Food for Thought is a series in which tastemakers from different fields consider their knowledge in relation to Old Masters, asking how they might offer a fresh perspective in the way one engages with the art of the past.
After a year and a half of dashed travel plans, I recently found myself looking for last minute flights to Le Marche, the central region of Italy where I spent many summer holidays during my teens and student years. Memories of hot days by Lago di Fiastra, firework displays to celebrate Ferragosto, and long car journeys to hilltop towns and their medieval churches, seemed like just the tonic for a grey and wet English summer. An essential part of every visit were those trips to the architectural and artistic highlights of the local area – Lorenzo Lotto in Loreto, Raphael in Urbino and Pietro da Rimini in Tolentino – initially as an unwilling teenager and then as an eager student.
I remember one trip in particular, sitting in the back of the hire car as we wound our way through the foothills of the Apennines to Ascoli Piceno. Entering the Cattedrale di Sant’Emidio, I was steered into the Cappella del Sacramento. I looked up at the looming figures of Carlo Crivelli’s altarpiece, the long fingers of ancient-looking saints, the solemn expression of the Madonna, and the elaborate gold frame glinting spectacularly in the light. Unlike many of his paintings that had been extracted from their original locations, this magnificent example of Crivelli’s work has never moved an inch. While other altarpieces were dismembered, rearranged and sent abroad (the National Gallery’s Demidoff altarpiece from the church of San Domenico in Ascoli Piceno to take one example), it has always been possible to view this polyptych in its intended location.
This year’s trip to Le Marche never happened but as I recently walked through the Medieval and Renaissance galleries at the V&A and cast my eye upon another of Crivelli’s works, a small devotional painting of the Madonna and Child, I started to think about the journey it had been on. Likely exported from Italy before 1864, it ended up in the hands of John Jones, the British businessman who bequeathed his impressive art collection to the V&A, or South Kensington Museum as it was then called, in 1882. During the 19th century, Crivelli, for many years a relatively neglected artist, regained popularity, swept up in the wave of interest in early Italian painting. Its current home in such a distinctly 19th-century museum, is a fitting place to think about this important moment in British art history and the journeys of so many Italian paintings at that time.
Throughout the V&A, the influence of Italy on British art, design and collecting looms large. Walking up the stairs to the National Art Library, several designs for a series of mosaics known as the ‘Kensington Valhalla’, depict titans of Italian art – Titian, Giotto, Primaticcio, Ghiberti, Mantegna. Perhaps inspired by the Casa Taverna in Milan and the processional friezes in the church of Sant’Apollinaire Nuova in Ravenna, this decorative project that once lined the walls of the South Court, offers a window into artistic tastes and interests during the 19th century. The revered masters of the past included within the Valhalla comprised ancient Greek, British, German, French and Flemish artists but it was Italians working between the 13th and 16th centuries that dominated the scheme and reflected the primary collecting ambitions of the museum’s early curators. While the National Gallery became the main repository of Italian easel painting under the aegis of Charles Eastlake, the South Kensington Museum acquired preeminent examples of painted furniture, frescoes including The Nativity by Perugino (celebrated by John Ruskin as ‘the finest thing of his I’ve ever seen out of Italy’), choice early Italian masterpieces not only by Crivelli but by Botticelli too, as well as the Raphael Cartoons lent to the museum from the Royal Collection in memory of Prince Albert.
While Raphael had long been celebrated as one of the greatest artists in European history, his predecessors, the so-called ‘primitives’, gained popularity from the middle of the 19th century. This change was brought about by artists, art writers, collectors, museums, and in no small part, the art trade. The colourful history of Botticelli’s Portrait of a Lady known as Smeralda Bandinelli (c.1470-80) clearly demonstrates the rediscovery of this now celebrated artist and the various hands his portrait passed through. Originally part of the renowned Pourtalès Collection, it was later sold by the dealer Colnaghi at Christie’s in 1867 and acquired by the controversial and flamboyant dealer Charles Augustus Howell (before he was discovered with his throat slit and a coin in his mouth near a pub in London’s Chelsea) on behalf of the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Rossetti is alleged to have restored the painting before selling it to his friend and patron, the Anglo-German stockbroker, Constantine Alexander Ionides in 1880, a transaction he gleefully described to his friend, Jane Morris: ‘I have turned dealer! … The idea of selling pictures you don’t have to paint is certainly a very great one.’ The painting came to the South Kensington Museum in 1901 as part of the Ionides bequest where, as the exhibition, Botticelli Reimagined (2016) showed, the artist’s work has continued to inspire generations of artists and designers.
As the ownership history of the Smeralda portrait shows, the progressive rediscovery of artists like Botticelli, permeated all aspects of the Victorian art world. Networks developed and friendships between collectors, curators, writers and dealers prompted the formation of groups like the Fine Arts Club in 1856. Having been founded by the South Kensington museum’s first chief curator, J.C. Robinson, the group often met there. This was a forum for gentlemen to view and discuss one another’s collections and in doing so, develop a shared method of criticism. Alongside Robinson and the museum’s first director Henry Cole, the group was made up of many influential members including proponents of early Italian art such as John Ruskin, Ludwig Grüner (artistic advisor to Prince Albert) and George Scharf. Groups like this sat alongside the practice of important collectors opening their houses to members of the public. John Rushout, 2nd Baron Northwick was noted for his generosity in providing access to Thirlestaine House in Cheltenham. He amassed a vast and varied collection that eventually exceed 1400 objects and was an early collector of quattrocento masters owning paintings by Botticelli, Francesco Francia, and Fra Angelico. Northwick was keen to share his collections and in addition to opening his house to the public he was also a major lender to the 1857 Art Treasures exhibition in Manchester, which displayed an astounding array of art in private collections with Italian painting receiving the greatest prominence. When Northwick died in 1859 without having made a will, his collection was sold at auction and was eagerly acquired by some of the leading collectors of the day as well as the National Gallery. This was one of numerous sales of important private collections that took place during the latter half of the 19th century and contributed to the circulation of early Italian painting that was becoming increasingly popular.
One beneficiary of these sales was the banker Robert ‘Robin’ Benson. Along with his wife Evelyn whose father, Robert Holdford, had been a prominent art collector, they accumulated 114 early Italian paintings. The bulk purchase of Benson’s collection by Duveen in 1927 was to have a lasting impact on the collections of museums that we know so well today. The financial might of American collectors in the early 20th century saw much of the Benson collection rehomed in the US, eventually making its way into museums nationwide. The National Gallery of Art, for example, holds a number of paintings once in the Benson collection including works by Duccio, Bellini, Giorgione and Dosso Dossi, with further Benson paintings found at The Metropolitan Museum, the Norton Simon, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Frick Collection.
As museums reopen and travel becomes easier, we are now being reunited with these great paintings whether shown alongside comparable works in a museum context, hanging in historic private collections or housed in their original locations. Perhaps, our lengthy enforced absence will prompt us, as curators, to view these masters with fresh eyes and, as a result, find new insights.❖