"The transfer of paintings and sculptures from Italian altarpieces or Spanish palaces or Greek soil to the country houses of Great Britain is one of the more remarkable episodes in the history of European taste – and economic relationships."
T he British have always been among the most passionate collectors of art and have over the centuries amassed some of the world’s greatest private collections. Largely as result of Britain’s unique historical circumstances, many of these remain intact to this day, and it is still possible for important works of art to come completely fresh to the market today having remained in the same family – and even in the same house – for centuries. For the collector, such a history is of the greatest importance, for it guarantees that the work of art is of impeccable pedigree, and crucially, that as a result of having hung untouched for so long, its condition will be as close to original as possible.
Four paintings in the December sale of Old Master Paintings provide extraordinary examples of this process in action, whereby an underlying mixture of wealth, ambition and marriage, good fortune and distinguished connoisseurship combine to create a startlingly brilliant and unbroken history for each that is peculiarly British. Though all four come from different sources, remarkably two of them belonged in the eighteenth century to the same man: Peniston Lamb, 1st Viscount Melbourne (1745–1828).
The first, an outstanding Portrait of Philip, 2nd Earl of Chesterfield painted around 1660 by the great Restoration painter Sir Peter Lely, he had inherited from his mother and hung in the family’s Derbyshire seat, Melbourne Hall. The other is David Teniers the Younger’s vast masterpiece of the Wine Harvest, painted around 1645, which Melbourne bought himself in 1770 for the dining room in his newly built country seat at Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire. It is one of the largest and finest works of its type anywhere in the world.
Though their lines of descent differed following the marriage of Lord Melbourne’s daughter Emily, both paintings now come to the market, the Teniers after two hundred and fifty years and the Lely an astonishing three hundred and sixty years of unbroken family descent. Both canvases have subsequently been preserved in outstanding original condition, allowing us to admire their original brushwork and glazes intact.
Lord Melbourne acquired his Teniers for Brocket Hall at a time in the eighteenth century when many great collections such as those at Chatsworth, Holkham or Corsham, were being moved from, or formed in addition to those in London. The great country houses and town mansions became the undisturbed deposit for the accumulating tastes of successive generations, often of very considerable distinction. In this sale, the early masterpiece by Jacob van Ruisdael, the greatest of all Dutch seventeenth-century landscape painters, is a perfect illustration of how the passion for collecting passed on down the generations in Britain.
Painted around 1650, this beautiful painting has hung at Narford Hall in Norfolk for nearly two hundred years. Narford was the seat of Sir Andrew Fountaine (1676–1743), one of the earliest and most important British ‘Grand Tour’ collectors in the 18th century, and the Ruisdael was brought there in the 1830s by his successor Andrew Fountaine IV (1808–1873), who succeeded not only in skilfully enlarging his famous inheritance but complementing it with fresh works of art, including no less than four landscapes by the great Dutch master.
Both the Narford Ruisdael and the Brocket Hall Teniers before it are outstanding examples of the enduring British taste for Dutch and Flemish paintings of the first order during the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries.
The fourth painting in the sale to benefit from a spectacular unbroken history is the elegant Portrait of Thomas Orde, 1st Baron Bolton (1746–1807) by the supreme Italian portraitist of the eighteenth century, Pompeo Batoni. It was painted in Rome in 1773, when the young Orde was undertaking his Grand Tour, a hugely important journey for a young British aristocrat at that date and very often the basis for many a significant life of patronage and collecting.
This fine likeness has passed by direct descent to its present owners, an unbroken history of just under 250 years. As with all the other paintings in this distinguished group, this is the first time in its known history that it has been offered for sale at auction. Such a convergence is rare indeed, and the appearance of not just one but four works of such quality and pedigree in the same sale provides an exciting opportunity for the modern collector.