The Power of Pink: Why we can’t shake the eternal allure of pink diamonds

February 13, 2024
With shades from palest petal through to bubble gum, fuchsia and rose, pink diamonds have captivated us for centuries, says Kim Parker.  Kim Parker is a writer, journalist and Executive Fashion and Jewellery Director at Harpers Bazaar.   Ever since diamonds were first discovered in India around the 4th century B.C, their scarcity, sparkle and unparalleled strength (the word ‘diamond’ is derived from the Greek ‘adamas’, meaning ‘indestructible’) has meant they are historically regarded above all other gemstones, the preserve of royalty, nobility and the very powerful.   Colourful or ‘fancy’ diamonds are even rarer than their neutral relatives (only one in 10,000 natural diamonds is graded a fancy stone) making them some of the most precious of all the earth’s resources. And amongst the most exclusive of these are the pinks, which can be up 20 times more expensive than their colourless equivalents.  Haute Joaillerie collection ring by Chopard in 18k white and rose gold set with a pear-shaped, 2.4 carat fancy pink diamond and white diamonds, price on request. Courtesy of Chopard.com. “They are a true gemological treasure, accounting for only 0.1% of the 20 million carats of diamonds that are mined each year, and the majority of these are under two carats in size,” says Jean Ghika, global director of jewellery at Bonhams. While pink diamonds can be found in regions of Africa and Russia, the recent closure of one of the most prolific sources of the stones - the Argyle mine in Western Australia, which ceased operations in 2020 - has only exerted further pressure on their supply in recent years.  Unlike other coloured gemstones, the origins of a pink diamond’s romantic colour – long associated with love - also remains shrouded in mystery. “Their hue is not caused by trace elements in their chemical composition but by a miracle of nature, a distortion in their atomic lattice caused by pressure exerted on them during their formation,” Ghika explains, adding that the purer and more intensely saturated the shade, the more valuable the stone. “The most desirable hue is one designated a straight pink. There are a range of secondary hues including purple, orange and brown, however the ideal diamond is one that exhibits only one true colour – pink.” Small wonder, then, that whenever a remarkable stone weighing more than a few carats goes up for auction it makes international news. Indeed, six of the ten most expensive diamonds ever sold have been pinks, including the 14.93-carat ‘Pink Promise’, the 24.78-carat ‘Graff Pink’, and the 18.96-carat ‘Pink Legacy’, which was acquired by the jewellery house Harry Winston in 2018. Just one year beforehand, the 59-carat, internally flawless ‘Pink Star’ became the most expensive diamond of all time when it achieved US$71.2million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. So intense was the bidding war, it lasted just five minutes and ended with a round of astonished applause.  High jewellery bangle by David Morris in 18k white and rose gold, set with 9.97-carats of pink diamonds and a 6-carat D internally flawless pear shape white diamond, price on request. Courtesy of Davidmorris.com. Many other renowned pinks have become cherished parts of royal collections, too valuable to ever be sold. The late Queen Elizabeth II, who had amassed one of the world’s greatest jewellery collections by the time of her death in 2022, owned the Williamson pink diamond pin – a floral piece set with a flawless, 23.6-carat pink stone given to her as a wedding gift by the Canadian geologist, Dr. John Williamson. Meanwhile, the Noor-ol-Ain Tiara, which was commissioned by the last Shah of Iran in 1958 and whose name means “the light of the eye”, features an incredible 60-carat pink diamond in its centre, one of the largest examples ever found.  ‘Pink de Boodles’ earrings by Boodles with pink and white diamonds set in platinum and 18k SMO pink gold, £28,900. Courtesy of Boodles.com. Today, the rarity and romance of pink diamonds ensures they remain a tempting prospect for any jewellery lover looking to make a statement. According to Jody Wainwright, who sources some of the finest pinks in the business as the director of precious gemstones at Boodles, buyers should seek out jewels that are “nicely proportioned, not asymmetrical or too deeply cut, which can cause the stone to look smaller than it is.” As ever, it’s crucial to thoroughly research the market, seek independent advice and ensure the diamond has the correct grading certificate from a trusted laboratory, such as the GIA (Gemological Institute of America). When it comes to selecting the right shade of pink, Wainwright’s advice is to follow your heart. “What we really love at Boodles is a purple-ish tinge to the pink. More baby pink, or ‘Hubabubba’, as I remember it!’  Ideally, you should choose the stone that causes you to fall-head-over-heels - hopefully you’re going to be together for years to come.      Five pink diamond jewels to invest in right now: ‘Pink de Boodles’ earrings by Boodles with pink and white diamonds set in platinum and 18k SMO pink gold, £28,900. Boodles.com. Portraits of Nature Butterfly ring by De Beers in white and rose gold, set with fancy pink diamonds, price on request. Debeers.co.uk. High jewellery bangle by David Morris in 18k white and rose gold, set with 9.97-carats of pink diamonds and a 6-carat D internally flawless pear shape white diamond, price on request, Davidmorris.com. Haute Joaillerie collection ring by Chopard in 18k white and rose gold set with a pear-shaped, 2.4 carat fancy pink diamond and white diamonds, price on request. Chopard.com. One-of-a-kind Dragonfly brooch by Hirsh London with pink diamonds set in platinum and 18k rose gold, price on request. Courtesy of Hirshlondon.com.
img READ MORE

Katherine Purcell Invites Us Inside Wartski

December 14, 2023
A profile of Katherine Purcell, joint managing director of Wartski. by Mary Miers I’ve come to St. James’s Street, SW1 to talk to Katherine Purcell about her role as joint managing director of Wartski and what it’s like to be one of the few women prominent in the world of antique jewellery. So it comes as a surprise to find myself standing in a room lined with dove grey velvet holding a strawberry-red coal scuttle. It is, Katherine tells me, one of the two most exquisite examples of Fabergé’s hand-engraved enamel work that she has ever seen. Handing me a loupe, she urges me to turn it in my fingers, to admire the complexity of the gold rococo decoration that appears to bounce through the translucent enamel. The diamond-set bonbonnière measures just 3.1cm and sits on tiny paw feet. ‘It’s the scrollwork cut to different depths that’s achieving the reflections you see when you move it in the light. To think that this extraordinary engraving was done entirely by hand; it’s such a miracle’.  Katherine’s enthusiasm for her subject is radiant, her impulse to share it irrepressible. I’ve come to interview her, but before long she’s whisked me onto the shop floor and is operating the discreet mechanisms that raise the glass fronts of the showcases set into the walls. ‘It’s where the magic begins,’ she enthuses, insisting that I examine some of the finest examples of 19th-century goldsmiths’ craftsmanship as she tells me about their history and techniques. ‘You can see why there was a revolution,’ she says, picking out a parasol handle of reeded gold set with diamonds and cabochon rubies. ‘Fabergé made bell-pushes as well. And look at the lavishness of this hat pin by René Lalique! He’s chosen to use plique-à-jour rather than solid enamel, so you can see through it, and the gold is worked from both sides. But what I love is this little kink in its stem; only Lalique could have mirrored such irregularity found in nature. This is why he’s so unique. And you can see why I fell in love with these,’ she adds, moving to a vitrine of cloisonné enamelled lockets based on Hokasai prints by her heroes Alexis and Lucien Falize. An enamelled silver bonbonnière in the Japanese taste by Eugène Feuillâtre, exhibited at the Salon des Artistes Français in 1902. Feuillâtre ran René Lalique’s enamellling workshop for 8 years before exhibiting under his own name. Learn more at the Wartski website. Katherine describes as ‘a fluke’ how she ended up at Wartski, the Polish business established by Morris Wartski in Wales in the 1880s that became famous for its association with the work of Carl Fabergé. She accepted the job of secretary and book-keeper reluctantly, having failed to find work with a fine art gallery or museum. ‘Useless at maths, shy and with no gemmological training, [she] looked like a hippy, with beads and long hair,’ but she did have an art-history degree and could speak Italian and fluent French. Before long, she was helping with the first exhibition devoted to Castellani and Giuliano and working evenings for Vivienne Becker, who was organising the world’s first show of Lalique jewellery, which opened at Goldsmiths’ Hall in 1987. ‘I began to realise that jewellery didn’t have to be all about precious stones; it could be to do with artistry, different techniques, design and so on. When I discovered the work of Lalique, a whole new world opened up’. She’d visit the auction rooms at lunchtime and the V&A library on Saturdays and began publishing articles and developing an interest in French 19th-century enamellers. She became an expert on Falize, befriending family descendants and unearthing much unknown material, which culminated in her book Falize; A Dynasty of Jewellers in 1999. Two years later she published her translation of Henri Vever’s magisterial three-volume La Bijouterie Francaise au XIXe Siècle. Promotion to the shop floor gave her the opportunity to handle objects—‘essential if you’re to write about them in an intelligent way; the more you handle the more experienced you are’. She became a director in 1996 and has organised a number of the firm’s exhibitions, notably ‘Japonisme: From Falize to Fabergé’ (2011). ‘Nobody had focused on Japonisme through the jeweller or goldsmith’s eyes before. This was a really important project for me that took four years to organise and research’. She’s now working on a book on the subject. Wartski is difficult to pigeonhole, Katherine says, because it’s a commercial shop that promotes independent research. ‘It’s taken me a long time to discover that this is fairly unique. I know of galleries where the owners have insisted on signing pieces written by colleagues and keep all their information to themselves, which actually doesn’t help their business at all.’ It was Kenneth Snowman (1919-2002), son of Wartski’s son-in-law Emanuel Snowman, who changed the direction of the company and instilled its academic reputation. Emanuel had transacted the first purchases of Russian works of art from the Soviet government in the 1920s, including several of the famous Imperial Easter Eggs, and his son turned Fabergé into a specialist subject. Kenneth became custodian of a significant Fabergé archive, mounted the first exhibition devoted to the firm in 1949 and published his first book on Carl Fabergé in 1953. Still owned by the Snowman family, Wartski maintains this intellectual heft and the spirit of generosity that prompted Kenneth to encourage employees to specialise in their particular interests.  A gold and cloisonné enamelled locket in the Japanese taste by Alexis Falize, exhibited at the Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs in 1869.  It is highly unusual in being decorated on all four faces. See more on the Wartski website. ‘Thanks to [director] Thomas Holman’s knowledge and research, people come here to look at ancient intaglios and 19th-century cameos,’ Katherine says. ‘Kieran McCarthy [her co-managing director] has published widely on the Imperial Russian goldsmiths and added a whole new dimension to Fabergé by researching its London branch. And Giovanni Massa, our latest recruit, is pursuing research on another revivalist jeweller.’  Wartski’s directors make joint decisions about what to buy, thereby avoiding situations where one of them is so focussed on a subject that they launch full tilt into acquiring something completely unsaleable. ‘That said, sometimes you’re so proud to own a piece that’s far removed from everyday appreciation that you buy it anyway and sell it at a fraction above its cost price, because it’s such a fantastic thing to be able to display and talk about. We’re unusual in that respect; some mercenary dealers slap a percentage on everything. Wartski’s approach is different. We only buy pieces that we’re really passionate about and I think that shines through and enhances our reputation. Some say we’re difficult to sell to because they can’t guess what will please us and what won’t. We like disparate and eccentric things. We also believe in some pieces being totally educational, so we have a showcase devoted to curious early pieces and why they were made—not necessarily to adorn, but to protect or contain religious relics.’  Ever proud of its Welsh roots—it remains ‘Wartski of Llandudno’ and still banks there—the firm has been based in London since 1913 and has a broad-ranging and international clientele. Having moved from Grafton Street in 2018, it finds itself at home and busier in St. James’s, where ‘many of our co-exhibitors from fairs like Maastricht are based, along with many of the royal warrant holders.' It took the move to take on board that everything on Bond Street is branded, whereas here there are one-off, specialist businesses with a different type of clientele.  There’s always been this huge appreciation of antique jewellery in London and most of the long-established firms are based here. Even for 19th-century French pieces, there’s now a greater density in London than in Paris, where most of the big firms have closed. Most of the businesses are represented by their owners, and they’re mostly still men, so in that respect, too, I guess Wartski is unusual.  It says a lot that once you arrive here, you stay. This was my first job out of university and I’ve been at Wartski for over 40 years. I’m so fortunate to have been taught to look at things by experts who were willing to share their knowledge and I feel glad that I can continue their example today.’  A Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths and Chair of the Society of Jewellery Historians, Katherine is also the only woman on the advisory board of The Treasure House Fair. ‘Wartski sits outside Frieze because it’s not Old Masters or ancient manuscripts, and neither does it quite fit into the niches of PAD or LAPADA. It’s crucial that there should be an event in London representing arts across the board and Treasure House is now the only multi-disciplinary fair of stature’. Katherine Purcell of Wartski with Harry van der Hoorn, founder of The Treasure House Fair and CEO of Stabilo International.
img READ MORE

Ocean Colour Scene

November 02, 2023
Drawing on codes from decades past, this year’s most collectible new jewels are all sparkling odes to the deep and destined to make waves, says Kim Parker.  By Kim Parker Kim Parker is a writer, journalist and Executive Fashion and Jewellery Director at Harpers Bazaar. As in other visual arts, the sea has been a source of artistic inspiration to jewellers for centuries. From its tidal rhythms and its mysterious depths (replete with fascinating creatures) to its richly poetic and metaphoric powers, the oceanic world has held designers in its thrall ever since fragments of shell and coral were first fashioned into early adornments. Jean Schlumberger, the iconic French designer who joined Tiffany & Co in 1956 and blazed a trail during his decades-long career at the house, felt such an affinity for the sea (a keen traveller, he had a holiday home in Guadeloupe where he studied local underwater life) that it informed some of his most memorable jewels, including starfish, urchins and anemones set with colourful enamel and gemstones. Even aquatic dangers presented him with creative opportunities. One ingenious brooch, his Jellyfish from 1967, was conceived after a high-profile client, the philanthropist Bunny Mellon, was stung whilst swimming in Antigua. “In Jean Schlumberger’s imagination and design philosophy, the sea represented an unknown, infinite world. He choreographed unparalleled manifestations of its majesty and mystery,” says Nathalie Verdeille, Tiffany’s current Chief Artistic Officer of Jewellery and High Jewellery. Launched this summer, her first Blue Book collection for the house “is a deep dive” into the sinuous marine forms that so appealed to the designer and reimagines many of his favourite motifs for contemporary collectors. His iconic jellyfish has been transformed into a pair of voluptuous sapphire, tanzanite, and moonstone earrings, whilst his familiar bristling anemone has given rise to a new necklace and ring with neon blue cuprian elbaite tourmalines and white diamonds set with their culets facing outwards, to emphasise their spiny texture.  The new Praise To the Sea collection by Japanese pearl experts Mikimoto is also a bejewelled paean to the myriad creatures that populate the deep. For one abstract collar, undulating waves of white cultured pearls have been interspersed with pastel-coloured beryls, tourmalines, sapphires and garnets to recreate the swirling motion of a shoal of fish, with mesmeric results. Other more figurative pieces take their cue from sea creatures themselves, with graceful humpback whales hunting tiny tourmaline and garnet fish across a collar necklace, a sparkling sea horse taking refuge amongst a branch of diamond-encrusted coral on a long pendant, and even a quizzical-looking threadfin butterfly fish, whose graphic white and yellow patterning is echoed with rows of round yellow and white diamonds on a sparkling pin.  Mikimoto "Praise to the Sea" Collection. Image courtesy of Mikimoto. At fellow Japanese jeweller Tasaki, the sea isn’t just an eternal source of inspiration, it is the lifeblood that houses and nourishes the oysters that produce the maison’s lustrous Akoya pearls, for which it is renowned. This year, the maison pays tribute with its concise ‘Atelier 6: Nature Spectacle’ collection, with pieces that express aquatic phenomena such as eddying tidal movements, mirage-like reflections and pounding cascades in pearls and rainbow-hued stones. The spectacular Ocean Light necklace, for example, interprets the glistening effect of moonlight on white-capped nocturnal swells as ropes of differently sized Akoya pearls suspended from a collar set with inky South Sea pearls, blue zircons and yellow tourmalines. There are fabulous waves, too, at the storied Place Vendôme jeweller Boucheron, where its innovative creative director, Claire Choisne, has conjured a whimsical take on Hokusai’s iconic woodblock print, ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’, for her latest Carte Blanche high jewellery line. Inspired by the iron-on patches which adorned denim jackets in her youth, Choisne’s novel wave brooch is formed from white gold and aluminium and outlined in dark blue lacquer, lending it a quirky, two-dimensional quality, while snow-set round diamonds add a feeling of movement to the wave’s frothing crest.  Mediterranean Muse Necklace by Bulgari Image courtesy of Bulgari. The balmier shores of the Mediterranean were the impetus for Bulgari’s creative director Lucia Silvestri, whose latest designs are a precious nod to the area traversed by the maison’s own ‘modern Aeneas’, founder Sotirio Bulgari, who left his Greek homeland and settled in Rome, where he founded his jewellery house in 1884. “For me, being in the Mediterranean region is an awakening of all the senses,” she says. One of the highlights, the Mediterranean Muse necklace, is an artistic interpretation of the sea itself, and took Bulgari’s master craftspeople 1,600 hours to make. It’s torchon-style body is constructed from rhythmic ripples of platinum and white diamonds, occasionally punctuated with curls of buff-top sapphires. In its centre, an impressive cushion-cut royal blue sapphire weighing 15.13 carats recalls the colour of the water itself, whilst nine diamond fringes, embellished with further polished sapphire beads and contrasted with light blue pear-cut aquamarine drops, glitter like sunlight on a salty spray. At once beautiful and dramatic, seductive and also astounding, it’s a work of art that encapsulates the qualities of the sea that have kept us all captivated for quite so long.
img READ MORE

