LONDON - Behind some of the exceptional artworks we sell are the patrons who had the vision, foresight (and finances) to commission these works. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Venus Verticordia for example – one of the highlights of the British and Irish Art sale on 10 December – was commissioned by William Graham, one of Rossetti’s most loyal and avid patrons. His collection of Pre-Raphaelites and Old Masters was almost unrivalled and he owned some of the most romantic and beautiful paintings Victorian England produced.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Venus Verticordia. Estimate £1,000,000–1,500,000.
The wealth that fuelled this collecting mania was created by something far more prosaic – the importation of port wine. Last week when I found myself trying to escape torrential rain in Oporto, I sought sanctuary in the cellars of a port lodge (who wouldn’t?) and chose to sample those of W & J Graham. Now owned by the Symington family, the firm was founded by the Scottish brothers William and John in 1820 almost by accident, when in settlement of a debt John Graham received 27 pipes of port wine, which were shipped back to his hometown of Glasgow.
So the Grahams began importing port wine, which augmented the brothers’ trade empire of cotton-spinning and transporting dry goods from India and Continental Europe. While William was not particularly interested in art, his younger brother John formed an important collection including Millais’ Sir Isumbras at the Ford, Holman Hunt’s Finding of the Saviour in the Temple and Rossetti’s Pandora, which we offered earlier this year and sold shortly after the sale. It was probably he who inspired his nephew, William Graham junior, to form his own picture collection in the 1860s when he was running the business affairs of W & J Graham in London.
It seems that the first Rossetti picture bought by Graham was Morning Music bought in 1866 from the picture dealers Agnew’s. Graham was introduced to Rossetti in March 1868 and wrote, “I cannot tell you what a refreshment it is to get into the atmosphere of your studio after the jaded sense of dissatisfaction which exhibitions and picture dealers’ galleries give me.” He soon became a regular Saturday afternoon visitor to Rossetti’s home on Cheyne Walk and his next purchase appears to have been Venus Verticordia bought in 1868 from which time he commissioned works directly from the artist. His collection grew to include some of the artist’s most famous works; Ecce Ancilla Domini, The Blue Bower, Dante’s Dream at the Time of the Death of Beatrice, La Ghirlandata and the pastel version of Proserpine sold at Sotheby’s for £3,274,500 last year.
Sadly I have not been able to find any photographs of the interior of Graham’s country house near Manchester or his London home on Grosvenor Square, but it must have been a sight to behold with so many wonderful and famous pictures. When I was in the dimly-lit cellars at Graham’s, surrounded by a deliciously intoxicating aroma, I was shown their oldest bottle of port wine resting on a shelf. It was dated 1868, the same year as Rossetti’s beautiful watercolour of Venus and like the painting this bottle has no doubt increased hugely in value (although it is apparently almost certainly not fit for consumption any longer).