Paul Johnson

A weakness for beauty

A weakness for beauty
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The British as Art Collectors

James Stourton and Charles Sebag-Montefiore

Scala, pp. 352, £

James Stourton is not only a successful auctioneer and chairman of Sotheby’s but also an accomplished writer, the author of the delightful Art Collectors of Our Time (2007). He has now produced a book about how the English, and subsequently the British, set about acquiring and presenting works of art. He has been helped by Charles Sebag-Montefiore, another successful businessman, who has assembled a magnificent art library on which the research for this volume has been based. It is a hefty tome which has the merit of showing, in most cases, what these private collections looked like in their original shape before their dispersal among public national or American collections.

This is as it should be, for architecture is the basis of all English collecting. English aristocrats and plutocrats built magnificent houses either for their own sake or to display their works of art, and sometimes they deliberately formed collections to fill their houses. The book begins with Henry VIII, the greediest and richest of the Tudors, who combined acquisitiveness with a flexible conscience, seizing Wolsey’s vast Hampton Court and expanding it, and turning Whitehall into the largest palace in Europe. His taste was dubious. His contemporary and rival François I noted: ‘He likes everything to be heavily gilded.’ But Henry had the sense at least to employ Holbein, the finest portrait painter of his day.

And what the English really like, as this book points out, are portraits — above all by van Dyck — as well as landscapes — especially by Claude and Canaletto.

English collections amassed these three artists in prodigious quantities, and built rooms for them — like the Earl of Pembroke’s Double Cube Room, or the Landscape Room at Holkham Hall, or the Duke of Bedford’s Canaletto Room at Woburn Abbey.

In fact it is hard to think of three rooms which sum up more comprehensively the merits of English collecting. They are also, in a curious way, cosy — whereas the Long Gallery at Hardwick, the grandest display place in the country, is repellent. Not that Bess of Hardwick, who created it, was a poor collector. Stourton praises her ‘rapacious and successful use of the marriage market’, which enabled her to ‘accumulate four fortunes’, build ‘the most advanced house of the time’, and become ‘the matriarch of English collecting’. Her grand-daughter married a superb collector, the 14th Earl of Arundel, and she begat three outstanding collecting families, the Devonshires, Portlands and Newcastles. Bess was an unlovable person, but success in collecting has never had much to do with charm, greatness in statecraft or morals.

The great medieval English kings like Edward III or Henry V collected little or nothing. The only time Edward I, probably the most formidable of the Plantagenets, is mentioned even remotely in an artistic context is in the Pipe Roll for 1348: ‘Item, seven shillings, for repairing the crown which the King in his rage did cast into the fire.’ The most avid collector in this line, Henry III, was the feeblest.

And the same applied to the Stuarts, with Charles I, the weakest king, being also the most artistic, presiding over an equally discerning court. Of the Hanoverians, George IV, a hopeless king, had exquisite taste. His Sèvres collection remains the best in the world and he acquired Rubens’ magnificent ‘Landscape with St George’ and Rembrandt’s ‘Shipbuilder and his Wife’. (He was also among the first to spot the genius of Jane Austen, and had a set of her works in each of his houses.)

The book incudes some good material on the Victorians, especially on Lady Charlotte Schreiber (1812—95), who formed the greatest of all collections of English ceramics. Having survived a horrible childhood, she married an ironmaster twice her age, had ten children, outlived him, married her children’s tutor half her age and finally left her loot to the V&A, of which it remains one of the glories. Her journals give a fine insight into the excitement of collecting.

There is also much entertaining material on the moderns. A well-deserved tribute is paid to Herbert Read, who educated the English in the best of modern art, including Henry Moore; and there is a more quirky one to Edward James, who made famous Dali’s lobster telephone and the Mae West lips sofa. Also included is the Picasso collector Douglas Cooper, shown in a photograph towering over his idol, while a beautiful dalmatian turns aside in disgust. Cooper, a monster on the scale of Henry VIII, used an honestly acquired American inheritance to buy Picassos, and was once knocked down by John Rothenstein, Director of the Tate. Collecting is full of rows as well as glories, and this ravishing book is a splendid introduction.