Cartier’s Iconic Cat

October 05, 2023
Why the panther reigns supreme at the French jewellery maison By Kim Parker Of all the creatures in Cartier’s sparkling bestiary, the panther is irrefutably king. Or perhaps that should be queen because the great cat’s near-mythic status at the house is largely due to one enigmatic and fascinating woman: Jeanne Toussaint.   Toussaint, who worked at Cartier as creative director of jewellery between 1933 and 1970, was nicknamed ‘the panther’ for her fierce determination and is credited with elevating the feline into an iconic design during her tenure. Little is actually known about her past. Born in 1887 to a lace-making family in Belgium, she left home at 13 to seek her fortune in Paris as a model. Years later, as a member of the city’s vibrant pre-war ‘café society’, she rubbed shoulders with the likes of Gabrielle Chanel, Cecil Beaton and Louis Cartier – grandson of Cartier founder Louis-François, and the man who would go on to become her lover.  Keen to make use of Toussaint’s exquisite personal taste at his family firm, Cartier recruited her to oversee accessories – namely women’s handbags – in the early 1920s, before promoting her to the head of his new silver department in 1924, where she also worked on Cartier’s more accessible jewellery collections. Unable to sketch herself, Toussaint nevertheless possessed the exacting eye and natural flair of an artist and was eventually appointed creative director in 1933. One of the first women to occupy such a prominent role within the industry, she oversaw an all-male staff of gem-setters and artisan jewellers at Cartier’s Rue de la Paix studio. It was here that she began working closely with in-house designer, Peter Lemarchand, a frequent visitor to Paris’ Bois de Vincennes Zoo, to craft what would become the brand’s most evocative creature in all its lissom beauty.  Panthère de Cartier ring, white gold, diamond, emerald, onyx Available at Cartier Prior to Toussaint’s entrance into the glittering world of Cartier, great cats were already a pervasive presence in early 20th century Western art, thanks to a growing fascination with African and Asian cultures in which the big cats had long been associated with royalty, protection and power. After Tutankhamun’s tomb was uncovered in 1922, for example, Egyptomania gripped the fashionable echelons of society, sparking a vogue for trinkets featuring the panther-headed goddess Bastet and the feline-bodied sphinx. This was also an era when the revered American interior designer Elsie de Wolfe revitalised 18th century footstools by covering them in leopard pelts, and entertainers such as Josephine Baker and Sarah Bernhardt showed off their pet cheetahs – living symbols of their irrepressible joie de vivre.  Panthère de Cartier bracelet in platinum Available at Cartier By this time, the panther had already made a tentative appearance at Cartier. In 1914, its coat was the inspiration for an abstract pattern of white diamonds and onyx spots on a dainty bracelet watch. That same year, Louis Cartier commissioned the celebrated illustrator George Barbier to create a display card for a new jewellery collection. The resulting artwork, Dame à la Panthère, depicted an elegant woman in a white gown and ropes of luminous pearls, with a black panther at her feet. The model for this portrait, it is said, was Barbier’s friend, Jeanne Toussaint. Three years later, Louis Cartier gifted his paramour an onyx vanity case with one of its first figurative depictions of a panther pacing between two emerald-studded cypress trees.  In the years that followed, Toussaint and Peter Lemarchand evolved Cartier’s big cat away from stylised depictions like the one on her vanity case and began crafting them in 3D form using gold and precious stones.  In 1948, the Duke of Windsor commissioned one such beast as a gift for his Duchess, and Toussaint duly delivered a roaring diamond panther atop a 116-carat emerald cabochon brooch – changing the fortunes of both the emblematic creature and Cartier forever. Indeed, so delighted was the Duchess, then considered one of the most stylish women in the world, that another panther was purchased a year later, this time poised on a 152.35-carat polished sapphire. A pride of chic women duly followed suit and commissioned their own daring panther designs, including the fashionable heiress Daisy Fellowes, the socialite Nina Dyer, who was married to Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, and the renowned Latin-American actress Maria Félix.  'Panthère' Diamond, Sapphire, Emerald and Onyx Ring by Cartier Available at Sotheby's Over the decades, Cartier’s panther has padded its way across a range of fine jewels, as well as handbags, sunglasses and, in the mid-1980s, even a floral fragrance. Its latest incarnation is as a precious high jewellery motif in Cartier’s Le Voyage Recommence collection, which launched this summer. Here, a spotted diamond and onyx cat with emerald eyes can be seen crouching on a spectacular necklace, as if keeping watch over a clutch of three spectacular aquamarines weighing a total of 20.33 carats.  Ferocious, feminine and every bit as fascinating as when it first appeared at the maison, Cartier’s infamous cat stalks on and will do for many years to come.
img READ MORE

Women in Silver

September 07, 2023
Casting a shine on the rare yet prolific women silversmiths Emma Crichton-Miller This year, among many other significant objects on their stand at Treasure House Fair, New York silver specialists S.J. Shrubsole had placed a beautiful silver porringer. Dated to 1675, during the reign of Charles II, it has two elegant, serpentine handles and the bottom third of the bowl is chased with lively acanthus leaves. What makes the piece particularly interesting, however, is that it was made by a woman. Katherine Stevens was the wife of the goldsmith Roger Stevens of Foster Lane, who died very suddenly in 1673. Rather than slip into penury, Katherine took over the business, including the bound apprentice John Duck, who later married her daughter. Whatever the division of labour within this small family business, it is her mark, not that of the today better-known John Duck, that appears on this porringer, which has a degree of accomplishment that suggests it is not the work of her young apprentice. A Charles II Antique English Silver Porringer, 1675 by Katherine Stevens Courtesy of S.J. Shrubsole That women figure importantly in British silversmithing in the eighteenth century has long been well known. In 1935, Sir Ambrose Heal, in his magisterial work The London Goldsmiths, determined that between 1697 and the Victorian era, a total of 63 women silversmiths, each with their own registered mark, worked in London alone. He also revealed that many of these women had definite trade designations in the records: they were not just widows running their late husband’s businesses but hands-on designers and craftsmen. Among the most famous are Louisa Perina Courtauld, Eliza Godfrey and Hester Bateman, but these just mark the peaks of a booming trade that was nation-wide. Another piece shown by Shrubsole was as extraordinarily large silver tray, hand-rolled, from 1729, with the mark of Sarah Parr, widow of Thomas Parr I. Philippa Glanville, formerly chief curator of the metal, silver and jewellery department at the Victoria and Albert Museum and co-author of  the 1990 volume ‘Women Silversmiths 1685-1845’ has noted other names elsewhere - for instance, Welthian Goodyear, a Bristol spoonmaker, Ellen Dare of Taunton and  Elisabeth Haselwood of Norwich. Furthermore, as Lewis Smith of London dealership Koopman Rare Art suggests, “There must have been other women who never gained a mark - the workshop of a silversmith was not a genteel place and there would have been female workers and family members.”  The collectors’ market is focused inevitably on the finest silver, those pieces which have survived multiple disasters of war and bankruptcy. The greatest boost to British goldsmithing in the early eighteenth century was undoubtedly the arrival of highly skilled Huguenot craftsmen, fleeing religious persecution in France. Elizabeth Godfrey, for instance, born Elizabeth Pantin in 1720, was the daughter of the distinguished Huguenot silversmith Simon Pantin. Her first husband, Abraham Buteux, was also a goldsmith from the French immigrant community. Elizabeth registered her first mark as Elizabeth Buteux in 1731, designed, as was customary, in a lozenge shape, to denote a widow,  presumably after her husband died. She carried on her first husband’s silver business until her marriage to another goldsmith, Benjamin Godfrey, in 1732. Elizabeth registered a second mark as Elizabeth Godfrey in 1741, presumably when Benjamin died. The majority of her work is in the flamboyant French rococo style then becoming popular in England amongst the wealthy. Smith says of her, “By comparison with the work of her second husband, Benjamin, Eliza Godfrey’s work has a certain finesse.” The set of three monumental sugar casters by her they currently have “are the best rococo casters we have ever had - the quality of the chasing alone.”  A Monumental Set of Three 18th Century Rococo Casters by Elizabeth Godfrey Courtesy of Koopman Rare Art Louisa Courtauld, born in 1729, was also of Huguenot extraction. Her father, Pierre Abraham Ogier, was a silk weaver, who brought his family to London when she was a child. Her husband, Samuel Courtauld, was the son of Augustin Courtauld, a Huguenot metalsmith. A portrait of Louisa Courtauld from the 1770s, grandly posed in silk, testifies to the strength of the Courtauld business, appealing to the highest ranks in society. A year after her husband died, in 1766, Courtauld registered her own mark, continuing to run the business until she created a new joint mark with her son, Samuel Courtauld II, in 1777. Courtauld was not an unusual figure in eighteenth century London.  In 2019 an exhibition running through the City of London displayed the business cards of the many women entrepreneurs from the period, beside their original premises. The exhibition’s curator, University of Cambridge historian Dr Amy Louise Erickson, commented: “There was nothing unusual about these businesswomen at the time. They were members of trade families and it was normal for women to be in charge. This history has been completely overlooked.” A George III Antique English Silver Coffee Pot by Louisa Courtauld, 1764 Courtesy of S.J Shrubsole Perhaps the most famous example is Hester Bateman. Born to a poor family in 1709, in 1730 she married John Bateman, a goldsmith and chainmaker, before inheriting his business on his death in 1760. After registering her mark in 1761, she built a formidable enterprise, helped by her children and apprentice John Linney. By using cost-efficient manufacturing methods, her workshops were able to turn out thousands of pieces - coffee pots, tea urns, cruets, teapots, salvers, goblets, salts, sugar tongs, and flatware - all of elegant but simple design, appealing to the middle classes.  A Pair of George III Antique English Silver Wine Labels by Hester Bateman, c. 1770 Courtesy of S.J. Shrubsole According to both Smith and Jim McConnaughy of S.J. Shrubsole, there is a strong interest in female silversmiths, especially in America, where, suggests Smith, they appeal especially to their fellow women entrepreneurs. The price differential between men and women silversmiths is negligible, says Lewis Smith.
img READ MORE

Global Jewellery Players

August 31, 2023
Chinese contemporary jewellery artists are becoming key power players in the international collectors’ market. We meet the influential designers combining their heritage with cutting-edge techniques to craft extraordinary haute joaillerie. Kim Parker “I feel very lucky to be seen as a kind of ambassador for my culture through my work,” says the jewellery artist Anna Hu, fresh from her latest exhibition at The European Fine Art Foundation in Maastricht. “Each of my pieces has a deep historical thread and much of that is rooted in my Chinese heritage. It’s wonderful to be able to share that with the world.”  Renowned for her use of remarkable gemstones, Hu is just one of a growing number of Chinese jewellery artists that have emerged over the past few years whose work is increasingly finding a global audience – with many of their most dramatic pieces achieving record-breaking prices at auction.  Red Magpie Brooch Anna Hu “With a legacy of over 5000 years of Chinese art history and craftsmanship fused with new ideas from the West, these designers create jewellery that is unique and hasn’t been seen before,” says Stewart Young, director of jewellery and head of department at Bonhams Asia, which is auctioning five of Hu’s creations at its Hong Kong Jewels and Jadeite sale on 28 May. “Each designer also brings their own distinctive style embodying new techniques… [creating] one-of-a-kind pieces that are highly collectible.”  So collectible, in fact, that Hu has twice broken the record for a Chinese contemporary jewellery artist at auction. In 2019, her Dunhuang Pipa necklace, which featured an intense yellow diamond weighing over 100 carats, sold for US$5.78 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, beating her own record of US$2.59 million that she set in 2013 with her jade Orpheus Ring, sold by Christie’s Hong Kong. Other pieces are sought after for museum collections, such as a serpentine-like hand ornament crafted in collaboration with the American artist Cindy Sherman, which was inducted into the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris last year.  Orpheus Jade Ring Anna Hu Born in Taiwan and now living between New York and Monaco, Hu began her career in jewellery after an injury at the age of 18 scuppered her ambitions to become a cellist. She attributes her success to her resolutely scholarly approach to design. “My role as a creative is to unite the past, present and future, so I’m not interested in typical cultural stereotypes,” says the jeweller, who counts Middle Eastern royalty, Oprah Winfrey and Chinese entrepreneurs amongst her clientele. “I love studying and draw inspiration from a wide range of sources, as well as Chinese philosophy.” Indeed, Hu’s latest collection of just 20 pieces includes a gem-set torque shaped like an elegant lotus stem as an ode to the work of Chinese artist Zhang Daqian (a contemporary of Picasso), and also a bib necklace encrusted with tanzanite, tourmaline and sapphire ‘waterlilies’ as a tribute to Claude Monet.  Monet Water Lily Necklace Anna Hu Fellow record-breaking jeweller, Edmond Chin, also considers himself “a researcher at heart”, with a passion for “ancient works of art, architecture, textiles, ceramics and sculpture.” The Singaporean-born, Hong Kong-based designer began collecting antique Southeast Asian jewels as a teenager (amassing an exhibition-worthy assortment by the time he graduated from Oxford University in the UK) and went on to lead the jadeite and jewellery department of Christie’s Hong Kong before founding his own atelier in 2001. Now, as the creative director of Boghossian, Chin is celebrated for the modernity and technicality of his works, which minimise the amount of metal needed to showcase sensational gemstones. A double rivière necklace which sold at Christie’s in 2020, for example, was comprised of 28 cushion and octagonal-cut emeralds alongside 22 large diamonds suspended, as if by magic, from fancy-cut jadeite and diamond links. It realised over HK$54 million, smashing the record for no-oil Columbian emeralds. It’s this “fresh approach”, a willingness to be unconventional to achieve stunning feats of artistry, says Chin, that makes the work of many Chinese jewellers so appealing to sophisticated collectors. It's a sentiment shared by Anabela Chan, the London-based contemporary jeweller who is pioneering the use of more sustainable materials in her nature-inspired pieces such as the Orchid Poppy earrings, which are crafted from enamelled and anodised aluminium, recycled gold and lab-grown sapphires. “I’m grateful for my Chinese roots, which have given me a huge appreciation of detail and craftsmanship, as well as a bold approach to colour, which means I’m always testing the limits of what’s possible and what can be considered beautiful,” she says, adding that international platforms such as red-carpet events and social media have helped to raise the profile of contemporary Asian jewellers around the world (Chan’s aficionados include Lizzo, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé).  Orchid Poppy Earrings Anabela Chan Recycled enamelled and anodised aluminium with 18k yellow gold set with laboratory-grown gemstones including yellow, fuchsia pink sapphires and white diamonds. Also no stranger to pushing boundaries is Wallace Chan, the Hong Kong-based sculptor and artist who became the first Asian to exhibit at the Paris Biennale des Antiquaires in 2012, TEFAF Maastricht and Masterpiece London in 2016. The artist began working as a gemstone carver in 1973, eventually developing his eponymous ‘Wallace Cut’ to carve designs within gemstones for a complex, three-dimensional effect. More recently, his virtuoso work in titanium and in creating an unbreakable form of porcelain have garnered him wide-reaching acclaim. Launched in 2018, after almost a decade of research, Chan’s porcelain retains the pearlescent sheen of the traditional material but is five times tougher than steel – inspired by the memory of a prized porcelain spoon which he shattered as a child. “My whole life, I have only ever wanted to create things that are meant to stand the test of time,” says Chan, who sculpts the porcelain into curvaceous, organic silhouettes set with iridescent gems, as in his kaleidoscopic Pupa ring. “It’s inevitable that all of us come with our cultural identities, a certain level of which must also be reflected in our works, consciously or unconsciously,” he notes. “But to be an artist of any kind, one must have their own unique visions and skills, and these are not necessarily tied to where one comes from.” Stilled Life by Wallace Chan Brooch & Sculpture Imperial Jadeite, Imperial Jadeite bead, Lavender Jadeite, Jadeite, Ruby, Fancy-Colored Diamond, Fancy Colored Sapphire, Tsavorite Garnet, 18K White Gold and Titanium
img READ MORE

Where the Value of Silver Lies

September 23, 2021
Design, age, and provenance can all have a part to play in the value of antique silver. Charles Hartley Charles Hartley is the Director of Hartleys Auctions Ltd. and specialises in arms, militaria, fieldsports and taxidermy. A Queen Anne silver punch strainer, Henry Tolcher of Plymouth, Exeter, c.1710-5, 16.5cm long. Image courtesy of Michael Baggott. As an auctioneer, many summers have passed cruising around the sunny countryside bouncing from valuation to valuation. You never know what you might find and this truly is the best part of my job, from dusty houses filled with ancient oak to sleek modernist interiors accented with Danish teak and impressionist art. Though this presents a patchwork quilt of variety, there is always one constant, my late father’s leather gladstone valuation bag and its contents. Other than the pens and paper, possibly the three most highly used pieces of equipment in this bag of tricks would be my eyeglass, silver scales and my pocket book of hallmarks barely holding onto its cover. But what is the true value to those silvery items hidden amid the bric-a-brac, that have me rifling through sideboards and flipping over salvers?  Easy, you may cry, a quick google and you will see a multitude of websites listing bullion prices changing on a daily basis. Silver is of course often valued by weight and though this is an oversimplification, it does bode true, though typically only with damaged or very dull items. One afternoon working at my desk one of our trusted house clearers appeared at my door with a glint in his eye. He’d been sent to a house that I had not visited, this is not typical as usually I would value the property first, but in this case the items were in such a poor state, that the solicitor had deemed it unfit for sale and in need of a heavy hand. He was 99% right: upholstery was moth eaten, furniture wormed and mold ravaged the paintings. Though what was that brick supporting the rotting settee? It was a 999.9 grade 5000g solid bar of silver from the Argor-Haraeus Mint - which went to auction selling by weight for £3,388. But please don't think this means it’s time to take grandma’s silver tea set to the nearest “cash for gold” store. Bullion price is only one part of the equation which is used to value an item, as so much more in the nature of the piece could add to this.  The design credentials of silver will always impact the value, be it a Mappin & Webb classic or a Georg Jensen statement of arts & crafts design, such as a 20th century tazza I auctioned in March. Its “melt price” would only add up to £540, but on the day it raised over eight times that, seeing £4,598. This same category could also cover “novelty” silver, where small quirky pieces demand a high value with avid collectors desperate to fill a certain gap in their cabinet - like a rabbit pepperette by Sampson Mordan of London 1899, which I sold in 2019 for almost 23 times the melt price at £700.  Paul Storr (1771 - 1844), a pair of silver-gilt wine coolers & stands, silver-gilt , George III, London, 1809, Maker’s mark of Paul Storr, H: 35.5 cm. Image courtesy of Koopman Rare Art. Another major factor is age. “Flog It” star Michael Baggott became enamored with the world of hallmarks. He points out that “hallmarking was brought in to assure that no one sold substandard wares to an unsuspecting medieval public and is possibly the oldest bit of consumer protection. Although only introduced to assure purity, happily these marks can allow anyone to know who submitted an object for assay, where in the country it was marked and most importantly when. This immediately gives so much historical information, making silver collectors amongst the luckiest in the field of collecting”. Proving the point, amongst Michael’s collection is this small West Country orange strainer. Weighing only 2oz 9dwt, the value of the silver would be around £35. However, as a very rare provincial Queen Anne example, by Henry Tolcher of Plymouth (c.1710-15), it is worth roughly a hundred times more at £3,750.  But if you truly want to stretch the value of silver you have to not only look at the age and design of a piece, but its provenance. No better place to represent this is Koopman Rare Art, which is one of the world’s leading dealers specialising in antique silver, gold boxes and objets de vertu. Director Lewis Smith explains that “one of the great points with important silver is that it was often made for important families and individuals. Secondly, it often was designed by the great names to fit into houses that were being built at the height of fashion of the day”. Asking them for examples, Lewis spoiled me for choice, but my favourite amongst their offerings was a pair of Paul Storr wine coolers. The identical model is displayed in the royal collection, the V&A and by strange coincidence The White House, Washington. These were made around the time that the British burnt the building down during the War of 1812 and since their creation have held a long list of aristocratic owners and are valued in the hundreds of thousands.
img READ MORE

