Alberto Della Ragione (1892–1973) was a naval engineer from Genoa with a passion for music, poetry and the visual arts; he also had the collecting bug.

Alberto Della Ragione (1892–1973) was a naval engineer from Genoa with a passion for music, poetry and the visual arts; he also had the collecting bug. Towards the end of the 1920s, he sold his earlier accumulation of 19th-century paintings and began to acquire modern art, concentrating on works with a figurative bias, but by some of the most adventurous spirits then active in Italy.

He became friendly with the second generation Futurists — Fillia, Enrico Prampolini and Fortunato Depero — and bought their work, later turning to support a younger group of realist painters including Renato Guttuso, Giuseppe Santomaso and Renato Birolli. These artists were allowed a monthly stipend, and in exchange Della Ragione expected first refusal to purchase their works. This is the same arrangement that Kenneth Clark had with Victor Pasmore, and is an excellent way for the better-off to provide real support for struggling artists. Who does this now, I wonder?

Della Ragione collected art from deep personal conviction — there’s an endearing story of him blowing all his money on Modigliani’s 1919 self-portrait, cash he’d saved to buy himself a new apartment — and in the end his collection numbered some 241 items. In 1969 he donated them to the city of Florence. A selection of 38 key works, which highlight the engineer’s taste and acumen, is now on show in London. It is a lesson in enlightened patronage and demonstrates clearly how even moderate wealth can be used constructively to the long-term cultural benefit of society.

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The exhibition is laid out handsomely in the two ground-floor galleries of the Estorick. In the first room, the bigger names are prominent. The visitor is greeted by two Morandi paintings: a 1926 still-life of bottles, boxes and jars in which the edges of the objects wriggle slightly, as if in movement. The paint is quite thickly applied, predominantly in ochres, white and blue. The popular perception of Morandi is that he painted with great care and precision, endless still-life variants of bottles. Yet the freedom of paint-handling here rather contradicts this assumption, and in the second work by him, from a decade later, this formal lack of restraint is further emphasised. Another object cluster, containing even more pronounced vertical accents, like a frieze of long-chimneyed lamps or candlesticks, is painted with considerable verve and independence; in fact, with a broken and energetic touch which leaves little gaps in the ground colour. These tiny ‘windows’ allow light and air into the composition and permit the imagination to breathe, making the painting far more exciting than its ostensible still-life subject might suggest.

Next come a couple of paintings of houses or bathing huts by Carlo Carrà, not supreme examples of his work but note the use of pink which illuminates his ‘View of Coreglia’ (1925). A strange, moon-faced portrait, ‘Lunar Figure’ (c.1942–3) by Virgilio Guidi, one of the several artists here unfamiliar to me, carries some of the suffering of the war years, the deep melancholy that afflicts an occupied country. A very different mood is suggested by Felice Casorati’s ‘Yellow Nude’, jaundiced or sodium-lit, but certainly influenced by Gauguin’s great ‘Yellow Christ’ (1889), a Symbolist and cloisonnist masterpiece, all bold outlines and flattened forms, to which Casorati has added a light Cubist fracturing.

Another unfamiliar artist is Ottone Rosai, whose schematic expressionist figures look a little like L.S. Lowry at times, or Josef Herman. More beguiling for me was a tiny Severini tempera painting, of a classical still-life (mandolin and fruit) taken over by pigeons which have descended through the open window. It’s a beautiful little painting, very School of Paris and assured, very enjoyable.

Also in this room is a dark self-portrait by Mario Sironi, and opposite a very fine dark landscape by him. Between the two is a small de Chirico tempera, of classical figures approaching bathing huts, c.1934–6, apparently inspired by Jean Cocteau’s ‘Mythologie’. Here also is a major reclining figure sculpture by Arturo Martini, a callipygian Pisan Girl, in grey patinated terracotta: exquisite.

In gallery 2, the eye is immediately taken by two small Prampolini paintings, both of them lovely, but ‘Synthesis of Taormina’ (1939), in which fruit, ruined architecture and Mount Etna come together in aerial perspective, is the more evocative. I would love to see a Prampolini exhibition in this country — he is an intriguing artist, theatrical and abstract but also a Futurist with Dada undertones. For me, his work carries echoes of British Surrealists — of Eileen Agar in this Taormina painting, and of John Tunnard in his other picture here, ‘Bioplastic Life’.

Depero’s ‘Neighing at Speed’ (1932) is a witty mechanistic horse and rider in a storm of metallic red billows. Marino Marini’s ‘Small Horse’ provides the sculptural interest in this gallery, but his painting ‘Nude’ (c.1937–8) is just as much — if not more — about flesh and volume, and how a living being occupies space, rather than impressing us with its (often unwanted) personality. Guttuso is represented by ‘Scantily Clad Women’ (c.1940), and a tough painting of an ashtray. The three women of his bordello scene are working girls, not at all romanticised, the stick-thin legs of the one on the right (not quite as elegant as an antelope) contrasting with the hefty turned haunch of the figure on the left. There’s courage and compassion here, and an honesty not so evident in the muddled roofs of his nearby view over Rome.

Another artist new to me is Mario Mafai, whose oil ‘Still Life with Guinea Fowl and Candlestick’ is an exceptionally luscious arrangement of colours, mostly plum, lemon and magenta, even after you identify the dead fowl (plucked but complete with head) draped along the front of the image. His lovely loose paint-handling and original colour sense also appear in two landscapes, especially in ‘Wagons at Sturla’.

There’s no room to mention more, but a softback catalogue (£10.95) accompanies the show and illustrates all the exhibits. Upstairs, works from the Estorick’s permanent collection substantiate the story of modern Italian art with much interesting material, including more Sironi landscapes, Marini’s ‘Quadriga’ relief, a pastel and a large oil called ‘Death of a Hero’ by Guttuso. Well worth a visit.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Arts, Arts reviews, Collecting, Collection, Estorick, Exhibition, Fine art, London, Masterpieces, Painting