London Eye: December 2011
LONDON – Ever since Velasquez’s compelling portrait of his Moorish servant and studio assistant Juan de Pareja set a new benchmark for post-war prices at Christie’s in 1970, when it sold for £2.3 million, (the equivalent of around £27 million in today’s money), the name Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velasquez has enjoyed a particular resonance in trade circles. Whenever polls are taken, the Spanish master is said to be consistently cited as the greatest painter by museum curators, dealers, critics and art historians.
Thus it was not surprising that all eyes were on Bonhams’ Bond Street salerooms on Dec, 7 when a portrait of an unidentified gentleman came under the hammer with a firm attribution to Velasquez.
The painting arrived at Bonhams’ Oxford saleroom in August 2010 among a consignment of works from the studio of the little-known 19th century British artist, Matthew Shepperson. Its quality was quickly recognised, however, and Bonhams’ London experts were alerted. A combination of connoisseurial pondering, art historical research and technical analysis were finally sufficient to arrive at a firm attribution to Velasquez and it came under the hammer with an estimate of £2 million to £3 million.
A good deal was riding on the outcome. Would the market offer an economic endorsement of the picture’s authenticity, or would it be treated with indifference? In the event Portrait of a Gentleman reached its estimate, selling for £2,953,250 ($4.5 million) including the buyer’s premium. This might be deemed a satisfactory outcome given that its subject is still to be identified, but it may yet turn out to be a bargain if it is indeed an autograph work by Velasquez and its sitter can be identified. Might it reappear at the TEFAF fair in Maastricht in March with a different price tag?
Bonhams have had an excellent final quarter across a number of departments. Not only did they enjoy the top price of London’s annual capital-wide Asian art event when £9,001,250 ($13.9 million) was offered on Nov. 10 for a Qianlong mark and period famille rose turquoise ground vase (which we reported in our last London Eye in November); they also secured the top price of the recent London sales of Russian art when a biblical subject by the Russian painter Vasilii Polenov (1844-1927) — He That is Without Sin, dated 1908
—realized £4,073,250 ($6.3 million) on Nov. 30, more than double the upper estimate and a world record for the artist at auction. Neither Sotheby’s nor Christie’s could get even close to that figure at their equivalent offerings of Russian art.
Away from the salerooms, there are a number of interesting exhibitions on the immediate horizon.
Even the most casual glance at the self-portrait by the peripatetic British painter George Chinnery (1774-1852)
will be enough to alert one to the idiosyncratic personality of the artist who is now the subject of a long-overdue exhibition on view at Asia House in London until Jan. 21. The pouting insouciance of the sitter gives little clue to the hard times he was to encounter when his luck eventually ran out while plying his trade around India and the China coast during the last 50 years of his life.
A student contemporary of Turner at the Royal Academy Schools, Chinnery’s curiosity about the exotic Orient took him to Calcutta, Canton, Macau—and all points in between it would seem. Unlike many British artists infected with wanderlust at that time, Chinnery did not return home but stayed in Asia, consolidating his status as a well-traveled India-hand, executing portraits for wealthy European travelers and indigenous merchants.
Eventually, however, the outgoings of his lavish lifestyle exceeded his income, forcing him to flee his creditors by dissolving into the ex-patriate community in Macau, Hong Kong and elsewhere. He died and was buried on the China coast.
The Asia House exhibition, titled “The Flamboyant Mr Chinnery (1774-1852): An English Artist in India and China,” sponsored by HSBC Bank, is the first devoted to Chinnery’s work since the Arts Council show of 1957.
Today, Palermo is arguably more familiar to most people not only as the capital of Sicily but as the birthplace of the Mafia. Happily this sinister aspect of Palermo’s past is now being overshadowed by more positive historical discoveries. Dulwich Picture Gallery in South East London — Britain’s oldest public gallery — has succeeded in reassembling a group of 16 paintings by the great Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), all of which were executed during the artist’s size-month visit to Palermo between 1624 and 1625.
The most significant pictures painted during that brief sojourn include images of the city’s patron saint, Rosalia, a Sicilian hermit of the Middle Ages. Shortly after van Dyck’s arrival, Palermo was gripped by a plague which decimated the population. At around the same time, Rosalia’s bones were discovered in a cave on Mount Pellegrino and soon after were carried in a procession through the city, at which point the pestilence is said to have miraculously ceased. Rosalia was promptly proclaimed Palermo’s patron saint.
The Dulwich exhibition, curated by Dr. Xavier Salomon from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, briefly reunites the van Dyck canvases that are now dispersed in museums around the world. It includes typical van Dyck portraits of illustrious patrons such as Emanuele Filiberto, the Viceroy of Savoy,
as well as a Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness
and a striking airborne image of St. Rosalia interceding on behalf of the plague-stricken citizens of Palermo.
The exhibition offers further confirmation, if any were needed, of the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s renowned facility at stimulating interest in hitherto neglected aspects of Old Master painting.
Few of Van Dyck’s Italian contemporaries could have foreseen the extraordinary direction Italian art would take in the 350 years after his visit to Sicily in the 1620s. Had van Dyck been invited to paint the procession of Saint Rosalia’s bones, it is a fair bet it would have born no resemblance to the Procession of the Dead Christ painted in 1946 by the Italian artist Alberto Burri (1915-1995). Burri’s thickly impastoed expressionist composition
is to be included in a new exhibition of the artist’s works at the Estorick Collection in Islington, north London from Jan. 13 and continuing until April 8.
Burri is generally associated with the Arte Povera movement in postwar Italian art, which celebrated the use of impoverished materials. This exhibition illustrates Burri’s influential contribution to the contemporary art of the 1960s and includes a number of works that reveal how even the humblest materials were lent surprising elegance in the hands of Burri and his contemporaries.
Finally, a brief foray into the distant wilds of the British provinces — or Ilkley in West Yorkshire to be precise. The Ilkley auctioneers, Hartleys, are among a number of north of England firms who occasionally turn up the unmistakably naive paintings by the Liverpool-born artist Brian Shields, or “Braaq” as he was nicknamed at school (a misspelling of George Braque, the Cubist painter whom he admired). Shields was also known as “The Lowry of Liverpool” on account of the L.S.Lowry-like stick figures that populate his industrial townscapes, and it was a typical example of this genre that turned up at Hartleys’ sale on Dec. 7.
Painted in oils on board and titled Industrial Landscape at Twilight with Figures on a Frozen Lake (Fig. 12), it was knocked down to a private buyer in the room for a hammer price of £14,000 ($21,700), thereby demonstrating that paintings by the man described in The Times in 1977 as “one of the six most successful painters in England” continue, 35 years later, to enjoy a healthy commercial profile at auction.