Watch This Space

March 25, 2021
The world of women’s vintage watches. Avril Groom Avril Groom writes on jewellery, watches and fashion for Telegraph Time, Times Luxx, FT How to Spend It magazine, Centurion magazine and Country and Town House magazine, among others.  18-carat gold Omega Constellation watch, mesh bracelet, automatic movement, circa 1980, sold for £3000 at xupes.com Image courtesy of Xupes. Staggering auction prices for watches make regular headlines. Out in front is 2020’s £24.2 million for a Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime with twenty complications, donated by the brand to a charity auction. Before, the $17.8 million Rolex Daytona exotic dial “Paul Newman” that belonged to the Hollywood icon himself held the crown. These two brands compose all top ten prices, all men’s watches, as are most of the hundred-plus timepieces sold for over $1.5 million.   Buying vintage watches is traditionally a game for the boys - they’re one accessory where men can express individuality and status. But times change. Today’s high-earning women are interested in buying watches and in the art and craft of their movements and dials. With good reason, for women’s vintage watches are great value.  Styles such as Art Deco diamond bracelet watches from establishment brands like Cartier or Van Cleef and Arpels always carry a premium though nothing like the record-breakers. Many women’s vintage models are too small for modern tastes unless you want a delicately worked jewelled evening watch, often a bargain even when sparkling with tiny diamonds right round the case. “Watch sizes today have increased for both sexes”, says Megan Young, head of service at online luxury vintage retailer Xupes and a trained watchmaker. “Women are going for mid-century pieces, for their design and craft and because some were a little bigger than previously. Also the classic men’s watches of that time are relatively small, so they suit women and may not attract the same competition that larger men’s models would.” 18-carat textured gold, manual wind, 1970s bracelet watch by Bueche Girod, sold for just over £2800 at Fellows Auctioneers. Image courtesy of Fellows Auctioneers. Millennials love mid-century design, watches included. “The 1960s and 1970s were adventurous, with coloured hardstones and engraved or woven yellow gold and design that seems more individual than much today’”, says Penelope Morris, senior watch specialist at Bonhams. “There is great interest in pieces from Piaget (from about £4000), Chopard (from about £2000) and Cartier.” Designers experimented with brilliant colour, mixing hardstones like turquoise, lapis lazuli, coral, tiger eye or opal, with diamonds for sparkle, set against yellow gold which was the favoured precious metal of the day and worked with imaginative finishes - engraved, woven or mesh - that were inherited from the great Italian goldsmiths and adopted enthusiastically by houses like Piaget, one of the first watch marques to have its own goldsmiths’ atelier. All these elements were housed in cases of unconventional, sometimes abstract shape, the whole item including the bracelet designed as a piece of fine jewellery. The uniqueness and sustainability of vintage resonates with today’s mindful customer, says Natasha Davis, Fellows Auctioneers’ watch specialist. “Many 1960s and 1970s watches are boldly designed and beautifully handcrafted, with outstanding goldsmithing that would be very costly now. They are fine jewellery as much as timepieces yet many are modestly priced”.” Morris agrees that women are now more knowledgeable about techniques and movements and “know the right questions to ask of any retailer to ensure they get value”. Young says some are now competing with men as collectors, buying as much to invest as to enjoy. “Specific brands and models are collectable, and some appeal equally to women”, she says.  18-carat white gold, diamond and lapis lazuli, manual wind bracelet watch, circa 1976, by Patek Philippe. Sold for £36,875 inc. premium at Bonhams in December 2018. Image courtesy of Bonhams. 18-carat gold plait-effect bracelet watch with Jaeger Lecoultre 101 movement and ruby cabochons, Jaeger for Hermès, sold for £10,000 at xupes.com. Image courtesy of Xupes. One is that Rolex Daytona Paul Newman with its bold, monochrome, panda-style dial - or the reverse - which was, says Young, “not a success when it launched because the colours limited its appeal and not many were made but it became a cult once Newman wore it, and its design and moderate size make it attractive to women wanting that cool, sporty, mid-century style with such cultural symbolism”. A female client bought one over twenty years ago for what seemed a fortune but was several times less than the almost £240,000 that it is currently on sale for.  Equally unisex is the Cartier Crash, especially those made in London where the design originated in 1967, and would cost from £60,000 to £110,000 depending on condition. Women’s 1940s models with Jaeger Lecoultre’s 101 movement - the world’s smallest mechanical - have been rising rapidly since the brand revived it three years ago. Other examples are more modest. Elegant, timeless classics like the Cartier Tank (up to £10,000) and the Patek Philippe Calatrava (from £5000) are, says Morris, “good buys, always stylish and well made with stable mechanical movements, reliable if properly maintained.” Some are variable - a 1970s, gold Omega Constellation would be about £3000 while one of the unique, innovative, special project models designed for Omega by jeweller Andrew Grima would be nearer £30,000.  18-carat gold and onyx 1980s Structura skeleton watch with sapphire cabochon, at Vacheron Constantin Les Collectionneurs. Image courtesy of Vacheron Constantin. In addition to auction houses and specialist retailers, some brands are taking back ownership. Cartier’s Tradition is a selection of interesting bought-back items renovated and resold by the house through their flagships and private exhibitions. Similarly Vacheron Constantin has Les Collectionneurs - watches from the 1910s to about 1970, aimed at collectors through special events in their stores. Both houses select and authenticate pieces with great care, and restore them using period components where possible. These are top-level, guaranteed-origin items and reliable investments. But if you have modest means, a good eye and a trusted if less exalted source, you could take a chance on a quirky piece that you love. You may not make a fortune but given the story of the Paul Newman Daytona you just might. 
img READ MORE

Setting The Scene

November 12, 2020
The stone or the setting – where does the value of a jewel lie? Maria Doulton Maria Doulton is the co-founder and Editor in Chief of The Jewellery Editor.com. She writes about watches and jewellery for both UK and international newspapers and magazines including the Financial Times, Intelligent Life, Telegraph Luxury and Vanity Fair on Jewellery. Giardinetti brooch with rose diamond-set leaves, with flower heads of 7 emeralds, 1 chrysoberyl, 3 green beryls, 2 spinels, 2 brown diamonds and 10 rubies.⁣ The basket is set with a row of rubies and emeralds, interspersed with diamonds is set in silver and gold having French marks on the clasp. Mid-18th century. Sandra Cronan Ltd - A17 Jewellery is one of the most enduring artefacts man has ever created. Walk around the V&A in London and while the colours of the fabrics, furniture and pottery graciously fade with age, the jewellery gallery burns the brightest. In this gallery, each gem beams out its defiant light showing little regard for the ravages of time. So it is no surprise that the serene and immutable beauty of gemstones has been consistently prized in the raucous, tumultuous story of humanity. But what about the settings, the frills and trimmings that transform a loose stone into an amulet, love-token or talisman?  Settings, and by extension the design of a jewel, are the ever-changing narrative that places a gemstone in a context of time and place. Without a setting, gems are just loose stones, worth but their weight in carats. It is when the rarity of the gemstone is equalled or enhanced by the craft of the goldsmith that jewels became more than a sum of their parts.  Given the importance of settings, how does the overall state of a setting affect the value of antique jewels? Sandra Cronan, one of London’s most respected antique jewellery dealers explains: ‘The best way to understand this question is to look at jewellery from before the 19th century whose value is so totally dependent on the condition of the jewel, and that is principally the setting. Once a jewel has been damaged, it is near impossible to restore and therefore drastically reduces its value.’ Ironically, if an antique jewel has a highly valuable stone, it has to be removed from its setting to ascertain its weight and be analysed by a gemmological laboratory, a process that can affect the overall integrity of the jewel. This would explain why often stones that are removed from damaged antique jewels are recut to more contemporary tastes. Victorian amethyst and diamond set pendant. The central emerald cut amethyst surrounded by a circle of tapered amethysts interlaced with an elaborate diamond set design. Surmounted by an amethyst and diamond trefoil and culminating with a amethyst drop pendant, mounted in 18ct yellow gold and silver. English, circa 1880. Sandra Cronan Ltd - A17 Early jewels focussed on the stone with a reverence for its properties of healing, protection and as indicators of status and rank. The Ancient Egyptians exalted the talismanic properties of precious stones by putting them on the body whether directly on the skin to heal different maladies or as amulets set in gold. Gold represented the flesh of the gods and gemstones eternity, a winning combination that has stood the test of time. Since then, the mythical, cultural and religious significance of gemstones have brightened our history books.  The Aztecs prized turquoise above all else while the Mughals believed diamonds were a link to the divine powers, the mirror-like effect of the diamonds having a magical effect on whoever saw it as they in turn would have been imbued with its aura. The craft of jewellery making grew up to create frames worthy of these miracles of Nature. The most valued gemstones have been preserve of royalty. A visit to the Tower of London is a succinct lesson in the power of monarchy told through gems. Awe-inspiring and magnificent, there is no doubt that the Koh I Noor diamonds and the Black Prince’s ruby are still clearly semaphoring their message of empire and dominance. The maharajas flocked to Place Vendôme in the roaring 1920s, trailing trunks full of jewels to be recut and re-set à la mode. Lighter, new-fangled platinum settings and modern diamond shapes made their magnificent jewels shine brighter than ever under electric light as well as signalling the Indian aristocrats’ relevance in an increasingly globalised world.  Rare Leopold Gautrait Art Nouveau Enamel and Gem-set Ring, circa 1900. A Rakyan Collection - A24 This combination of impressive settings with magnificent gems, the zenith of jewels, makes a very strong statement. So strong that a people’s revolution means dismantling not just the power structure but the very jewels themselves, re-setting the agenda if you like. Case in point, after two bloody uprisings, the 1789 French and the 1917 Russian revolutions the outgoing monarchies’ jewels were broken up or auctioned off to newly minted millionaires in emerging economies such as the United States. The new regimes were keen to keep the universal currency of diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and rubies but erased the story that the elaborate settings told. And so the mounts of tiaras worn at grand balls and ornate corsages, necklaces and rings that smacked of unimaginable wealth were melted into scrap gold, erasing the chronicles of an era.  Then came the Art Nouveau era that challenged the value and significance of settings versus gemstones. Questioning perceptions entirely, master jewellers such as René Lalique presented them in a new light as an art form, their value almost solely in the skill of the jeweller than in the actual worth of the materials. Humble components such as enamel, moonstones and citrines paired with humble themes like wasps, flies or thistles were elevated to the highest levels of beauty through unparalleled craftsmanship, its value surpassing that of its parts.  Pair of early Georgian rose cut diamond stud earrings, of foliate cluster form (originally buttons). Mounted in silver, French or possibly Russian, circa 1760. Sandra Cronan Ltd - A1 This brief period left its mark with later jewellers drawing the focus to design and settings, as seen in some of the great artist jewellers of the last century from Suzanne Belperron to British ground-breaking jewellers such as Andrew Grima, and designs by Danish house Georg Jensen.  And we are still exploring the fine line between style and substance. This year’s high jewellery collections from the big names of Place Vendôme include daring use of lesser gemstones such as rutilated quartz, lapis lazuli and turquoise in adventurous designs. The most extreme example is the Boucheron’s Contemplations collection. The Goutte du Ciel necklace is made of diamond, rock crystal and Aerogel, NASA’s favourite insulation material and the most clear-cut case to date of a setting being the most valuable element in a jewel. The centuries-long dance of gemstones and settings continues in new and ever surprising choreographies.
img READ MORE

Profile: David L. Mason OBE

February 08, 2024
By Michael Prodger Michael Prodger writes on art for a wide range of newspapers and journals including the Sunday Times, Times, Guardian, Financial Times, and Spectator. He is currently Associate Editor of the New Statesman and art critic for both the New Statesman and Standpoint magazines. He has been a judge on various literary prizes, including the Man Booker, the Samuel Johnson, the David Cohen and the Costa prizes. David L. Mason started life as a dealer on his knees. In 1956, at the age of 17, he joined his father Leslie MacConnal-Mason in the family business in Duke Street, St James’s in London, and found himself, somewhat to his surprise, cleaning the doorstep and toilet. With a table, a chair, a six-month renewable lease and £15,000 in the bank, Mason’s fledgling career was not a glamorous one. Now, shortly to turn 85, the MacConnal-Mason Gallery owns two buildings on Duke Street and Mason’s son, David MacConnal Mason, represents the fourth generation to take the business on.  David L Mason OBE Courtesy of MacConnal-Mason Gallery Mason senior is an amiable and gregarious figure, a natural raconteur, from whom, as he sits among the Georgian furniture in his plum-coloured office, stories flow effortlessly. Some are about the picture business, such as the time he and Andrew Lloyd Webber offered the Puerto Rican industrialist and politician Luis A Ferré £10 million for Lord Leighton’s celebrated Flaming June and were gently rebuffed, and some more randomly colourful, such as being brought before a magistrate for a mere half dozen driving offences committed just a day after first gaining his licence. Eugene de Blaas The Venetian Flower Vendor Courtesy of MacConnal-Mason Gallery With his rival Richard Green, “We’ve scrapped over the years… competition is integral to being a dealer”, Mason is one of the most venerable picture dealers in London. The gallery specialises in 19th-century British and Continental works – fancy pictures, seascapes, Impressionist landscapes, Dutch works and figure paintings – and early modern British works by the likes of Henry Moore and LS Lowry. “We cater for the majority of tastes”, he says. Not quite: he goes nowhere near “that contemporary crap they are playing around with” in galleries nearby. Sir A J Munnings Lord Astor's High Stakes Courtesy of MacConnal-Mason Gallery Mason reckons that over the decades he has sold perhaps 300,000-400,000 paintings at every price range. As he helped Lloyd Webber build his spectacular collection, a relationship that has lasted more than 20 years, he paid £10 million for Canaletto’s The Old Horseguards from St James's Park and £18 million for Picasso’s Blue period portrait of Angel Fernandez de Soto. The business has £15 million worth of Lowry’s in stock, he says, although the majority of MacConnal-Mason paintings aren’t quite as stratospheric. While Mason has watched the market turn increasingly towards more modern works, his clientele nevertheless remains steadfast.  L.S Lowry Excavating in Manchester Courtesy of MacConnal-Mason Gallery So, how would he treat someone who walks off the street and says: “I know nothing about art but I want to start a collection”? Mason ponders: “I’d say, ‘I need a day with you.’ We’d have breakfast, lunch and dinner together. We’d go to the National Gallery, for two hours – you can’t look at pictures for more than two hours – and by the end of the day I’d know what you like.” It is a personal process that he makes sound very much like a courtship. Then “I’d keep showing you pictures and see your reaction. I’d tell you the price of things and why they cost that much. And I’d remind you that one good painting is better than 25 also-rans.” Mason is unsniffy about collectors’ motivations. He has dealt with enough of them to know that buying paintings for aesthetic reasons is, for a commercial gallery, no more valid than buying for investment or for “furnishing”. His own taste is, he says, for “top quality” and he is particularly fond of the Impressionists, James Tissot and Constable’s The Hay Wain – “People say, ‘It’s too bloody obvious.’ No, it’s not.” Paintings, however, are not his only interest. For many years he was a driving force behind the battle to compensate the families of Thalidomide victims – his daughter Louise was one of them. The campaign was successful, not least because of Mason’s insistence, backed up by badgering Harold Wilson, that payments should be tax free. While from the ages of 18 to 80 he was a competitive racing driver – endurance cars mostly – winning numerous races of note. He retired from racing just three years ago and sold six of his Ferraris. Did he make money on them? “I do better with pictures. A car dealer I am not.” He perceives one similarity between driving cars at 200mph and dealing paintings though: “lunacy”. Courtesy of MacConnal-Mason Gallery Nonetheless, it is his achievements as a dealer of which he is most proud. “After all, I’ve been doing it for more than 60 years and it’s been brilliant,” and he is still dreaming up plans for the company’s future. However, he adds a cavil: “Some people might say that if you are still sodding about with pictures at 84 ‘You can’t have been that successful.’” And for the record, he has no points on his driving licence.  
img READ MORE

