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Collecting Pictures And Paintings
( Originally Published 1913 )
Some day some collector with a turn for writing may give us a history of collecting, and meantime it is almost a duty to jot down memoranda on the subject, for historians build with bricks and mortar procured by others, as a rule.
I have printed some material of the kind concerning English porcelain and earthenware, in "The Wander Years" and "The A B C About Collecting"; but who will search out the history of picture collecting in such a way as has been thoroughly done concerning the collecting of old books? It should be a delightful piece of work for a collector with leisure; for, to speak frankly, the mere getting a collection together, irrespective of research and the accumulation of lore, cannot commend itself to the intelligence. A magpie is a kind of a collector, of things that glisten, and a dog is a hoarder, of bones. If we do not note, read, and cogitate about our treasures we miss the intellectual part of our hobby.
To Picture Collectors. The eager picker-up of old pictures, for instance-does he know when the canvases he seeks for came to England, and why? The Times of September 1st, 1846, contained the news that "a vessel has arrived in London from Leghorn with a cargo of paintings by ancient masters." In the year 1845 the Customs return showed that the number of pictures imported into the United Kingdom was 14,091. Count was kept in those days, because of the dues-a shilling a picture, Plus one shilling per square foot up to £10. At that rate, a million old pictures must have been brought in here during the nineteenth century alone ; where are they all to-day ?And it began long before then. We travel and admire the galleries on the Continent, but they all either are or were the property of kings and Popes; our National Gallery did not begin like that. When, early in the sixteenth century, pictures ceased to be church ornaments mainly, and became articles of commerce, how many collectors and galleries for them were there abroad? Except those belonging to kings, Popes, and sovereign princes such as the Medici and the Gonzagas, practically none.
The Start, and the Fashion. In point of fact, the earliest non-royal great collector was an Englishman, Lord Arundel (1586-1646), of whom the Arundel Society prints commemorate the name. The current Duke of Buckingham emulated him, and Lely got together "many Titians and twenty-six Van Dycks," together with "drawings, of divers finishings, which had been the heart of great designs." Fine private collections of such drawings - the material of pictures began to be made, also. What had been taste with Arundel, show with Buckingham, and art-study with Lely, began to be fashion with Englishmen of rank and wealth. Sending pictures home to England became the part of every travelling milord.The collecting was not always done with taste and discrimination, of course, and that is why rather bad old pictures swarm in this country today; I say rather bad, because those that remain loose abroad are worse. English taste deserved some of the gibes at it. There is a story of an English nobleman who employed a local dauber to put periwigs on the heads of his ancestors portrayed by Van Dyck! But English taste was then the best taste in Europe, and I am not sure that it is not so still.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century really fine old pictures began to crowd in here. The French Revolution, Napoleon's conquests in Italy, the wars of the Empire, and then the Peninsular campaigns, caused the dispersion of foreign royal and princely galleries. The pictures which had belonged to the Regent of France came here to be sold. Napoleon's Army Commissioners sold loot of the kind to English bankers and British Consuls in Italy and Germany, who bought them for patrons and customers at home. And even Napoleon's vendetta with us could not stop the export; amazing the number of canvases and panels shipped to England even during the height of the war.
The Hertford Taste. Then, when peace came, milords went travelling about impoverished countries, buying pictures by the score for a song. The contemporary Marquis of Hertford posted through Italy, from town to town-imagine his hauls at remote places like Bergamo and Brescia-with f fourgons full of pictures and bric-d-brac lumbering behind. It was thus the Wallace Collection began. But the Hertfords were connoisseurs indeed; many other purchasers were incompetent judges. Rubbish came over to England by the shipload, and that is why there are so many small, poor old foreign pictures in this country today.
The Copyists. After a while the travelling Englishmen with money formed a fashion of ordering copies of the great gallery pictures which they liked but could not buy. Then there were also the earlier, contemporary copies, done by pupils or friends of a great artist, and often now supposed to be the work of that artist him self. This made confusion worse confounded, but it is one reason why you may still pick up a really fine old picture now and then for a small sum. I confess I like those contemporary copies. "I am not the rose, but I have lived near it," such pictures seem to say.