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Paintings In Museums And Private Houses
Every collector of antiques will want to include some pictures in his collection even though paintings can be the most expensive of all items. For nothing else, not even the most splendid Louis XV commodes or Faberge jewels, will command figures of half a million dollars and more, as has been done recently with paintings in the great sale-rooms.
But the value too of paintings can fluctuate, like stocks and shares, to an astounding degree as the reputation of their painters goes up and down. A picture bought for $300 a century ago may fetch $60,000 today, and, conversely, a painting by one of the Victorians, fashionable and costly when it was done, may bring only a few dollars now.
Paintings, for this reason, attract an undesirable type of collector, the Man with Money who merely wants to make a Good Investment. The newly-rich, who thinks of Rembrandts and Raphaels exactly as he would think of rubbers and oils, is no friend to the world of antiques. Perhaps he feels that, having made a fortune in one kind of oils, he may as well try his luck in another. But he merely helps to force up prices to absurd artificial levels far beyond anything really related to the objects themselves. No picture ever painted can possibly be `worth' three quarters of a million dollars in relation to the other marvellous products of the arts which never reach near to this figure. Yet such prices are being paid, and if the present trend goes on even more preposterous sums will one day be achieved.
However, as with other `fabulously' expensive things, there is no reason for the modest collector to despond. If pictures can be the most costly of all antiques, they can also be the cheapest, and at many a sale charming paintings, to say nothing of beautiful prints, can sometimes be seen almost given away. There were some magnificently decorative gilt frames made in large quantities during the nineteenth century, and frequently if you don't care much for the picture itself it may be worth buying it cheaply for the sake of its frame, to which a better canvas can perhaps be added later.
Carved wood frames are much more sought after than those made of `composition,' such as gilded plaster. Still, there were some very attractive composition specimens, occasionally with strips of crimson velvet between a double row of mouldings, which go very reasonably at most sales. Re-gilded they can produce an effect of comfortable warmth on a wall hard to obtain otherwise. Paintings can sometimes have a value as decorative antiques independent of their artistic merit. I recently saw, at a country sale, a portrait in oils of Queen Anne which was finally knocked down to a dealer for $67. An artist of my acquaintance who was there thought the dealer was mad to buy it at all. `Look at the way her neck's painted,' he expostulated, `nobody in their senses would pay $67 for a portrait with a neck like that.' But in this case no doubt the dealer knew what he was doing. The painting was no masterpiece, certainly, but it was clearly a contemporary work (probably a copy, or even a copy of a copy.) It had a definite, slightly naive charm, and would have been very suitable for a modest collector of Queen Anne furniture who specially wanted a simple portrait of the Queen but was unable to pay a fantastic figure for one. It would have looked well in a corner, perhaps over a long case clock of the time.
If the dealer had sold it for about $90, as I believe he did, it would have satisfied the purpose for which he bought it and given much pleasure to a client who really wanted it for decorative reasons. My artist acquaintance had overlooked this in an over-strict criticism of the picture's technical qualities.
As with other antiques, pictures fall into two groups - the splendid masterpieces of the museums and great country houses, which you can enjoy without the slightest hope of ever possessing, and the more modest kind which may one day come within your collecting ken. There is no need to adopt a private and personal attitude to the collecting of paintings and a knowledge of the subject will add immeasurably to the pleasure of visiting a palace or castle, or an important city museum.
Take the English Country Houses now open to the public, for instance. They contain an unrivalled assemblage of masterpieces, particularly portraits, and will provide a basis of knowledge and appreciation hard to equal elsewhere, except in the great galleries of Europe, such as Florence and Paris. If there is an over-large proportion of family portraits in some of them, this can be easily understood. In the centuries before photography, painting was the only means whereby a `likeness' could be secured for posterity, and the `Picture Gallery' of a large house tended to become, at all events to begin with, a `Portrait Gallery.' The collecting of landscapes, still-life, and domestic scenes came later, while the vogue for historical paintings, especially in England, came later still.
Charles I had done much to stimulate an interest in contemporary portrait painters, such as Rubens and Van Dyck, though he also helped to foster a wider taste for art in general. But the seventeenth century as a whole seems to have continued to think of a collection of paintings as a collection of portraits, though there were some important exceptions. The ubiquitous Sir Peter Lely's works are to be found in great numbers scattered through English picture galleries; they compare poorly with the marvellous subtleties of the Van Dycks of an earlier generation.