Unfinished Business

October 12, 2023
Unfinished works of art, far from being of minor significance, can be of exceptional interest and value. Colin Gleadell Colin Gleadell writes on the art market for The Daily Telegraph, Artnet and Art Monthly. Several volumes could be written about unfinished works by artists, why they were left unfinished and how much that may have affected their value. A good exhibition on the subject, ‘Unfinished; Thoughts left Visible’, was staged by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2016 citing nearly 200 examples ranging from a Salvator Mundi by Durer the execution of which had been interrupted by his travels, never to be completed, to a handful of Cézannes and contemporaries such as Louise Bourgeois. The exhibition was useful in that it went some way into dissecting the meaning of ‘unfinished’ and whether it was unintentional as in Lucian Freud’s last, uncompleted painting, intentional, or ‘non finito’, as in many cases by Titian, or just a sketch, as in Manet’s The Funeral which was described by Camille Pissarro, who bought it, as ‘an extraordinary sketch.’ A portrait which Alice Neel could not finish when the sitter stopped modelling for her looks clearly unfinished but is signed on the back signalling that the artist was happy to call it complete. And the fact that ’Unfinished’ was staged in a museum underlined how an unfinished work, far from being of minor significance, could be of exceptional interest and value. Titus Kaphar, ‘Page 4 of Jefferson’s “Farm Book”’, signed and dated 18 on the reverse, oil and tar on linen mounted on panel, 152.4 x 121.9 cm. Sold for $854,900 at Sotheby’s New York in October 2020. Credit: Sotheby’s. As Degas said of one of his paintings that he never stopped reworking, now in the Mellon collection: "It is one of those works which are sold after a man’s death, and artists buy them not caring whether they are finished or not." Or they could have an appeal outside their own period. An unfinished portrait of a Spanish noblewoman, but with her face blanked out by the 18th German artist Anton Raphael Mengs was estimated at £12,000 at Christie’s in 2012, far below complete portraits by Mengs that can fetch six figures and in line with works by his followers. But it was bought for  £40,000 by the dealer, Otto Naumann, for a client. A good reason for the added value could be the modern, surreal look of the painting, or even the contemporary touch.  Titus Kaphar who shows with the Gagosian gallery, blacks out faces and cuts out figures from classical art historical subjects to reconfigure appropriate meaning in our post slavery but still racially tense era. While they make look unfinished, they are absolutely preconceived and they sell for as much as $5 million. On the other hand, what appears to be the finished version of the Mengs portrait turned up at the Dorotheum in 2020 and sold for €45,300 – little different from the unfinished version. Anton Raphael Mengs, ‘Portrait of Mariana de Silva y Sarmiento, duquesa de Huescar (1740-1784)’. Sold for £40,000 at Christie’s London in July 2012. Image courtesy of: Private Collection, New York. Anton Raphael Mengs, ‘Portrait of Mariana del Pilar Ana Silva-Bazán y Sarmiento (1739–1784), half-length, with a dog’, oil on canvas, 51 x 41 cm, framed. Sold for €45,300 at the Dorotheum in November 2020. Credit: Dorotheum. One of the first articles I wrote as art sales correspondent for The Daily Telegraph was in 1998 concerning a painting by Piet Mondrian which he left unfinished at the time of his death. There was enough of the diamond shaped Victory Boogie Woogie, however, to sell to top US collectors, the Tremaines, soon after the artist’s death in 1944 for $8,000 and thence to publisher Si Newhouse in 1987 for $11 million. In 1998, Newhouse was approached by a Dutch art foundation to sell it to them for $40 million so they could donate it to the Gemeentemuseum (now Kunstmuseum) in the Hague....which they did. Not everyone was overjoyed. Dr Bob van den Boogert of the Rembrandt House Museum expected some skulduggery and complained that, apart from not liking it, “it is an unfinished painting. On the free market it would never have made such a price. We could have acquired at least two good Rembrandts for that price.” However, Joop Joosten, author of the Mondrian catalogue raisonné argued that because it was unfinished it captured unintentionally his working methods as he moved toward a new stage in his development – one that remained tantalisingly undeveloped. And so the price, a record for the artist at the time, was paid. Among the most famous ‘unfinished’ works of the 20th century are the so-called ‘abandoned’ paintings of Francis Bacon. In 1964, Ronald Alley, a curator at the Tate Gallery, published a catalogue raisonné of Bacon’s work to date. In a separate section at the back was a list of abandoned paintings which Bacon did not like or had not finished or had left to artists and friends to paint on the back. For several decades, the abandoned paintings would not be given a full catalogue status in the market so had little value. But after Bacon died in 1992, his estate set about updating the catalogue raisonné to include abandoned paintings with recognised finished works thus enhancing their value.  Several were launched onto the market for the estate by the New York dealer, Tony Shafrazi, cleaned up or ‘enhanced’ as a rival dealer put it to me, with million-dollar price tags.  Francis Bacon, ‘Head’, oil on canvas, 1949. Provenance Robert Buhler, sold for £468,500 at Sotheby’s London in 2008, later sold for £772,000 at Phillips London in March 2022. Copyright: Phillips. It took 10 years to update this catalogue (2006 -2016) and from the outset the word quickly went round the trade that the abandoned paintings were going to be given added value by inclusion in the new publication. These included several paintings Bacon left behind in his South Kensington flat in 1950 to the painter Robert Buhler. Some of Buhler’s Bacons had been included in Alley’s ‘Abandoned’ paintings catalogue and were considered worthless until word got out that their status was to be revised. By 2008, at the height of an art market boom and 8 years before publication, one of Buhler’s inherited works was sold for £470,000. In 2012, another Buhler Bacon ‘Head’, listed in Alley as ‘Abandoned’ sold at Sotheby’s for close to £1 million and then again at Sotheby’s in Paris in 2019 for €1.7 million. For comparison, a completed Bacon study for a screaming head from 1952 sold in 2019 for $50 million. Of course, when it comes to financial worth, anything that can be verifiably linked to a famous artist’s hand accrues some value. The case of the slashed and cut out canvases which Bacon put in a refuse bag, but which were recovered by his electrician, surfaced when, many years later, the electrician placed the dismembered shreds, mostly heads with the faces cut out, in Ewbank’s auctions in Surrey. Purist Bacon scholars and dealers pooh-pooh’d the sale as rubbish, but it was a runaway success. One almost complete, if dishevelled portrait sold for £400,000, and group of faceless heads sold for round £40,000 each, some to reputable collections such as jeweller Laurence Graff, who is said to have framed them three in a row like ghostly triptychs. In a conversation with Tate curator, Jennifer Munday, Bacon said he found it difficult to ‘finish’ a work, and “his canvases often became so clogged with pigment that they had to be discarded.” But nevertheless, he told her he thought his destroyed works were among his best.
img READ MORE

Artists’ off-brand Works

November 10, 2022
Think outside of the box when collecting big names. Richard Smyth Richard Smyth is a writer and critic. His latest novel The Woodcock was published by Fairlight Books in July, 2021. Success, for an artist, can be both a constriction and a liberation. Success – sales, a reputation – may furnish the time and means to work; it may also, though, fix the artist on rails, so to speak, limiting their creative direction, sapping the will to explore their talents, and setting them on that thankless course: giving the public what they want.  In art, of course, a living is a living, and many artists are happy in their pigeonholes. But no matter how strong an artist’s brand – to use 21st-century parlance – there are nearly always adventures, experiments, to be found in their work, if you look closely enough. LORD GROSVENOR'S SWEET WILLIAM IN A LANDSCAPE George Stubbs, ARA, 1779 read more at Rountree Tryon Galleries ‘Any artist constantly has to balance between following their creative impulses or continuing with tried and tested territory that they know provides a living,’ says Rowland Rhodes, Associate Director at Rountree Tryon Galleries. ‘If a niche has been found and demand is there, it might seem risky to go in a different direction. On the other hand, artists don’t want to be seen to be standing still and those that manage to successfully evolve and diverge over time are often considered the best.’ Few artists are as closely associated with a specific subject as George Stubbs (1724–1806). From the late 1750s onwards, Stubbs was celebrated as the greatest of all horse painters; his masterpiece Whistlejacket today hangs in the National Gallery, and his Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath fetched £20 million at auction in 2011. But prior to his move to Lincolnshire in 1756, Stubbs had been a jobbing portrait painter in the north of England. Even after fame, there was more to him than horses. ‘In the 1760s Stubbs began to paint more ‘exotic’ animals,’ Rhodes explains. ‘These subjects are perhaps considered secondary to his well-known equine works but were brought into the spotlight in 2013 when his paintings of a kangaroo and dingo were saved for the nation following an appeal from the National Maritime Museum.’ These works were commissioned by the botanist Sir Joseph Banks, who had voyaged in the Pacific with Captain Cook and provided Stubbs with sketches and descriptions of the animals. ‘The paintings are regarded not only important to art but also science and exploration, and it was considered a huge triumph to raise the £4.9 million required to keep them.’ AUTUMN GARDEN WALK Jonathan Atkinson Grimshaw 1879-80, oil on canvas $445,000 at M.S. Rau A tidy sum, of course – as was the £6.8 million paid for Stubbs’ Tygers At Play in 2014. It is, however, still some way short of Gimcrack’s £20m, and Stubbs’ ‘exotic’ animals remain obscure in comparison to his equine subjects.      SUR LA TERRASSE C R W Nevinson 1919-1920, lithograph £22,000 available at Goldmark Gallery Critical responses to work that deviates from a customary theme can be unpredictable. The reputation of Atkinson Grimshaw (1836–1893), for instance, rests chiefly on his remarkable nocturnal urban landscapes. Less well-known are his handful of ‘fairy’ paintings. Works such as Spirit Of Night and his depictions of Iris, goddess of autumn, showcase Grimshaw’s masterly handling of gloom and luminescence in a new way; there is a different kind of beauty here, and layers of magic and eroticism that are somehow absent from his nocturnes of Leeds and Glasgow. For some admirers of Grimshaw, these works constitute a fascinating excursion; others feel more strongly. ‘It is a remarkably effective and haunting fairy image,’ writes the critic Christopher Wood of Spirit of the Night, ‘and one can only wish Grimshaw had painted more of these, and fewer versions of the Liverpool docks.’ Change, of course, is not always an artistic decision; often, it is imposed from outside, and the artist has no choice but to forge a new path in response. Just as we can imagine an alternative timeline in which Siegfried Sassoon lived out his days as an obscure country versifier, Wilfred Owen as an unknown Keatsian in suburban Reading, so we can wonder in what directions artists such as Frank Owen Salisbury (1874–1962), Paul Nash (1889–1946) and Christopher Nevinson (1889–1946) might have gone, had war not intervened. ‘Many [painters] became official war artists or documented experiences while serving abroad or on the home front,’ says Rowland Rhodes. ‘This was uncommon ground for all, and forced artists in a different direction.’ There is of course a near-infinite range of variables, creative, emotional, social, political, that might push an artist toward a new theme, genre or style. It’s likely, though, that they may have to wait for their less on-brand works to get the recognition they may or may not deserve – and they may be waiting forever.        ‘The more famous or collected an artist becomes, the greater the interest is in all the work they made,’ says Rhodes. ‘In many cases, the knowledge and appreciation of ‘off brand’ works is not until after an artist’s lifetime.’
img READ MORE

Beneath the Surface - the Power of Infrared Imaging

September 09, 2022
Discovering secrets beneath the surface of a painting can dramatically alter its value. Billy Jobling Billy Jobling is Senior Writer and Researcher in the Post-War and Contemporary Art department at Christie's, London. Examining a painting can be rather like visiting the scene of a crime. What material clues have been left that might tell us how—or when—the work was made? Can we retrace the movements of the artist’s hand, or see someone trying to cover their tracks? Often, the answers lie beneath the surface. Short of physical micro-sampling, infrared imaging offers insightful information that uncovers many hidden clues. A form of energy beyond the visible light spectrum, infrared radiation (IR) passes through some pigments, but not others: crucially, it is absorbed by the dark materials painters have historically used for underdrawing, such as charcoal and graphite. Used correctly, infrared reflectography (IRR) captures an image that effectively renders the paint layer transparent, revealing potentially critical evidence below. Museum discoveries made using this technology, such as the startling spectre of a man behind Picasso’s Woman Ironing (1904), have made headlines for their art-historical importance. As well as institutions, however, the advantages of IRR are available today to private collectors, auction houses and insurers through leading analysis firms like ArtDiscovery. Left, Red and Blue Rayonism (Beach) by Mikhail Larionov. Right, X-ray image of the painting. Credit: ArtDiscovery ‘We use it both alone and in combination with other techniques to answer questions around the condition, the process of development, and the authenticity of works of art’, explains the company’s UK director, Dr Jilleen Nadolny. ‘It has been used to reveal aspects of an artist’s creative processes, underdrawings, alterations and reworkings (sometimes revealing overpainted or faded signatures, text or drawings) and restorations. Infrared examination can also be used to differentiate between certain groups of pigments and inks. IRR methods have come a long way since the Vidicon cameras developed in the 1960s, which required multiple small images to be mosaiced together. ArtDiscovery’s scanning technology is fine-tuned to each artwork, using cameras with different capabilities to record high-resolution images across a range of wavelengths. What is uncovered can be transformative. One client’s painting, Dr Nadolny tells me, had been attributed to a follower of Bellini, and was marred by some later restoration. ‘However, on the basis of the quality of the underdrawing revealed through the IR, the client was able to present the work to a Bellini expert, who reattributed the work to the master himself, increasing tremendously the market value of the object.’ A variation on the reflective technique, known as ‘transmitted IR’, captures IR energy that has passed X-ray-like through an object, exposing even more deeply hidden information. ‘Using transmitted IR on a work that was undergoing research as a possible Titian, we revealed the stamp of King Charles I, “CR”, on the back of the painting, which had been covered for centuries by a lining canvas. The discovery, which helped to confirm the provenance of the piece, allowed the work to realise its full value.’ ArtDiscovery also employ IRR scans in combination with X-rays, their cousins from lower down the electromagnetic spectrum. One such instance found a painting hidden beneath a newly discovered work by Kandinsky; the concealed composition was matched to a known sketch by the artist, bolstering the attribution. ‘A similar case was a painting deemed to be “after John Constable” that we analysed through technical imaging, unveiling features that helped experts confirming its attribution to Constable himself’, says Dr Nadolny. ‘The artwork, purchased for $5,000, is now estimated to value around $5 million.’ Such dazzling revelations, beyond the reach of the human eye, have sometimes led to the view that the authenticating role of the ‘connoisseur’ might one day be rendered obsolete by cold, hard science. ArtDiscovery, whose team are both technical art historians and trained conservators, see the disciplines as complementary. Carbon-14 dating, for example, can allow connoisseurs to form an opinion according to solid evidence of an object’s age. Equally, scientific work can help to quantify the subtle hallmarks of a specific artist’s technique. Having seen dozens of both real and ersatz Modiglianis, ArtDiscovery has been able to build a detailed dataset on the artist’s idiosyncratic brushwork, which has become a valuable resource for the scholars currently revising his catalogue raisonné. Working together, scientists and connoisseurs are able to pool their expertise to draw conclusions with the greatest degree of certainty—and that certainty has enormous value. As the field of art analysis evolves, new techniques such as sound and laser imaging and elemental mapping promise to reveal new depths of information, though it may be some time before these technologies become viable for regular commercial use. ‘As objects are complex structures, there are many variables when considering the challenges of authentication and attribution’, explains Dr Nadolny. ‘We try to offer the best options to our clients in a manner that works with their objectives.’ For now, infrared imaging remains a vital tool in ArtDiscovery’s interdisciplinary work and is sure to uncover many more exciting secrets yet.
img READ MORE

Contemporary Religious Art

July 22, 2022
What does religion have to offer as subject matter for contemporary art? Fergus Butler Gallie The Reverend Fergus Butler-Gallie is a clergyman and the author of A Field Guide to the English Clergy, a Best Book of the Year for The Times, Mail on Sunday and BBC History. Joachim van der Klugt, The Samaritan. 2015, oil on canvas, 170 x 140cm. Available at 1stDibs or Artistics. Preconceptions are strange things, aren’t they? If I say ‘I’m interested in religious art’, doubtless your mind leaps to the works of Titian, Michelangelo or Veronese.  We hive it off as a past genre, as something that, presumably, nobody really produces anymore. But, in truth, religion hasn’t gone away- in fact it’s more present than ever- and nor has art. As a result, despite our misconceptions, there is a booming market in contemporary religious art, both in terms of new commissions by places of worship and in terms of collectors seeking to buy. There is, of course, an inbuilt dichotomy in religious art itself- namely between that which is art made specifically for religious devotion and that which represents an artist addressing a religious subject. For many believers it’s a false dichotomy; devotion or meditation on religious matters can be provoked by even explicitly secular art. It would, after all, be strange to worship a God whose purposes and actions were limited by the categorisations of an auction catalogue. Perhaps the most famous example of a contemporary artist addressing a religious theme in their painting is Dali’s Christ of St John of the Cross. It’s also an example of the supposed tension between contemporary art and traditional religious- and in particular Christian- subjects. Dali attracted considerable criticism for addressing what was critics thought to be a ‘kitsch’ theme in such a traditional medium. Indeed, such was its initial unpopularity that the Corporation of Glasgow managed to acquire it for about two-thirds of its original asking price of £12,000. It proved to be a sensible investment- it’s now the most visited piece in the city’s Kelvingrove museum and was voted ‘Scotland’s Favourite Painting’ in 2006. The idea that religious subjects must be addressed using traditional medium is a pervasive one. Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo drew on traditional sculpture as well as the influence of Rembrandt in order to make a mark on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. In the world of sales, often contemporary works inspired by traditional artistic tropes fetch some impressive sums. The influence of Michelangelo’s Pieta is evident in Joachim van der Klugt’s 2015 work The Samaritan, which has an asking price of over £7,000. Andres Serrano, Immersion (Piss Christ), 1987. Cibachrome print face-mounted on Plexiglass. Number four of the edition of ten was sold by Christie’s in 2008 for $277,000. Yet, for all the continued prevalence of traditional forms, there is a strong abstract streak in much contemporary religious art. Take, for instance, the work of Maha Rukab, a Palestinian Christian artist who often takes direct inspiration from Bible quotes- such as Matthew 5:16- to inspire her abstract acrylic work which often fetches four figure sums at auction. Of course, some of the world’s major religions prohibit depictions of the human form, necessarily lending themselves to abstract works of art. The Saleha Gallery specialises in contemporary Islamic abstract art, with paintings inspired by passages from the Qur’an. Some contemporary art that engages with religion goes beyond the abstract. There is, of course, the genre- now a little tired, it has to be said- of ‘transgressive’ religious art. Andres Serrano’s infamous Piss Christ photograph realised a sale price of $277,000 when sold at Christie’s in 2008. Despite the iconoclastic nature of the piece, it would be impossible to deny the role of religion in its inspiration. Indeed, in affirming the beliefs (one might say prejudices) of its audience and making a statement about the role and relative position of God to the artist, perhaps we might justifiably call Serrano’s work a religious one.  Even without that leap, there can be no denying that the preconceptions about what constitutes ‘religious art’ are changing all the time. Modern religious art is necessarily at the forefront of those changes in perception and buyers are still happy to back those innovations with cold hard cash. The Church is no longer the largest sponsor of artistic creativity, but religion remains a major source of inspiration for many artists and churches and other places of worship still commission and host art of all form. Take London’s oldest surviving church building, St Bartholomew the Great; the Norman nave hosts, inter alia, Exquisite Pain by Damien Hirst, Golgotha by Richard Harrison and Madonna and Child by Alfredo Roldán. Despite our preconceptions about its presence in the past, the world of contemporary religious art is a busy one. In truth, regardless of preconceived ideals of form- as long as humanity seeks to answer questions about beauty and truth, there will be religion and there will be art, of all types, as well.
img READ MORE

