens.
In his search for the most choice works, he engaged his uncle, Sir William Hamilton. Writing to him in August 1779, he said:
“I’m going on by degrees to furnish all the Rooms….It is an expensive work and must be done with care…Fine Portraits are what I particularly desire to have and some very fine ones I now have but not enough, should you see any well-painted agreeable, head or half lengths in old dresses, I should be much obliged to you to purchase them for me.”
It is clear that Hamilton, who visited his nephew at the castle in 1779, was instrumental in certain acquisitions – not least the famous vase that bears the Earl’s name. In the Narrative he noted “I built a noble green house and filled it with beautiful plants. I placed in it a vase considered the finest remains of Grecian art extant for size and beauty.” It is likely that Hamilton’s advice may lie behind the fine 16th Century Italian portrait offered here (Lot 40).
By 1806, the Earl’s collecting days were largely over, but not before he had succeeded in making one of the significant collections of Old Master and British Paintings in Britain at that time. Threatened with bankruptcy an inventory was taken of his possessions which were fortunately deemed to be entailed. This document (Warwickshire Record Office CR 1886/464) gives a very good account of the magnificence of the castle’s state rooms. The walls were crowded with Italian and Flemish paintings interspersed with both family and historical portraits. The richly carved tables with their marble tops groaned with classical marbles, bronzes, silver gilt, rock crystal, Limoges enamels, lava vases of Etruscan shape, and other works of art. The 2nd Earl had succeeded in transforming the rather modest collection of his ancestors into one that vied with Beckford’s at Fonthill Abbey. Sufficient was its fame that it warranted a visit by Britain’s most knowledgeable (and profligate) collector; readers of the Morning Chronicle, as they sat at their breakfast on 9th September 1806, would read that “His Royal Highness (The Prince Regent) went through all the apartments (at the castle) and viewed, en virtuoso, the valuable collection of pictures which had been, from time to time, placed in the noble residence, the whole arrangement of which is perfect in character with the sublime antiquity of the structure”.
The Royal Visit heralded many others and by 1815, the local historian, William Field, published An Historical and Descriptive Account of Warwick…. which provided the many visitors with descriptions of what they would see. His account includes the majority of paintings offered here. The descriptions are fulsome:
“Cedar Drawing Room. This is a handsome apartment measuring 45 feet by 25. The mirrors are splendid, and the art of the furniture, antique and curious. The marble in the central part of the chimney piece is extremely beautiful, of a kind unknown: and is said by some to be the only specimen in England. Above the mantle a Portrait of Sir Edward Wortley Montague, an Englishman in Turkish dress”.
later 2nd Earl of Warwick (1746-1816), aged 8
This is followed by about thirty lines extolling this exceptional portrait. Further guide books followed (all of which are mentioned in the literature below) extolling what Daisy, Countess of Warwick, describes as the work of “the great virtuoso of the house” (The Countess of Warwick, Warwick Castle and Earls from Saxon Time to the Present Day, 1903). Amongst the visitors were connoisseurs and dealers. William Carey, as late as 1815, was still trying to persuade Lord Warwick to buy another Rubens (Warwickshire Record Office CR 1887 Box 723/81) and Samuel Woodburn, who visited in 1832, made his own assessment of the pictures (CR 1887 Box 783/12). This makes fascinating reading. He started by simply writing down a list of the paintings on the left hand-page and then added his comments on the right. In the 1st Drawing Room, he noted “Gondomar – not Gondomar but a true Van Dyck – a Fleming I think” and “Boy with Book – Sir Joshua Reynolds – Very fine”.
The survival of the collection was in part due to entail but also due to the enthusiasm for art shown by the Earl’s eldest son. It is noteworthy that the 3rd Earl and his wife travelled extensively in Italy in the 1820’s and his surviving sketch books demonstrate this admiration as they visited Bologna, Milan, Florence, Rome and Naples and more unusually, towns in Germany and Poland. The survival of the collection was once again threatened by the disastrous fire that took hold of the castle on the night of 3rd December 1871. Again, it was the press that provides the story. The Times, the following day, relived the whole horror but it was able to reassure its readers that the vast doors connecting the Great Hall to the State Rooms were kept tightly shut, acting as a fire barrier so that “the pictures by Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Ruben were borne carefully to a place of safety”. After the extensive restoration of the building that followed, the paintings were again hung in the State Rooms remaining there for another century –initially forming the backdrop to the golden age of Edwardian splendour under the 5th Earl and his wife, Daisy, who Burke’s Peerage nicely described as “one of Edward VII’s best known mistresses”.