It was the eighteenth century which saw the beginning of picture collecting on a really liberal scale. The first faint clarion calls of the Romantic Revival were starting to be heard in the earlier part of the century, though it did not come into its own until later on. 1764 is the usual textbook date for it, the year of the publication of Walpole's Castle of Otranto.
The landscapes of Salvator Rosa, of Claude and Poussin were beginning to find a place in English collections along with the plentiful family portraits. Increased facilities for European travel, at all events for the `quality,' made Alpine and Italian scenes popular as mementos of the `Grand Tour.'
And since Venice, in the eighteenth century, had reached its apogee as a fashionable centre for carnivals, balls, operas and other high-class social diversion, it was natural that Canaletto's exquisite and very life-like Venetian scenes should be also very popular among the travelling aristocracy.
There are some wonderful collections of Canalettos in English houses, notably the famous one at Woburn Abbey. (Woburn, incidentally, is a Mecca for all interested in painting. Holbein, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Velazquez and Gainsborough are merely a few of the artists who are memorably represented there.) These Venetian pictures would act as treasured souvenirs of a visit to Venice to an extent which we can hardly realise now when the camera, picture postcards and our own colour films can give us all the `likenesses' of a holiday centre we can possibly want for a very small cost.
But the eighteenth century did not neglect the art of portrait painting. Indeed, for many people, the latter half, the era of Gainsborough and Reynolds, was the golden age of it in England, and there are some splendid collections available for public viewing, such as the fine array at Althorp.
In the nineteenth century the range of picture collecting was enormously extended. British collections began to acquire fine examples of every school, notably Dutch and Italian paintings of the famous periods. Finally, with the collection of the Marquis of Hertford which formed the basis of the Wallace Museum, French paintings of the eighteenth century began to be revalued. They had fallen into disrepute, mainly owing to their `frivolity,' for the nineteenth century liked to think of itself as a strenuously earnest age, and so in fact it largely was.
But the wonderful elegance of the Bouchers, Watteaus and Fragonards which the Wallace Collection displays so perfectly in a setting of Louis XV cabinets and Sevres porcelain, was irresistible, even to earnest Victorians. The eighteenth century of France came back with a rush into its own and by about the end of the century had fully re-established itself as a serious field for picture collecting.
The Wallace (finally opened to the general public in 1900) is a supremely splendid collection of pictures and no one interested in the history of painting can possibly afford to miss it out on a tour of England's great galleries. In no other gallery can you rest your eyes, tired perhaps with an embarras de richesses of painting, on the cabinets and clocks of Marie Antoinette's Paris, or the ormolu candelabra and cabaret sets of the age of Madame Pompadour. But the paintings alone are a feast in themselves and the exquisite examples of Watteau, even if there were nothing else, would justify many a visit from any connoisseur.
Here is a perfect fusion of all the decorative arts into one satisfying whole. Severe critics may perhaps cavil at the thought of Painting being placed on a level with mere objets d'art like porcelain and clocks and arranged so that it takes its place as simply an element in a synthesis of the arts. But the Wallace is also a great Art Gallery in its own right. The magnificent large apartment at the rear, in which the world famous `Laughing Cavalier' hangs, is a splendid salon devoted almost entirely to painting, and here indeed pictorial art dominates the scene.
Almost every town in England of any size has its municipal collection of pictures, and if you are not able to visit London or any of the other big cities frequently your local gallery will be sure to contain something worthy of study.
A new generation of Art Gallery and Museum curators has arisen since the Second World War, and these are almost all men and women determined to raise the standards of provincial collections. They are gradually rooting out the antiquated rubbish of some of their galleries and doing their best to put really good pictures in its place. But prices are getting higher and higher, and many a Town Council, which cheerfully spends ninety thousand pounds on a new refuse incinerator or a fresh car park, will not give its Art Gallery five hundred to buy a new picture.
So, if you find much to criticise in a provincial Art Gallery, remember that the Council behind it may be niggardly in its allowance. It is quite certain its deficiencies will not, in these days, be the fault of the curator, unless he too is a survival from the `museumish' days of forty years ago.