Purchasing Portraits

June 03, 2021
Portraits are having a moment - but why do people buy pictures of strangers? Joe Lloyd Joe Lloyd is a journalist who writes about architecture and visual art for The Culture Trip, Elephant, and The Economist's 1843 magazine, among others. John Vanderbank (1694-1739), Portrait of a Young Gentleman and his Greyhound, signed by the artist ‘John Vanderbank 1726’, 127 x 102cm. Image courtesy of Period Portraits. Last month, a work by a little-known old master defied all expectations. German baroque painter Johann Heinrich Schönfeld’s A bearded man in armour was auctioned for $150,000 at Christie’s, almost double its $80,000 estimate. It is a striking painting, warm-toned and subtly articulated. But Schönfeld, for all his talent, is hardly the sort of name that usually sets the art market alight. What could have caused this uptick? Portraits are enjoying a moment. The past few years have witnessed numerous acclaimed exhibitions dedicated specifically to the genre, from Goya at the National Gallery to Lucian Freud at the Royal Academy. But their popularity reaches beyond the hallowed halls of the art world. “You see portraits now on television adverts,” says art dealer Nick Cox, “you see them everywhere. Now even young couples putting their first home together might potentially buy a Victorian portrait to put in their dining room. It’s a trend across all eras and price points.” Cox runs Period Portraits, a web-based dealership specialising in 17th to 20th century portraits. He believes recent years have seen a shift among collectors. “Though there are still people who are just into, for example, Civil War portraits or military uniform,” he explains, “the new type of collector often buys across a whole range of genres and periods.” Frans Pourbus the Younger (1569 – 1622), An unknown noblewoman of the Bourbon court, oil on canvas, 75 x 58 cm, circa 1615. Image courtesy of The Weiss Gallery, London. Portraiture is itself an enormous field, and an immensely varied one. For many artists, it was a route to success. Portraits are generally smaller-scale and less time-intensive than history paintings. They also fed a near-constant demand. Rulers and courtiers needed them to project their might and majesty. The ever-growing middle classes followed, commissioning portraits as status symbols and decorations. Nicolaes Maes, among the most in-demand of Dutch Golden Age portraitists, left five houses and 11,000 guilders at his death (his tutor Rembrandt only earned around 340 guilders in a good year). Formal painted portraiture began to wane in the 19th century as photography engulfed some of its functions, though numerous artists continued to paint portraits. But portraiture in its loosest sense is arguably more prominent than ever: in profile pictures, avatars, social media posts. “At the moment,” explains Cox, “we live in a selfie-obsessed society, full of disposable images. Portraits do a similar thing, but with more permanence.” Their current popularity combines our mania for depictions of people with a desire for less ephemeral, more material images. While the prosperous and powerful used portraits to immortalise themselves and their families, however, today’s collectors seldom have such connections. To collect historic portraits is to be surrounded by long-dead strangers. Wherein lies the appeal? Sometimes, it comes down to the aesthetic. “As with any other work of art,” says Mark Weiss of Weiss Gallery, which has specialised in old master portraits since 1985, “there is the intrinsic beauty of the portrait itself. Portraits of a beautiful or handsome sitter will always have great decorative appeal.”  An image of an attractive person can light up a room. As can one of a strikingly unattractive person: cognitive scientists have found that beautiful and ugly artworks light up the same area of the brain. This might explain the enduring popularity of works like Quentin Matsys’ The Ugly Duchess, or the enormous  $137.5 million auction price achieved by Willem de Kooning’s Woman III in 2006. But there are reasons beyond the purely visual. One is provenance. “It could have come from a famous royal or noble collection,” says Weiss, “or one now dispersed.” To own a painting once held by the Duke of Mantua links you to an esteemed past collector. “It could be,” says Cox, “the history that they're interested in, it could be the decorative aspect of the costume. And then there's the human, fundamental thing of the gaze, wanting to lock eyes with people.” British School, Studio of Sir Allan Ramsay (1713-1784), Portrait of a Lady and Her Child, circa 1760, 76 x 104 cm. Image courtesy of Period Portraits. Studio of Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599 – 1641), Charles I (1600 – 1649) in coronation robes, oil on canvas, 223 x 149 cm, circa 1636 – 1640s. Image courtesy of The Weiss Gallery, London. It was the costumes that initially attracted Cox, who previously worked as fashion editor for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. But his interests soon broadened. “What I love about dealing in portraits is that every time you acquire one and research it, it opens up a window into a specific area of history.” Portraits serve as authentic gateways to a different era. Those attracted to Tudor age, for instance, might be drawn to portraits that embody that milieu. This March, Sothebys sold a cache of Tudor portraits estimated at £80,000 for a staggering £650,000. It is likely that the recent abundance of books, film and television set in the period, from Wolf Hall to The Other Boleyn Girl, influenced this upsurge. Portraits are never just of a person, but also about them. Clothing, facial expressions, posture, scenario: all tell us something about the subject, or the image they wanted to present. “A portrait,” says Weiss, “is by its nature a unique creation capturing a specific moment in the life and times of a person — and which more than often is the only surviving memento of that life. That in itself can be a very compelling motivation.” Owning a portrait gives you the exclusive ability to commune with an individual across time. What more could a budding collector want from a painting?
img READ MORE

Seeing the Sea

December 18, 2020
Why the sea is such a compelling subject. Lamorna Ash Lamorna Ash writes for The TLS and is the author of Dark, Salt, Clear: Life in a Cornish Fishing Town, shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize 2020. In my family home, we have three paintings of a particular stretch of Cornish coast – Porthkidney Beach, just across the sand dunes from where my mother grew up, in the village of Lelant. The paintings are incredibly simple: thin strips of pale sand half-swallowed by the rich blue of the sea and sky that together take up three-quarters of the canvas. The artist, John Miller, (1931-2002), spent most of his life in a cottage overlooking the estuary that divided Lelant from its neighbouring village, Hayle. Miller’s work has since become synonymous with idyllic Cornish summers, his paintings reproduced on postcards and posters thousands of times over. Thomas Whitcombe (1752-1824), ‘The Battle of Camperdown, 11th October’, 1797, oil. Rountree Tryon - A33. Why is it that some people feel they must keep images of the sea close to them? Perhaps this allegiance is related to where you grow up or choose to live out your years; perhaps it is less obvious, an ineffable part of the psyche connecting you to that mutable substance that lies between the land.  When I ask my mother what it means to have these artworks in her landlocked Wiltshire house, she tells me they are a way through to her youth: the place that matters most to her, where her grandmother, mother and now brother are buried in the small churchyard above the sea.  Bonhams is the only international auction house that retains its Marine Sale. This takes place twice a year – grand paintings of sea battles, nautical memorabilia and relics of naval history, all selling from several to hundreds of thousands of pounds. Sarah Reynolds, a maritime picture specialist at Christies, told me that, though they no longer have a separate maritime sale at Christies, the market remains stable and privately driven. In 2012, the contemporary maritime artist Jamie Medlin made a Christies’ auction record, with his photorealistic painting of J-class yachts on the Solent selling for £127,250.  And yet, in America, several gallery owners have suggested sales in maritime art are falling. Monique Foster, director of the Maritime Gallery in Connecticut, which recently folded as a result of the pandemic, suggested that, “Many of the big collectors aren’t buying more marine art, and their children don’t want it.”  It makes sense that tastes are changing. The maritime art on sale in prestigious galleries and auction houses tends to celebrate empire – Christies’ clients often have special interests in Napoleon or Nelson.  Charles Pears P.S.M.A. (1873-1958), ‘Needles by moonlight’, oil. Rountree Tryon - A33. Jamie Rountree, the director of Rountree Tryon Galleries, agreed that there has been a decline in sales of maritime art over the past thirty years. But, since 2009, he tells me, “there has actually been a small uplift in buyers.” A potential explanation for this is a number of clients moving from London flats to larger, countryside homes, “which suit a more old-fashioned look rather than contemporary art.” In the twentieth century, a new kind of maritime art emerged, its subject more explicitly personal. Rountree tells me that the “1930’s ‘look’” of graphic, poster-like paintings of the sea – produced by artists such as Norman Wilkinson and Charles Pears – is popular with his clients. As the writer Lily Le Brun, whose book Looking to Sea: Britain Through the Eyes of its Artists is to be published in 2022, explained, “Images of the sea are revealing not only of the time in which the artist lives, but of the personal, prosaic and philosophical concerns that weave an artwork into being.”  Dame Laura Knight RA (1877-1970), ‘Lamorna Cove’. Walker Galleries - A1. In the late nineteenth century, a group of painters formed an artist colony in the Cornish port town of Newlyn, attracted by the clarity of light, the potency of the sea and the simplicity of those who sailed upon it. Unlike the fishermen who became their chief subject, the painters of the Newlyn School, including Walter Langley, Stanhope Forbes and Laura Knight, were able to observe the sea from a safe distance, creating sombre portraits of fishwives praying for their husbands’ return to harbour and fishermen lamenting their lack of catch.  Alfred Wallis, (1855-1942), was first fisherman, then painter. He began his career as a mariner, sailing schooners between Penzance and Newfoundland, and later became a deep-sea fisherman, operating out of St Ives. It was only in the wake of his wife’s death in 1922, when Wallis was seventy, that his attention turned to painting. Like the ‘Ship Portrait’, one of the earliest forms of maritime art, most of Wallis’s paintings were of the ships he himself had worked upon, done on scraps of old cardboard with thick ship paint. He painted six days a week, his cottage soon filled with his artworks. Wallis’s work was championed as an example of ‘naïve art’ – art made by those without formal training, recognisable for its distorted scales and skewed perspectives. To view a Wallis painting is to feel like you are floating somewhere above the scene: the boats themselves dwarf the land, while cartoonish figures perch upon their decks. It is a world away from the remote, melancholic depictions of the sea and the men who work upon it envisioned by the Newlyn School artists. In a letter to the art collector H.S. Ede, Wallis wrote that he worked “out of my own Memery what we may never see again as Things are altered all to gether.” Painting allowed him to hold onto the past, while all around him the old boats he had known were being broken up in favour of mechanised trawlers. He painted the sea because it was all he knew, because what other subject could there possibly be for a man who had lived a life half on the water? Wallis and Miller’s devotion to their subject reminds me of the American poet Elizabeth Bishop, for whom the sea was equally a constant theme. In ‘At The Fishhouses’, she wrote “I have seen it over and over, the same sea”. The sea is an attractive subject because it both is and is not the same each time you turn again to face it. Perhaps this is what makes art pertaining to the sea so compelling; one experiences a sense of yearning while viewing them, feeling keenly that what we are seeing will never be the final word, will never be the same sea.
img READ MORE

Mini Marvels

November 20, 2020
The magnetic nature of portrait miniatures, and the dealers fighting for their future. Billy Jobling Billy Jobling is Senior Writer and Researcher in the Post-War and Contemporary Art department at Christie's, London. Portrait miniatures are often found in eighteenth-century society paintings, but you wouldn’t know they’re there. What might be seen is a chain, on which a miniature was worn like a pocket watch. The portrait would be tucked under clothing, on the left, close to the heart; it faced inwards, so that nobody else could see it. Henry Pierce Bone, Louisa, Countess of Craven, 1836. Image courtesy of Elle Shushan ‘They’re really very different from large portraits that were meant to hang over the fireplace’, Elle Shushan explains. ‘That was your public self, and miniatures were your private self.’ A third-generation specialist – the Latter-Schlesinger Collection of portrait miniatures in the New Orleans Museum of Art belonged to her great-uncle, and later her aunt – Elle grew up with these objects. Today, based in Philadelphia, she is one of the world’s leading dealers in the field, and works with many prominent public and private collections. While the fashion for wearing miniatures may have peaked some two centuries ago, their intimacy still speaks powerfully to collectors. ‘They’re all personal,’ says Elle, ‘whether or not you even know who is pictured. Because unlike a larger portrait, you can only really view these by holding them. And if you’re holding something, it’s a personal object. They were never meant for public consumption – they were always meant for the eye of the recipient only.’ In 1785, the Prince of Wales – the future King George IV – sent his mistress, Maria Fitzherbert, a discreet love token: a picture of his right eye, painted on a tiny ivory panel. The pair wed in secret soon afterwards. George was said to wear a miniature of Maria’s eye in a locket wherever he went. An aristocratic fad ensued. Eye miniatures were later made to mourn George’s daughter, Princess Charlotte, who died in 1817. Dr David Skier and his wife, Nan, began acquiring these uncanny, jewel-like windows to the soul on a whim in the 1990s – Dr Skier is an ophthalmologist. They became hooked, and now house the world’s largest collection at their home in Birmingham, Alabama. Having already worked on a 2012 exhibition and accompanying catalogue of the Skier Collection, Elle is now deep into volume two, to be published in spring next year. John Downman, A.R.A. Portrait of a Lady, circa 1790. Image courtesy of Elle Shushan Such devoted collectors go to great lengths to obtain their miniatures, and rarely part with them. More casual buyers in America, however, have become cautious since the introduction of a draconian ivory ban in 2014. Under the new rules, no ivory of any age, under any circumstances, can be shipped in or out of the country. ‘This came out of left-field’, Elle tells me. ‘It was a presidential order – nobody knew it was coming. I got stuck with about seventy pieces in London that I can never bring home. I tried for a couple of years to keep two stocks, and to continue selling at Masterpiece, but it became just financially impossible.’ While state laws vary across America, there is an exemption for miniatures in New York, where an object can still be sold if it is more than a hundred years old and less than twenty percent ivory. ‘I made a presentation,’ says Elle, ‘and they actually used my wording: that ivory in miniatures is absolutely as thin as a piece of paper, and if it’s not translucent it doesn’t work for what you’re painting on ivory for. So in New York, although it’s a long, complicated, time-consuming process, they will give you licenses.’ In 2018, the UK introduced its own stringent Ivory Act, which has yet to come into force. Here, too, portrait miniatures from before 1918 will be exempt with the right certification. But the maximum proportion of ivory allowed in other objects – which must be pre-1947 – is just ten percent. Pre-1918 objects containing more ivory are permitted only if they meet the forbiddingly high standard of ‘museum quality’. Samuel Shelley, The Gaily children, 1804. Image courtesy of Elle Shushan ‘The de minimis rule is one thing that I really objected to’, says Alastair Gibson, who deals in Chinese ceramics and works of art. ‘I said that ten percent was far too low for worthy art objects, which could be wholly made of ivory. You won’t be able to sell, in theory, something like a beautiful Ming Dynasty figure of a Guanyin, even though it could be three or four hundred years old. The ban never made any sense, and it still doesn’t for those who are in the art business. It’s punitive.’ Alastair sees the ban as a knee jerk reaction to public sentiment, and as symptomatic of a diminished appreciation of art history. He was one of the directors of FACT – the Friends of Antique Cultural Treasures – who brought an action to fight the ban in the High Court. ‘It was interesting in the first hearing, when we took along a few objects’, Alastair says. ‘It was clear that anything that looked like a piece of ivory, the judge found it slightly abhorrent, and couldn’t really see the artistic value. But as soon as you showed him a portrait miniature, the face changed.’ The court rejected FACT’s appeal, and the Ivory Act is due to come into effect. Brexit and the pandemic, however, have pushed it low down the government’s agenda, where it may remain for some time yet. As for miniatures, Elle is hopeful that she can return to England next year for The Open Art Fair, to share these small wonders as she has for the past twenty-seven years. ‘There’s something absolutely hypnotic about opening a case, or opening the drawer of a tiny cabinet’, she says. ‘They’re new every time you look at them.’  
img READ MORE

Profile: David L. Mason OBE

February 08, 2024
By Michael Prodger Michael Prodger writes on art for a wide range of newspapers and journals including the Sunday Times, Times, Guardian, Financial Times, and Spectator. He is currently Associate Editor of the New Statesman and art critic for both the New Statesman and Standpoint magazines. He has been a judge on various literary prizes, including the Man Booker, the Samuel Johnson, the David Cohen and the Costa prizes. David L. Mason started life as a dealer on his knees. In 1956, at the age of 17, he joined his father Leslie MacConnal-Mason in the family business in Duke Street, St James’s in London, and found himself, somewhat to his surprise, cleaning the doorstep and toilet. With a table, a chair, a six-month renewable lease and £15,000 in the bank, Mason’s fledgling career was not a glamorous one. Now, shortly to turn 85, the MacConnal-Mason Gallery owns two buildings on Duke Street and Mason’s son, David MacConnal Mason, represents the fourth generation to take the business on.  David L Mason OBE Courtesy of MacConnal-Mason Gallery Mason senior is an amiable and gregarious figure, a natural raconteur, from whom, as he sits among the Georgian furniture in his plum-coloured office, stories flow effortlessly. Some are about the picture business, such as the time he and Andrew Lloyd Webber offered the Puerto Rican industrialist and politician Luis A Ferré £10 million for Lord Leighton’s celebrated Flaming June and were gently rebuffed, and some more randomly colourful, such as being brought before a magistrate for a mere half dozen driving offences committed just a day after first gaining his licence. Eugene de Blaas The Venetian Flower Vendor Courtesy of MacConnal-Mason Gallery With his rival Richard Green, “We’ve scrapped over the years… competition is integral to being a dealer”, Mason is one of the most venerable picture dealers in London. The gallery specialises in 19th-century British and Continental works – fancy pictures, seascapes, Impressionist landscapes, Dutch works and figure paintings – and early modern British works by the likes of Henry Moore and LS Lowry. “We cater for the majority of tastes”, he says. Not quite: he goes nowhere near “that contemporary crap they are playing around with” in galleries nearby. Sir A J Munnings Lord Astor's High Stakes Courtesy of MacConnal-Mason Gallery Mason reckons that over the decades he has sold perhaps 300,000-400,000 paintings at every price range. As he helped Lloyd Webber build his spectacular collection, a relationship that has lasted more than 20 years, he paid £10 million for Canaletto’s The Old Horseguards from St James's Park and £18 million for Picasso’s Blue period portrait of Angel Fernandez de Soto. The business has £15 million worth of Lowry’s in stock, he says, although the majority of MacConnal-Mason paintings aren’t quite as stratospheric. While Mason has watched the market turn increasingly towards more modern works, his clientele nevertheless remains steadfast.  L.S Lowry Excavating in Manchester Courtesy of MacConnal-Mason Gallery So, how would he treat someone who walks off the street and says: “I know nothing about art but I want to start a collection”? Mason ponders: “I’d say, ‘I need a day with you.’ We’d have breakfast, lunch and dinner together. We’d go to the National Gallery, for two hours – you can’t look at pictures for more than two hours – and by the end of the day I’d know what you like.” It is a personal process that he makes sound very much like a courtship. Then “I’d keep showing you pictures and see your reaction. I’d tell you the price of things and why they cost that much. And I’d remind you that one good painting is better than 25 also-rans.” Mason is unsniffy about collectors’ motivations. He has dealt with enough of them to know that buying paintings for aesthetic reasons is, for a commercial gallery, no more valid than buying for investment or for “furnishing”. His own taste is, he says, for “top quality” and he is particularly fond of the Impressionists, James Tissot and Constable’s The Hay Wain – “People say, ‘It’s too bloody obvious.’ No, it’s not.” Paintings, however, are not his only interest. For many years he was a driving force behind the battle to compensate the families of Thalidomide victims – his daughter Louise was one of them. The campaign was successful, not least because of Mason’s insistence, backed up by badgering Harold Wilson, that payments should be tax free. While from the ages of 18 to 80 he was a competitive racing driver – endurance cars mostly – winning numerous races of note. He retired from racing just three years ago and sold six of his Ferraris. Did he make money on them? “I do better with pictures. A car dealer I am not.” He perceives one similarity between driving cars at 200mph and dealing paintings though: “lunacy”. Courtesy of MacConnal-Mason Gallery Nonetheless, it is his achievements as a dealer of which he is most proud. “After all, I’ve been doing it for more than 60 years and it’s been brilliant,” and he is still dreaming up plans for the company’s future. However, he adds a cavil: “Some people might say that if you are still sodding about with pictures at 84 ‘You can’t have been that successful.’” And for the record, he has no points on his driving licence.  
img READ MORE

Collecting Ian Fleming

January 11, 2024
Iconic characters can demand iconic prices. By Alexander Larman “The name’s Bond. James Bond.” Five of the most iconic words in cinema, and, of course, they owe their immortality to Commander Ian Fleming, the man who created Bond in 1953’s Casino Royale. He was a character who owed a great deal to his author, given Fleming’s own distinguished career in military intelligence and penchant for wine, women and cigarettes. In doing so, the writer gave the world one of its most beloved heroes. Yet Fleming also remains one of the most avidly collected of all twentieth century novelists, whose books can be found in any self-respecting bibliophile’s collection. Not bad, really, for a man who said of Casino Royale to a friend that “I really am thoroughly ashamed of it ... after rifling through this muck you will probably never speak to me again, but I have got to take that chance.”  Today, a first edition of his first novel inscribed to his fellow novelist Paul Gallico can be bought from Jonkers Rare Books for an impressive £125,000; an unsigned copy of the same book in what Christiaan Jonkers calls “well used, but not irredeemable condition” will set you back a rather less dear but still punchy £22,500. Yet Fleming is one of those authors, like J.R.R. Tolkien and Roald Dahl, whose books represent a blue-chip investment; they have been in fashion for seventy years, show no signs of getting less popular, and, as the casting of the next James Bond actor is eagerly awaited – my money’s on James Norton – continue to represent the pinnacle of contemporary book collecting.  Ian Fleming, Casino Royale. Inscribed to Paul Gallico. Images courtesy of Jonkers Rare Books. According to Jonkers, who sells the books from his shop in Henley-on-Thames, the reasons for their success is straightforward. “Despite the books appearing somewhat dated now, Fleming created something with a timeless appeal in James Bond, with his juxtaposition of just-unobtainable glamour and all too obvious flaws that can be easily appreciated by audiences over a seventy-year span with very little fundamental change.  And Fleming was a journalist who wrote in a very spare but meticulously detailed way, presenting the reader with all the information needed to form a precise image, but with very little unnecessary verbiage.  This made the style and feel of the books very easy to translate to film scripts.”  Jonkers initially began dealing in the books in the early Nineties, and now says “One of my earliest projects was helping a customer who had become quite successful in the entertainment world to build a Fleming collection.  We started with a set of first editions in perfect condition, something that was quite attainable then, but not valued to the extent it is now.  They were often just sitting on people’s bookshelves unnoticed.  Not infrequently, I would be visiting friends at home and they would have a small clutch of Flemings sitting on the bookshelf, which had been bought by their parents as they came out in the 50s and 60s, read once and left untouched.” He quips “I think the book trade must have thought I was printing them.”  The signed copy Jonkers is currently selling is rare, because, as he notes, “though happy to inscribe his books, Fleming only tended to do so for friends and acquaintances.” When asked if he has any more affordable titles, he remarks “We currently have a copy of Thunderball, inscribed to a journalist colleague for £12,500 which is about as inexpensive as you might expect to pay for an inscribed first edition.  One occasionally sees signed reprints for sale which should cost less, but are very much less desirable.  One also sees forgeries on the market from time to time.  When buying material of this sort the usual rules of common sense apply: buy from an experienced and knowledgeable bookseller and if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”  Yet these pale in comparison to the pièce-de-résistance the dealer is offering, Fleming’s original corrected typescript of Diamonds are Forever, copiously annotated by the author in his distinctive blue biro, and retailing for a cool £350,000. As Jonkers says of it, “I have handled a number of manuscripts, though none as early or as heavily reworked as this.  The final revised typescript of 'Diamonds Are Forever' with Ian Fleming's autograph revisions throughout. Image courtesy of Jonkers Rare Books. The annotations are interesting, not just as historical artefacts, but also as an insight in Fleming’s creative process of bringing James Bond into print.  It is now the third time I have owned it, having bought it back twice within the space of 20 years.  It really should be in a museum or long-term private collection.”  There are other hugely desirable items of Fleming memorabilia that Jonkers has sold in the past – a copy of Live and Let Die inscribed to Winston Churchill, for instance, and an edition of Moonraker signed for Raymond Chandler – but as the bookseller comments, ‘One of the attractive things about collecting Fleming is that all of the books are relatively attainable.  There are esoteric oddities, variants, copies in different coloured ‘trail’ bindings etc., but most collectors aren’t very interested in those. Of the mainstream books, the most difficult to find is probably a Moonraker in perfect condition. The dustwrapper design is orange and yellow flames on a white background and almost as soon as the book is exposed to light the orange and yellow fade and the white tans. I have probably only seen two or three genuinely perfect examples of the jacket in some thirty years.”  Moonraker Ian Fleming, this first edition on offer by Jonkers Rare Books is one of those rare copies with little fading to the dustwrapper. Image courtesy of Jonkers Rare Books. The less well-heeled Fleming collector does have a few options; a copy of the final James Bond book, Octopussy and the Living Daylights, can usually be found for around £200, and the first editions of the Pan paperbacks retail for under £100, even now. Yet there has also been mild controversy when it comes to the author lately, with Live and Let Die being edited and rewritten at the behest of ‘sensitivity readers’, deleting racial slurs that are thought to be unpalatable today. Does Jonkers ever believe that there will be a time when Fleming and Bond shake, rather than stir, book collectors? “I think that Fleming’s books will have a following for at least a generation after they stop making the films. After that point it is hard to tell whether the cultural momentum would be enough to propel the Fleming bandwagon in perpetuity, but I think, in any case, it is unlikely that anyone living today will see a time where Ian Fleming and James Bond is not well known.”  007 may have had a licence to kill, but, in today’s ever-fertile bibliophile market, dealers in his work have a licence to print money, as the titles become ever-more sought after: a state of affairs that shows no signs of changing.
img READ MORE

Feminist Literature

December 07, 2023
The gender pay-gap in the world of antiquarian books. by Francesca Peacock If Margaret Cavendish; the 17th century Duchess of Newcastle and polymath, poet, philosopher, and scientist, had been in New York in December 2022, she may well have had the shock of a lifetime. Not just for the obvious reasons (she would have to be a well-preserved 400 years old, or a spectral ghost), but for something rather more exciting. As she swanned into Christie’s in the Rockefeller Plaza, she would have seen one of her own books on sale: a first edition of her first volume, Poems and Fancies (1653).     This edition has been well-looked after, and well-loved. Its title page bears two hand-written inscriptions of ownership: the first, an “Elizabeth Pain” on the “13th January 16?3”, and the second, nearly a century later, “Elias Harry Paine and Mary Paine, their book 1747”. Cavendish may well have been delighted to know that her book — the book that got her the reputation of being mad; more insane than the “soberer people in Bedlam” — was still being valued in the century after her death. But, she would have been infinitely more excited to know that, in December last year, that very same book sold for no less than $30,240 — nearly three times its estimate sale price of between $8000 and $12,000.     Just seven years ago – in 2015 – an edition of the same book in a comparable condition, sold for only $2750. Back in 2011, a collection of five of her works from across her career had an estimate between £6,000 and £8,000.   Poems and Fancies by Margaret Cavendish, a group of 5 volumes that was offered by Sotheby's with an estimate of £6,000-8,000. What on earth has happened, then, to the valuation of Margaret Cavendish’s works? Her fortune is, in fact, part of a broader picture of the increasing price for early modern women’s writing. In the same lot that saw Poems and Fancies reach over $30,000, a first edition of Katherine Philips’s work — the 17th century Royalist poet and Cavendish’s contemporary — reached some $13,860. In 2016, another copy of the very same edition, fetched only £900.     It’s a picture of commercial value increasing which can be echoed for almost every other women early modern writer, from Aphra Behn (a collection of poems sold in 2008 for £750; individual plays now reach over £6,000), to, a century later, Mary Wollstonecraft. In 2018, a copy of her ground-breaking work of feminist thought, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman sold for over £10,000. At the turn of the millennium, the same work reached only £1,840.     Indeed, if other women’s writing is anything to go by, the sky is the limit with auction prices: just in September 2021, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein went for $1.17 million — the most ever paid for a printed work by a woman. A year later in 2022, a small book of handwritten, previously unseen “ryhmes” by Charlotte Brontë went for $1.25 million. 'A Book of Ryhmes' by Charlotte Brontë. Image courtesy of James Cummins Bookseller. There’s evidently a gulf between these record-breaking figures — books by some of the largest female names in the literary canon — and the smaller sums reached by the likes of Margaret Cavendish, but what do these increases in value mean?     The increase in value speaks to a greater interest in historic women’s writing more generally. For Margaret Cavendish, collectors are paying more for her works just as she has become, rightly, a “hot” academic topic, and as discussions of ground-breaking nature (she was, amongst other “firsts”, the author of the inaugural work of science fiction  — The Blazing World). Finally, her work — and that by other early modern women who were so brave to publish their work — is being valued by collectors.     But, it’s too easy to tie monetary value to literary and critical importance. In the art world, this assumption that has long seen art by women thought to be less “good”. It’s a recognised phenomenon, the art world’s gender pay gap and self-perpetuating cycle; the price ticket attached to the art becomes a short-hand for its artistic merit and the factors which have influenced it — the historic undervaluing of women’s work — are ignored.  Does the increase in value of these women’s books suggest that the rare book market has avoided this issue? Unfortunately not. Even while the price for women’s writing is increasing, it is still nowhere as high as the auction records for men’s writing: in a list of over 150 books sold at auction for over a million dollars, women author’s names — six, in total —  are rare enough to count on your fingers. Financially, at least, women’s writing is still nowhere near as valued as that by men. But, of course, for all that the record-breaking price reached by Frankenstein pales in comparison to some of the prices reached by men’s books, nobody could argue that Mary Shelley’s work was not incredibly important; a seismic contribution to literature. With books, as with art, there’s always a judgement beyond the monetary.     And, for every story of an increase in value — Margaret Cavendish’s upturned fortunes, or Katherine Philips’s — there’s a story of jaw-droppingly-low prices. Currently for sale on Oxfam is a copy of Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets  — poems written in the last two decades of the 18th century, beloved by writers from William Wordsworth to John Keats. It’s a slightly battered copy of the sixth edition (Charlotte saw ten editions of her poems published in her life-time; she was incredibly popular) but it is still only selling for £100. It is hard to think what other antique or artefact from the 18th century would sell for that little, not least one which includes sonnets that Samuel Taylor Coleridge described as “creating a sweet and indissoluble union between the intellectual and the material world”.     From Cavendish to Charlotte Smith — now might well be the time to snap up some literary bargains, before their prices rise even more. But, just don’t take any bargains you come by as proof of their lesser literary merit.  Mary Shelley's letters are also collected. This autograph letter signed to Frederic Mansel Reynolds is offered by Peter Harrington Rare Books.
img READ MORE

The Allure of Imperfection

November 30, 2023
Condition is everything, including for those pieces that are purposefully restored. By Emma Chrichton-Miller As everyone in today’s art and antiques market is aware, condition is everything. Collectors are increasingly disinclined to take on objects which are not immaculate.  A handsome degree of patina on some Georgian furniture is allowed, but otherwise gleaming perfection is the order of the day. There is one field of collecting however where there is leeway. Japanese craftsmen have long espoused the values of imperfection encapsulated in the phrase, wabi-sabi. It was the fifteenth-century Buddhist monk, Murata Shukō, creator of the Zen-influenced tea-ceremony, who is credited with developing an aesthetic of deficiency. He suggested that alongside Chinese ceramics, with their regular forms and perfect glazes, practitioners of the tea ceremony should also use humbler, rustic Japanese wares which bear the marks of their making. One quote ascribed to him, from a document now known as the Kokoro no fumi (“Letter of the heart”), is the saying, 'A moon which is not behind clouds is disagreeable.’ The lesson from this is the beauty also of transience: that it is the movement of the clouds to reveal and conceal the moon as it itself moves, that makes the scene so beautiful. At last year’s Treasure House Fair there were two objects that derived directly from that tradition - the tea bowls of Raku Kichizaemon XV on show at Offer Waterman. These lively, irregular raku tea bowls, though made in 1987 and 2002, reach back through centuries. The gallery explains that “the artist uses clay often prepared three generations ago by his ancestors in the creation of these rich and rugged tea bowls. It is this permanence and continuity [that] sits at the heart of the family tradition.” These works also display an affinity with Offer Waterman’s Modern British art works. This is partly because during the 1920s the British potter Bernard Leach brought these Eastern ideas directly into the mainstream of thinking about art, design and craft in Britain, with his writings but also with the founding of his Leach pottery in St Ives, in 1920, aided by the Japanese potter, Shoji Hamada. Offer Waterman regularly shows other potters within this Anglo-Oriental tradition - including the highly various works of Lucie Rie, which revel in the accidents of form that arise in the moment of throwing and the ebullient drips or volcanic explosions of glaze that her once-firing method encouraged. White Raku Rekiyū type tea bowl named Ganshō (Pine Tree on the Rock), c.1987 by Raku Kichizaemon XV b. 1949. Image courtesy of Offer Waterman. Dutch artist Bouke de Vries, who is presented by Adrian Sassoon, takes the idea of imperfection further. An expert in the restoration of priceless historical ceramics, some years ago de Vries began to make art works that emphasised rather than hiding what he describes as being the most dramatic moment in the art work’s life. De Vries comments, “I was always a bit bemused by people’s obsession with things being perfect. In ceramics, damage is a no no. And yet we venerate the Venus de Milo.” Recognising that the fragments of fine ceramics had their own poetic power, he has used these to create a range of new vessels. Sometimes he uses kintsugi, or the art of mending visibly with gold leaf; sometimes he collages pieces together from different broken pots to create a new whole, vibrant with its own life; and sometimes he places the broken pieces of a historic piece inside a transparent glass vessel shaped to offer a ghostly match for the original form. 18th century Worcester porcelain teapot fragments with butterflies within a perspex box, 2022, by Bouke de Vries. Image courtesy of Adrian Sassoon. Another aspect of wabi-sabi, or the valuing of impermanence and imperfection, is a love of nature and natural processes. At last year’s Treasure House Fair, Geoffrey Diner Gallery showed some of the beautiful tables by Japanese-American craftsman and designer George Nakashima. These take their form from the untrimmed shape of the original tree, whether cut length ways or across the trunk. At the root of his philosophy of making was the idea, expressed on his website, "A tree is our most intimate contact with nature.” As humans, throughout history, we have seen ourselves reflected in nature. This lies behind the traditional admiration of many Chinese and Japanese scholars for strange and marvellous twists of root or branch or stone, which tease the imagination. Dealers Patrick and Ondine Mestdagh, from Brussels, exhibitors at Treasure House Fair, have available currently a Japanese bamboo scholar's object or “okimono”. Depending upon your angle of vision, this entirely natural object looks like a dragon or an insect or the branch of a tree.  A Lighthouse Called Kanata is a Tokyo-based gallery committed to introducing to Western as well as Eastern audiences contemporary art works inspired by a distinctly Japanese aesthetic. One of their artists is Osamu Yokoyama, a graphic designer turned master of bamboo. He captures the wayward organic energy of the material and turns it to his own expressive purposes. As the gallery suggests: “For it is within its bends and curves, its ability to be cut, bound and stretched to its limits, that one can find the meandering, ethereal and poignant vicissitudes of life itself.” Yakinuki type black Raku tea bowl named Kikyorai (Homecoming), 2002. By Raku Kichizaemon XV b. 1949. Ceramic. Image courtesy of Offer Waterman. 3 7/8 x 4 3/4 x 4 3/4 inches / 9.7 x 12.2 x 11.9 cm Raku seal impressed on the base of the bowl. Further: inscribed on the lid of the box Yakinuki Kuro (Yakinuki Black) and Kikyorai on the underside of the lid with kao cypher reading Kichi-Mitsu, as well as the inscription reading Hinoe-uma no toshi Aki (Autumn 2002), the artist's signature Kichizaemon XV (seal) on the base of the box. Learn more in this video about the artist.  
img READ MORE