From a consideration of the pictures you would like to own but can't we may turn briefly to examine the position with pictures you would like to own and possibly can.
It is, as always, very difficult to give general advice. As with other antiques, it depends so much on the extent to which you want to specialise. With a limited purse you cannot hope to get many good-quality paintings for a few hundred dollars, whereas you can amass quite a lot of charming porcelain and bric-a-brac for that amount.
If you merely want, however, some pleasant decorative pictures as a background to your other antiques your best plan is to concentrate on good coloured or black and white antique prints. Paintings may perhaps come your way cheaply (I got a delightful little still-life, artist unknown, charmingly gilt-framed, for 70¢ at an auction room only last year), but the chase is a difficult one. The eagleeyed dealer is always there before you; he will not let anything of possible real value get into your hands if he can help it.
Prints, however, are another story, and it is refreshingly simple (or has been so far) to get them at most types of sale. Here is a specimen of a lot which I picked up at a house sale some months ago:
Two portraits of eighteenth-century gentlemen, one dated 1729 and the other 1737, both with the legend `I. Faber fecit.' The original painters were Kneller and Vanderbank.
Three large Shakespearean scenes, one by Fuseli of the episode in Act I of King Lear where the King is dividing up his possessions among his three daughters. This is a composition of remarkable power.
The other two are a delightfully vivacious Angelica Kauffmann work -the last scene of The Two Gentlemen of Verona where the main characters are assembled in a wood, and an unsigned but very well done episode from The Comedy of Errors against a background of classical architecture. The Fuseli is dated 1792; the others appear to be of about the same period. There was also a charming little `bivouac' military print thrown in with the above. All were in perfect condition and in good-quality contemporary frames.
The six prints were knocked down at $ 1.50 the lot.
Another instance: A pair of fine quality large coloured Morland prints, `Cottagers' and `Travellers,' in excellent frames and on black and gold mounts, together with a really magnificent scene from some eighteenth-century tragedy (possibly `Pizarro') in a fine Hogarth frame. Again all three were in perfect condition, and the lot were knocked down to me at $1.40, this being also at a house sale.
On one occasion I bought three beautiful French-issued `Cries of London,' well coloured and with the cries in French, again in excellent Hogarth frames, for 5¢ each at a Parish Jumble Sale.
Two circular Regency prints, in finely modelled original frames, were rather dearer, but still only $3.15 the pair. (Anything in oval frames seems to command greater attention among buyers, and a pair of oval Morlands in good condition would probably fetch $15. They can look very graceful indeed in the right setting.)
Attractive black-and-gold mounted prints in delicate colours, with a composition of classical figures playing on musical instruments can also be sometimes found. They seem to suggest the symphonies of Beethoven, with which they were probably contemporary. Pale blues and delicate browns are the predominant colouring, and they too can be most decorative.
You can make up some very charming prints of your own if you can buy up some of those fascinating Edwardian silk and tinsel mounted photo frames, removing the photo to replace it by any small attractive print which you possess. Normally the space left for the photo is small, the decorative mount being the main feature of the ensemble.
But there is scope for great ingenuity in filling up this space. If you have no small antique prints available, British Museum or other postcards of Chinese porcelain will often fit the space so that the object depicted, a famille noire vase or a porcelain figure, is neatly framed by the ornamental mount. The result will not be valuable, but it can be very pretty.
Sporting prints are often beautifully executed and well framed. They are not to everyone's taste as they suggest rather strongly the atmosphere of a bar parlour or the den of a foxhunting squire. (`The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable' as Oscar Wilde said.) But you can sometimes see old cockfighting prints which are works of art in their way, especially those with a single handsome bird of gorgeous plumage, standing boldly up and surveying the world with a keen and beady eye. A pair of these can look very well if you are not too squeamish about the subject. But sets of sporting prints can be expensive and they attract a type of collector who often has more money than sense. Do not pay high prices for them if you merely want them for decorative effect.
It is difficult to say much about the collecting of oil paintings which may be helpful in a general way. The masterpieces are frankly unobtainable for the small collector, but, if he is prepared to spend $90 to $120 on a picture he may still get some very pleasant works. Some of the nineteenth-century artists are coming into their own again; paintings by William Shayer, for instance, are being eagerly sought after. Yet recently I saw one, quite a large canvas too, which was knocked down for only $78. It was hardly Shayer at his best, being a somewhat insipid composition of cows in a landscape. But there was no doubt about its authenticity and it seemed a very reasonable price.