The Magic of Mood

November 23, 2023
The legacy of dealer decorators such as Robert Kime, Christopher Gibbs and Geoffrey Bennison is that they recognised that antiques had the capacity to transform the mood of a room. By Giles Kime Giles Kime is Executive and Interiors Editor at Country Life. Anyone born much after the swinging sixties will remember a time when good antiques were treated with the sort of reverence normally reserved for senior clergy and decorated soldiers. Knowledge of their past lent them a glow; names like ‘Hepplewhite’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Gillow’ were uttered in the same hushed tones as ‘Major General’ or ‘Archdeacon.’ They still do; pedigree and provenance still rules the world of antiques and rightly, so. The origins of a piece and the hands and houses through which they subsequently passed adds an extra dimension that is transformative and which has the potential to add significantly to its allure.  But it was in the sixties that a new type of antique expert emerged on the scene - and with them a very different type of client. In following decades, Christopher Gibbs, Geoffrey Bennison, Robert Kime, David Mlinaric and Piers Westenholz - most of whom plied their trade around London’s Pimlico Road - recognised that as well as having historic and aesthetic value, antiques also offer a unique opportunity to cast a spell over a space. It wasn’t just clients such as Lord Rothschild and Weidenfeld who bought into this philosophy but also a new generation from the world of film and music, including Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, David Putnam and Terence Stamp. ‘Chrissie Gibbs sought out the unique, the unusual and the unrelated, so you might have a 17th-century sculpture next to a piece of Arts-and-Crafts furniture on a beautiful rug, creating that soft, sleepy aged sense of beauty,’ says the antique dealer Will Fisher of Jamb in London. The emphasis was as much on the whole as it was on the sum of the parts. Richard Coles of Godson and Coles concurs with the sentiment; 'Quality antiques bring depth and gravitas creating focal points in a room, generating a tangible and exciting atmosphere that is timeless, interesting and less liable to date,’ he says.  One of the late Robert Kimes’s most influential projects was the gentle transformation of South Wraxall Manor in Wiltshire for John Taylor and his wife, Geela Nash Taylor, the founder of Juicy Couture. It was not just structural changes such as re-opening the loggia to the outside that brought this beautiful 15th-century house back to life but the extraordinary mixture of furniture and fabrics that lend the house its highly distinctive mood. ‘It had to have some ordinary things in it - and some wonderful things too,’ he commented. And so it does;  the study is furnished with a French ebony and Boulle desk and a gilt mirror, while the family sitting room is anchored by a pastel Smyrna rug. Elsewhere there are antique pelmets, bed hangings, curtains and upholstery as well as embroidered suzanis. There are 18th-century French twin beds in their original Toile de Jouy fabrics, hand-painted DeGournay paper and the Spanish painted leather walls that provide magical backdrops. The value of these ingredients to the succession of spaces was not just as individual pieces but also as components in an entity that enhanced the mood of the building. The drawing room at Wraxhall, designed by Robert Kime. Image courtesy of Robert Kime, photographer Tessa Traeger. Key to the South Wraxall project was the mix of styles and eras; European and Middle Eastern, 17th-century with 18th, ordinary with the extraordinary. That perhaps is one the greatest features of the work of the dealer decorators; in their search for magic, they refused to be hidebound by the period of a building. As a result, the alchemy of their work relied on juxtaposing one piece with another, regardless of its origin. It was a dramatic shift away from interior design projects of the past that had been burdened by historicism and involved furnishing rooms with pieces that were from the same period as the houses they occupied.  What has been exciting about this seismic shift in approach is the creativity that it has precipitated at every level of the market; freed from the constraints of connoisseurship, the process of decorating with antiques has become more creative. While academic rigour still prevails, so too does a celebration of beauty for beauty’s sake and the form, colour and texture that they bring to an interior.  
img READ MORE

Armour To Suit Anyone

November 16, 2023
Do you need a full set of medieval armour in your life? Perhaps a replica for the re-enactment circuit will do? By Charles Hartley Charles Harley is the Director of Hartleys Auctions and specialises in arms, militaria and taxidermy. As an auctioneer I have a wonderfully varied life, not just in the items, but the situations I find myself in. Harking back to the earliest part of my career, I visited a semi-derelict property via a particularly sheepish solicitor. The front door remained fixed as the warped wood had fused shut, giving it “the shoulder” it burst open sending me unbalanced and heavy into the hallway where the wormed floorboards started giving way underfoot. As if in a scene from Indiana Jones, I scrambled to safety into a room veiled in the dull darkness of cigarette-stained net curtains. Once my eyes adjusted, I was met with the most amazing scene, as if this suburban bungalow was transformed to a castle armoury, lay before me was a myriad of weapons; from drums to spears, from sabres to muskets. Although within this surplus there had been some real treasures, the piece that held my attention the most was a Cuirassier breast-plate excitingly pierced by two musket balls; unlike any other item in the market, this damage only increased value as it left the stark imprint of its gruesome past. Composite South German heavy field armour, partly Nuremberg, circa 1540, with a North Italian close helmet, circa 1570. Sold for £11,000, including buyers premium, by Olympia Auctions. I spoke to Thomas Del Mar, founder of Olympia Auctions famed for their sales of Armour. He painted a picture of a highly diverse demographic of buyers, from your focused and dedicated collectors through to your interior designers. One thing said that really stuck with me was the fact that armour can reflect value for money. Effective musket fire made armour relatively redundant in the 1600s, so much of the full suits you see will be 16th century or earlier, yet many sale results fall within the £8 -16-thousand-pound range and as Thomas said “You find me a sculpture from the 1500s for less!”. He is absolutely right, the artisan nature of their creation, the history that they represent and their beauty in a modern context sings to me more than carved marble. Such a piece can be seen from a German heavy field armour from 1540 with later Italian helmet, that found a new home for a mere £11,000. Of course, not all armour (suits or otherwise) are “bargains”, often being owned by the rich and used in historically defining moments, strong provenance or quality can send prices rocketing. For example, Olympia Auctions recently reached a whopping £96,000 for an important German etched, gilt and embossed burgonet helmet – bosting strong provenance and stunning quality. Keith Dowen, curator at the Royal Armouries in Leeds, suggested that now was not the best time for armour. He felt the UK market had contracted since Brexit and few major collections had been under the hammer since. He also felt that armour remained largely unaffordable to younger enthusiasts and although careful scouring of the European market can turn up the odd bargain, there are few “sleepers” these days. But I suppose it depends what you mean by a “bargain”, though I am not in a position to throw £15k at a suit of armour and I know my wife would not forgive me if I did, as a value relative to anything else it does seem affordable. Even with less to spend you can pick up a genuine antique but not a period piece, in the form of Victorian armour produced for the purpose of decorating grand houses for between £800 - £2,000. An important South German etched, gilt and embossed closed burgonet, Ausburg, circa 1555-1560. The etching attributed to Jörg Sorg the Younger. Sold for £96,000, including buyers premium, by Olympia Auctions. There even sits a colourful market for modern armour, from cosplay and its armour-plated brassieres, reenactors fighting an eternal battle with historic accuracy, to the extremely serious world of full-contact armoured combat; where you can quite literally knock seven shades of steel out of each other. I think with all three modern forms, beyond the fun, socialising and in the latter case great exercise, there is an element of escapism. I must stress that I do not see this negatively, a lot can be gained from stepping back to a simpler rawer time where the dogmas of modern life are abandoned and in exploring the ways in which our ancestors lived and died, we can ground ourselves. Speaking to Jake Coles of Armoured Combat Gloucester, he sees it as a niche but growing market where everyone from ex-soldiers to accountants, sharing a love of history, contact sports and in many cases computer games, can really “let loose”. The modern suits are mostly made in Russia and Ukraine (currently tricky), often costing £3,000 or more – interesting when you reflect on the value of the antiques.  So, whether you are a student of history, fancy an interior show piece or identify as Sir Lancelot at the weekend, there is a suit for you. Armour is quite literally a tangible representation of history, whether it be armour worn by those who ruled, or worn by those who with a single axe blow changed the world forever, it cannot fail to strike awe and inspiration.
img READ MORE

The Ladybird Book, Wikipedia in Technicolour

November 09, 2023
The conveniently pocket sized books that proliferated for a time are not hard for an enthusiast to find. By Lucy Lethbridge Lucy Lethbridge writes writes for magazines including The Observer, The Sunday Telegraph and The Times Literary Supplement. She has also written popular history books for both adults and children, most recently a book on the British as tourists.   Between the 1950s and the 1970s, before the internet, when children watched television for an hour a day, the defining images of a British childhood were found in Ladybird books. Their colourful illustrations were instantly recognisable, they were full of wondrous information and ‘amaze your friends’ skills to master, Ladybirds were the background to mid-twentieth-century growing up. It would be hard to find anyone born before 1980 who wouldn’t pounce delightedly on a battered Ladybird: they are old friends.  Ladybird titles ran into thousands. There were series on garden birds, fairy tales, kings and queens, shopping with mother, nuclear power and steam locomotion. There is virtually nothing that hasn’t been covered comprehensively but succinctly by a Ladybird book, Wikipedia in technicolour. In the 1960s, the Ministry of Defence even recommended its employees read the ‘Computer’ edition from the Ladybird ‘How it Works’ series. Some of the 'How it Works' series of ladybird books. Image courtesy of Helen Day. Ladybirds emerged in Loughborough, from Wills & Hepworth, a printing company which had, since 1914, produced basic, black and white illustrated children’s books under the ‘Ladybird’ imprint. In 1939, the company spotted a market for reassuring stories that chimed with ‘Children’s Hour’ on the wireless. The range was expanded and given a recognisable logo – a ladybird with open wings. The series kicked off in 1940 with ‘Bunnikins’ Picnic Party.’ Wartime paper shortages necessitated the pocket size which would shape the look of Ladybirds for the next three decades. It was the arrival of the visionary Douglas Keen in 1952 which moved Ladybirds away from Bunnikins and into the cosmos and everything in it. Keen saw that post-war changes in social attitudes about education, a new Education Act, the opening of comprehensive schools and a standardised curricula opened up a new seam of publishing. In 1953, British Birds and their Nests was the first non-fiction Ladybird, illustrated by Allan W Seaby, celebrated for his Japanese-influenced woodcuts of birds. In 1959, the logo was changed to the familiar Ladybird with closed wings. By the time Keen retired in 1972, the year Ladybird was sold to the Pearson group, the imprint had acquired a near impregnable dominion of the bookshelves of British children. But it marked the end of the Ladybird golden age: the imprint still exist, now part of Penguin, but since the early 1980s has sunk in the now hugely competitive children’s book market; their current one-dimensional, computer-inspired illustrations no longer seem original or distinctive. Far more successful recently have been Jason Hazeley’s satirical Ladybirds for nostalgic grownups (‘How it Works: The Dad’; ‘The Story of Brexit’). An illustration from 'Bunnikins' Picnic Party'. A copy of the second imprint is currently listed for sale at £125. Image courtesy of the seller. Ladybirds had such enormous print runs that most are now easy to find for £2 or £3; many collectors will simply enjoy the pleasure of accumulating those coloured spines. Ladybird expert Helen Day (‘I have the collecting gene’), whose website www.ladybirdflyawayhome.com should be the first stop for anyone interested in starting a collection, says that the rare volumes are fiction, particularly those from the 1940s, hard to find in good condition as wartime rationed paper was so fragile. The books in the Tasseltips series, illustrated by Ernest Aris, have rarity value, as does ‘The Adventures of Wonk’ and ‘High Tide’ from the 1940s. Copies of The Impatient Horse (1953) have reached £350. Dating is difficult as Ladybirds don’t follow the antiquarian rules for first editions, instead listing the initial publication date on subsequent editions. Helen Day suggests going by price – and her website provides a useful chart. If the date is 1950 but the price is in 1970s decimal then you have a clue to date. The Ladybird completists’ holy grail, however, is still the brown-paper-covered edition of The Computer: How it Works that was rumoured to have been specially commissioned by the MOD to save its readers’ embarrassment. Is it out there? Helen Day is doubtful but it’s worth keeping an eye out. A copy of book three in the Ladybird 'Great Artists' series can be picked up for less than £5. Image courtesy of the seller. A shelf of Ladybirds is therefore a pleasure but in hardcore collecting terms not perhaps an investment. But what of the original artwork? The list of Ladybird artists is distinguished – and yet, says Helen Day, their work ‘consistently undersells.’ She has picked up pieces for between £25 and £100. The original illustrations, commissioned for a flat fee and returned to the artists when Pearson bought the imprint, were mostly gouache on board. Having gone to the Loughborough factory for print value checking, they were returned to the ownership of the artist in pristine condition. Decorative, figurative and full of detail, it is the magical pictures that make Ladybirds so compelling. And each illustrator brought a distinctive style. As Day puts it: ‘the skills of the artist are perfectly matched to the nature of the composition.’ Douglas Keen was a bold commissioner. Frank Hampson, for example, creator of sci-fi hero Dan Dare, illustrated the nursery rhymes. Ronald Lampitt (Birds and How they Live, What to Look For Inside a Church) had a style quite different from, for example, Martin Aitchison (Peter and Jane) or Charles Tunnicliffe (the What to Look for in … series).  Some of the original artwork is held in the University of Reading which houses the Ladybird collections following the closure of the Wills & Hepworth printing works in 1999 (a bereavement still remembered by those for whom ‘Loughborough was Ladybird’). But there is still ‘a lot out there’ says Helen Day whose travelling exhibition of Ladybird art (currently in Alnwick) is an inspiring place to start. Evocations of everything in the world from elves to cars to kitchens to rockpools: what a glorious thought.
img READ MORE