Another Victorian artist whose work is worth watching for is Clarkson Stanfield. He was famous as a marine painter and won added fame later as a theatrical scene designer. He began life as a sailor and his nautical scenery is said to have never been surpassed. Small landscapes and seascapes of his are much admired today, so if you encounter any at a reasonable price you should certainly buy them.
Fine flower paintings are not easy to come by cheaply, particularly if they are well framed. For a pair of good flower paintings can be highly decorative in almost any collection of antiques and consequently will fetch a high price. They are most attractive with a display of porcelain, especially Sevres or Dresden. Flowers have a curious formal perfection of their own which makes them permanently interesting in all lights and at all seasons, and one tires of flower paintings less, I think, than of portraits or even landscapes. Portraits staring at you, year in and year out, particularly in a small house, are apt to exhaust their charm unless they are of first-class quality, and those are hard to come by.
This may be a purely personal feeling, but I have always felt that antique portraits only look their best in a fine gallery or on a splendid old staircase, whereas flower paintings, like flowers themselves, seem at home anywhere. Even landscapes are apt to look a little swamped by other antiques in a restricted area; they really need plenty of wall space and an uncluttered foreground to make their true effect.
Certainly the full length `family portraits,' especially if they are not of your own ancestors and have simply been bought up at a sale, look vaguely absurd in a small villa or flat, as well as taking up far too much of the valuable wall space. They suggest too forcibly the new-rich business man who is anxious, like Major General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance, to acquire some ancestors for a lump sum down.
Melancholy Cavaliers and Carolean beauties, in copies a long, long way `after' Van Dyck, look most inappropriate in the average suburban hall or lounge. On the other hand, some of the smaller head and shoulders portraits in oval frames can look very well in recesses or over the mantelpiece, and if you are drawn to portraits this is the type most suitable for a small house.
Another kind of `picture' which is really a special study in itself is the religious panel, painted in wood, and often in the form of a diptych or triptych. Russian panels of this type, `ikons' as they are usually termed, are often very finely executed and in carved and gilded ornamental frames. They can sometimes be bought for about $30 each, though you might have to pay much more if a Russian enthusiast is present.
More usually these panels will be Italian in origin, and some very beautiful examples come from Florence. They often have `musical angels' in dull red robes on a background of gold, playing on pipes or a kind of euphonium. The figures are winged and haloed and are within a border of blue, decorated with a delicate gold pattern, the panel terminating in a Gothic arch. Modern reproductions of these can be bought in Florence for about $6 each, but older specimens will fetch $36 apiece, or more.
As a collector of pictures you will be certain to come up, sooner or later, against the work of Angelica Kauffmann, whose paintings seem to haunt one wherever there is an antique sale. Her graceful classical compositions lent themselves well to the medium of transfers on porcelain, and the number of vases, plates, jardinieres and bowls from which her elegant ladies and heroes gaze must be enough to stretch from London to Ching-te-Chen twice over.
Her figure drawing was poor, owing, apparently, to a prudish refusal to study from nature. But her pictures were colourful, charming and easily-flowing, and the great number of Kauffmann prints that have survived testifies to her great popularity. She was an interesting character who could, it was said, have succeeded as an opera or concert singer if she had not taken up painting. She lived in London for many years and did some work on the interior of St Paul's. Picture collecting is a lifetime's pursuit in itself. And though perhaps enough has been said to show some of its possibilities for the small collector, it is not really so suitable for him, nor on the whole so rewarding, as the collecting of other antiques. The chances of a Rembrandt stored in an attic are virtually nil, whereas a piece of Chelsea or Bow, or `A Trifle From Lowestoft' may always come your way. So may a fine French clock.
On balance, picture collecting is best left to the expert, and even he may make some expensive mistakes. If, however, you really wish to make a good collection of interesting paintings and would like this to be a major feature of your antiques sanctum, it would be best to make friends with a reliable picture dealer (not a general antiques dealer), and buy regularly from him. It will probably save a lot of misspent money and give, in the end, far more real satisfaction.