Once Banned, Now Prized

October 19, 2023
Early editions of James Joyce's Ulysses are notoriously full of errors but that's what makes them special. Francesca Peacock Francesca Peacock is an art, books and culture writer. When you think of Ulysses, what is it you picture: pasty-faced students, lost in the labyrinthine world of their essays and Dublin’s streets? Or perhaps one of its more glamourous readers: Marilyn Monroe with the book in the playground, her copy tellingly open at the last few pages of Molly Bloom’s famous “yes I said yes I will Yes” monologue?   Maybe what sticks in your mind is that illusive, perfect shade of Ulysses blue used in the first edition — a colour Joyce was so particular about that he had it custom-mixed by his artist friend Myron Nutting. It is thought that Joyce was aiming for a “Greek” blue — the colour of the country’s flag, but others have seen it as a “homage to glaucoma” and Joyce’s life-long eye problems. If that sounds like an oblique connection too far, you must remember that this is Ulysses we are dealing with: the book Joyce himself claimed he “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries”. The first edition is immortalised in a painting by Paul Cadmus: painted in 1931, Cadmus’s nude lover Jarred French looks out of the canvas with a first edition of Ulysses resting on his torso.  Ulysses, James Joyce. Edition: Paris - Shakespeare and Company, 1922. This copy was once on offer for £300,000. Images courtesy of Peter Harrington. First published a century ago, Ulysses’ publication history is anything but simple. It was the victim of an obscenity trial in the United States before it was even published as a result of the “Nausicaa” episode appearing in The Little White Review. In the offending scene, Leopold Bloom masturbates on a beach, and ponders tactics for seducing girls: “Nausicaa” is, admittedly, hardly something you’d recommend as a story for a class of four-year-olds. But in the grand scheme of Ulysses (magical sex-shifting prostitutes; orgasmic monologues; lecherous men stalking women around the city), it’s a bit like banning Dad’s Army for bad war jokes before Germany’s even been mentioned for the first time. Ulysses couldn’t legally be published in the US until 1933 after another trial: United States vs. One Book Called Ulysses. Random House, under the leadership of Bennett Cerf, produced an error-laden edition in 1934. Over in Europe, Sylvia Beach owner of the famous Parisian left-bank bookshop Shakespeare and Company, published 1000 copies with the famous blue cover. Chris Saunders, of the antiquarian bookshop Sotheran’s, pays homage to Beach’s “bravery and nous to publish a book that no one else would touch”. Of all Joyce’s works, Ulysses is this most collectible — and this edition more than any other. Of the first Paris edition, 100 copies were signed, and on Dutch handmade paper, 150 were numbered and printed on verge d’Arches paper (an expensive, watercolourist’s paper), and 750 were printed on bog standard handmade paper.  Ulysses, James Joyce. Edition: Paris - Shakespeare and Company, 1922. One of the copies distributed by Harriet Shaw Weaver. Image courtesy of Peter Harrington. One of the 100 copies printed on Dutch paper, in excellent condition was for sale at the London bookshop Peter Harrington for a cool £300,000, a lesser condition copy of the same is currently offered for £55,000. One of the 750 printed on the least special paper — but still in the first 1000 — can set you back over £60,000. Saunders remembers Sotheran’s selling one of the 750 of the first edition for £40,000 in recent years, but he draws attention to the “notoriously fragile” nature of the books — their much-prized blue cover is surprisingly flimsy. He says, “if you have a copy, get a box made for it!”  Just a few months later in 1922, The Egoist Press — under Harriet Shaw Weaver, whose magazine The Egoist had published some episodes as early as 1919 — published 2000 numbered copies of “the English edition” on handmade paper, using the same plates as the first edition. This edition included the first printed list of “errata” — something that would continue to dog Ulysses editions, and debates, for decades to come.  How can you tell what’s an error in Ulysses, and what is just authorial choice? Is a moment of punctuation in an otherwise punctuation-averse scene a strong authorial choice, or a grave printing error that ruins the episode’s meaning? One Joyce scholar, Jack Dalton, went as far as to claim that there were no fewer than 2000 errors in the first printed edition, whilst John Kidd — something of a maverick Joyce scholar — attacked Walter Gabler’s 1984 “corrected text“ as being “marbled with the fat of pseudo-restorations”. In response to what some of us may perceive as a minor errors (“beard” for “bread” and suchlike), Kidd responded — in The New York Review of Books, no less — “is no one awake at the wheel?”  Bronze of James Joyce’s death mask. Cast at Lunt’s Foundry Birmingham, 2017. For sale at Sotheran’s. Image courtesy of Henry Sotheran’s Antiquarian Bookdealers. There is, then, a certain irony to the fact that it is the most error-laden editions of Joyce that are now most prized by collectors: it isn’t the 1932 Odyssey Press edition — “specially revised, at the author’s request” — which, in 2009, sold at a record-breaking price. Indeed, you can buy each of the 1932 volumes for a mere £35 a piece. Blue covers they may lack, but they also have a corresponding absence of printing errors.  It is not just Ulysses which sells for brilliantly high prices: you can buy a bronze cast of Joyce’s death-mask for £4,300, whilst a manuscript notebook of the “Eumaeus” episode reached £861,250 in 2001, and something as seemingly slight — but highly erotic — as a letter between Joyce and his wife Nora went for £240,800 in 2004. If the irony of the error-laden copies reaching hundreds of thousands wasn’t enough, there’s an especial tragedy to the fact that the letter in question was written after the couple had quarrelled over a lack of money.  What would Joyce say if he could see the price his works raised today? Would he be uncharacteristically squeamish, or would he have the commercial mind of Ulysses’s advertising salesman Leopold Bloom. I think the answer might be the latter: “…yes I said yes I will Yes.” This was first published in The Open Art Fair Magazine.
img READ MORE

Women in Silver

September 07, 2023
Casting a shine on the rare yet prolific women silversmiths Emma Crichton-Miller This year, among many other significant objects on their stand at Treasure House Fair, New York silver specialists S.J. Shrubsole had placed a beautiful silver porringer. Dated to 1675, during the reign of Charles II, it has two elegant, serpentine handles and the bottom third of the bowl is chased with lively acanthus leaves. What makes the piece particularly interesting, however, is that it was made by a woman. Katherine Stevens was the wife of the goldsmith Roger Stevens of Foster Lane, who died very suddenly in 1673. Rather than slip into penury, Katherine took over the business, including the bound apprentice John Duck, who later married her daughter. Whatever the division of labour within this small family business, it is her mark, not that of the today better-known John Duck, that appears on this porringer, which has a degree of accomplishment that suggests it is not the work of her young apprentice. A Charles II Antique English Silver Porringer, 1675 by Katherine Stevens Courtesy of S.J. Shrubsole That women figure importantly in British silversmithing in the eighteenth century has long been well known. In 1935, Sir Ambrose Heal, in his magisterial work The London Goldsmiths, determined that between 1697 and the Victorian era, a total of 63 women silversmiths, each with their own registered mark, worked in London alone. He also revealed that many of these women had definite trade designations in the records: they were not just widows running their late husband’s businesses but hands-on designers and craftsmen. Among the most famous are Louisa Perina Courtauld, Eliza Godfrey and Hester Bateman, but these just mark the peaks of a booming trade that was nation-wide. Another piece shown by Shrubsole was as extraordinarily large silver tray, hand-rolled, from 1729, with the mark of Sarah Parr, widow of Thomas Parr I. Philippa Glanville, formerly chief curator of the metal, silver and jewellery department at the Victoria and Albert Museum and co-author of  the 1990 volume ‘Women Silversmiths 1685-1845’ has noted other names elsewhere - for instance, Welthian Goodyear, a Bristol spoonmaker, Ellen Dare of Taunton and  Elisabeth Haselwood of Norwich. Furthermore, as Lewis Smith of London dealership Koopman Rare Art suggests, “There must have been other women who never gained a mark - the workshop of a silversmith was not a genteel place and there would have been female workers and family members.”  The collectors’ market is focused inevitably on the finest silver, those pieces which have survived multiple disasters of war and bankruptcy. The greatest boost to British goldsmithing in the early eighteenth century was undoubtedly the arrival of highly skilled Huguenot craftsmen, fleeing religious persecution in France. Elizabeth Godfrey, for instance, born Elizabeth Pantin in 1720, was the daughter of the distinguished Huguenot silversmith Simon Pantin. Her first husband, Abraham Buteux, was also a goldsmith from the French immigrant community. Elizabeth registered her first mark as Elizabeth Buteux in 1731, designed, as was customary, in a lozenge shape, to denote a widow,  presumably after her husband died. She carried on her first husband’s silver business until her marriage to another goldsmith, Benjamin Godfrey, in 1732. Elizabeth registered a second mark as Elizabeth Godfrey in 1741, presumably when Benjamin died. The majority of her work is in the flamboyant French rococo style then becoming popular in England amongst the wealthy. Smith says of her, “By comparison with the work of her second husband, Benjamin, Eliza Godfrey’s work has a certain finesse.” The set of three monumental sugar casters by her they currently have “are the best rococo casters we have ever had - the quality of the chasing alone.”  A Monumental Set of Three 18th Century Rococo Casters by Elizabeth Godfrey Courtesy of Koopman Rare Art Louisa Courtauld, born in 1729, was also of Huguenot extraction. Her father, Pierre Abraham Ogier, was a silk weaver, who brought his family to London when she was a child. Her husband, Samuel Courtauld, was the son of Augustin Courtauld, a Huguenot metalsmith. A portrait of Louisa Courtauld from the 1770s, grandly posed in silk, testifies to the strength of the Courtauld business, appealing to the highest ranks in society. A year after her husband died, in 1766, Courtauld registered her own mark, continuing to run the business until she created a new joint mark with her son, Samuel Courtauld II, in 1777. Courtauld was not an unusual figure in eighteenth century London.  In 2019 an exhibition running through the City of London displayed the business cards of the many women entrepreneurs from the period, beside their original premises. The exhibition’s curator, University of Cambridge historian Dr Amy Louise Erickson, commented: “There was nothing unusual about these businesswomen at the time. They were members of trade families and it was normal for women to be in charge. This history has been completely overlooked.” A George III Antique English Silver Coffee Pot by Louisa Courtauld, 1764 Courtesy of S.J Shrubsole Perhaps the most famous example is Hester Bateman. Born to a poor family in 1709, in 1730 she married John Bateman, a goldsmith and chainmaker, before inheriting his business on his death in 1760. After registering her mark in 1761, she built a formidable enterprise, helped by her children and apprentice John Linney. By using cost-efficient manufacturing methods, her workshops were able to turn out thousands of pieces - coffee pots, tea urns, cruets, teapots, salvers, goblets, salts, sugar tongs, and flatware - all of elegant but simple design, appealing to the middle classes.  A Pair of George III Antique English Silver Wine Labels by Hester Bateman, c. 1770 Courtesy of S.J. Shrubsole According to both Smith and Jim McConnaughy of S.J. Shrubsole, there is a strong interest in female silversmiths, especially in America, where, suggests Smith, they appeal especially to their fellow women entrepreneurs. The price differential between men and women silversmiths is negligible, says Lewis Smith.
img READ MORE

Collecting Ernest Hemingway

June 06, 2023
How to find rare copies by the literary legend Alexander Larman The American author and journalist Ernest Hemingway was one of those men who lived when days were longer. Over the course of the 61 years that he spent on the planet, he married four times, published seven novels and novellas – a further two came posthumously – and served as a foreign correspondent everywhere from the Spanish Civil War to the D-Day landings on the Normandy beaches, although he was thwarted from his intention of travelling in the first wave of the troops. He was also a committed, largely successful self-mythologiser, who claimed to have done everything from being the first American into Paris during WWII and to have liberated the Ritz in the process to countless feats of prowess, whether literary, social or sexual. He’s undeniably one of the most fascinating figures of the twentieth century, and so it’s little surprise that his books are eagerly sought-after and collected. As Pom Harrington, the owner of the estimable Peter Harrington bookshop, tells me, “Hemingway is unusual as an author as he is widely read and valued by both academics and readers of fiction alike. His famously straightforward style of writing has much to do with the democratic appeal of his work, in addition to the universality of the themes he writes about and his persona that transcended his role as a writer. He was an icon to many, and not just as a literary figure.” This translates into an enormous universality, although, as Harrington says, “He is undoubtedly a legend, even if some of his legendary status has a whiff of infamy.” HEMINGWAY, Ernest. In Our Time. With an introduction by Edmund Wilson. Peter Harrington London Harrington’s career dealing in Hemingway featured a spectacular early purchase. “I remember buying at auction on behalf of a customer a presentation copy of The Old Man and The Sea for $164,800 in 2004.  It was inscribed by the author to Spencer Tracy who played the old Cuban fisherman in the 1958 film adaptation of the book. This copy was inscribed and given to Tracy over an Easter weekend when the actor and the producer Leland Hayward went to Havana for preliminary discussions with Hemingway about the making of the film.”  Yet he has subsequently handled an even rarer copy of the book: perhaps Hemingway’s most famous and beloved title, something that can be described as the ‘Holy Grail’ of the author’s work. “I sold one of the 15 extremely rare pre-publication copies of The Old Man and The Sea, one of only three such inscribed copies known to exist. It was signed “yours always Ernest Hemingway” and had an additional latter inscription of Charles Sweeny, a long-time friend of Hemingway’s, re-presenting the copy on his behalf: “To Betty from Ernest Hemingway by way of Charles Sweeny with love”.  HEMINGWAY, Ernest. In Our Time. Stories. Peter Harrington London Should one be in the market to buy a Hemingway item of spectacular rarity today, Harrington can – unsurprisingly enough – assist. “We are currently offering a very rare first printing of Voyage to Victory, Hemingway's account of 'a battle for a Normandy beachhead' in 1944 for £60,000. It is certainly one of the rarest items anyone could add to any Hemingway collection.” As Harrington says, “Although Hemingway did not appreciate his journalistic pieces placed alongside his fiction and famously said 'if you have made your living as a newspaperman, learning your trade, writing against deadlines, writing to make stuff timely rather than permanent, no one has any right to dig this stuff up and use it against the stuff you have written to write the best you can', his reportorial work clearly was a great influence on his fiction, with episodes and sometimes language being used in later novels and stories. As he notes in the prologue: 'Real war is never like paper war, nor do accounts of it read much like the way it looks. But if you want to know how it was in an LCV(P) on D-Day when we took Fox Green beach and Easy Red beach on the sixth of June, 1944, then this is as near as I can come to it.' " HEMINGWAY, Ernest. Winner Take Nothing. FIRST EDITION, IN THE FIRST ISSUE JACKET Peter Harrington London Inevitably, signed presentation copies of Hemingway’s work remain sought-after; Harrington notes that costs of these would be a comparatively trifling few thousand for a signed reprint of For Whom the Bell Tolls to around £300,000 for a book of great personal significance, such as a copy of the novel that he inscribed to his third wife Martha Gellhorn (“we narrowly missed buying it at auction.”) And Harrington singles out his key early novel The Sun Also Rises as hugely collectable too, on the grounds that “a fine presentation copy of [the book] in its original dust jacket was the first of Hemingway’s novels to achieve wide acclaim.”  Inevitably, given his rambunctious and robust lifestyle and writing, Hemingway is today a controversial as well as beloved figure, and I wonder if he is in danger of being censored, cancelled or otherwise muzzled by the outraged forces of political correctness and decency. Harrington disagrees, however. “Hemingway is extensively read and studied; he is part of the canon of 20th century writers whose works I believe will remain truly timeless. In terms of American authors, he is up there in the top three with Fitzgerald and Faulkner. His creations will live on no matter what people think of the man.” And should you wish to buy one of these creations in impeccable condition, inscribed by Hemingway himself, Harrington is your man for them.  
img READ MORE

Old vs. New

June 06, 2023
Blending time and space with Adrian Sassoon Francesca Peacock “I like things to be very smart and shiny” says Adrian Sassoon, the 18th century porcelain and decorative art collector, and director of the gallery which bears his name. He likes things “to be not necessarily functional, but very apparent in a room because they look smart”; “things in pairs, in groups, in garnishes, in sets”, he tells me.   I’d asked him about a possible link between the two sides of his practice — the ornate, antique porcelain works produced in the Vincennes and Sèvres factories in 18th century France, and bold contemporary works by artists ranging from ceramicist Elizabeth Fritsch CBE to Japanese metalworker Hiroshi Suzuki. This mixture — 18th century plates, cups, and saucers, alongside “contemporary ceramics and glass and silver, lacquer, hard stones, some artist jewellery” — will be on show at the gallery’s stall at the Treasure House Fair.  Seni Vase, 2022 Hammer-raised and chased Fine silver 999 Made by the artist in Japan Height 26cm (10 1/4"), Diameter 29cm (11 3/8") Image courtesy of Adrian Sassoon Sassoon does believe there’s a “slight” link between these two sides of his profession, and puts it down to a similar confidence in both types of work. His gallery is “looking for work by mature artists, but that doesn’t really mean age”. Instead, he’s drawn to artists “already on a well-worn path with a very good identity”, but who aren’t afraid to change in style from year to year. “Not so that you would have lost track of what they have made in the past … but just moving on, developing new ideas, new themes, new shapes.”  With this emphasis on boldness, strength, and size — Sassoon tells me “I do like things that are large” — it is no surprise that he represents Felicity Aylieff, the master ceramicist whose contemporary gargantuan porcelain structures are deeply influenced by the Chinese ceramics tradition. One of her works — the 2 metre tall vase ‘Chasing Black’ — sits in the permanent collection at the V&A, while another — the 4 and a half metre tall ‘Chinese Ladders’ — was bought by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, and now lives in perhaps the only house that could rival the object for scale and grandiosity: Chatsworth.  Blue & White Monumental Lidded Vase, 2019 Made by the artist in Jingdezhen, China Height 196cm (77 1/8"), Diameter 72cm (28 3/8") Image courtesy of Adrian Sassoon Ayeliffe’s ‘Chinese Ladders’ is part of the Devonshires’ own personal collection, but it is far from the only time that Sassoon’s works have found themselves in the grand settings of country houses. Until October, works by the silver maker Ndidi Ekubia are also on show at Chatsworth. Ekubia’s fusion of “hugely traditional techniques” with a “distinctive style […] very much like stretched textile patterns” matches the fusion of old and new produced when contemporary art is hosted in such a historic space. Sassoon’s gallery has also staged shows and exhibitions in the Elizabethan rooms of Parham House in West Sussex, and an Arts and Crafts house in the Lake District.  Cascade Tall Vase, 2018 Hammer-raised Fine silver 999 Height 26.5cm (10 3/8") Diameter 16.5cm (6 1/2") Image courtesy of Adrian Sassoon I asked Sassoon about the effect of placing contemporary objects in such old spaces. He thinks his “objects will fit really beautifully into a historic interior, as long as it’s not overdone”, and enjoys the feel that “a collector lives in the house”. But, at the same time, he wishes “that we could get our hands on a really fine contemporary interior, and show the same objects in one”. As yet, with all the practicalities of filming and staging an exhibition, this has proved impossible.  Within the houses that the gallery has put on exhibitions, visitors would, perhaps, more often expect to see objects from the other side of his collecting interests: antique silverware, porcelain, and ceramics. Sassoon is an expert on porcelain produced in 18th century France, when soft-paste porcelain was a recent import from Germany. These objects — the type seen at the V&A, or behind the glass cases of the Wallace Collection, where Sassoon was trustee for a number of years — form a market that has only grown in recent years. In Sassoon’s words, “things don’t get cheaper”.  Sassoon first became interested in 18th century porcelain through sheer exposure: living in a family of collectors, it was his grandmother’s collection which inspired him to take History of Art A-Level, where he quickly learnt that there are far “fewer books about the decorative arts”. As his interest grew, he forwent university in favour of an internship at the V&A and, later, becoming a junior curator at the Getty Museum in California.  A Spectacular Sèvres Porcelain Vase Hollandois, 1757-63 Height 17.2 cm Depth 29 cm Image courtesy of Adrian Sassoon Sassoon’s interest in decorative arts and objects was as organic as it is now infectious. He tells me how he became interested in contemporary works because “materials like glass and ceramics and silver” are “addictive across boundaries”. “If you’re interested in a piece of ceramic made in 1800, your eye will probably be caught by a piece of ceramic made in 1880 and 1980. It’s not about buying or anything […] but the materials have not changed in technique profoundly”.  “Chasing metal, soldering metal, blowing glass”; Sassoon’s delight in the processes by which these objects are made is matched only by his interest in their democratic possibilities. Despite representing high-end artists and sought-after techniques, he repeatedly tells me how works can be surprisingly accessible to collectors of all budgets.   Eclosion, 2017 Cast glass with Kirikane, a traditional Japanese technique of gold leaf decoration Made by the artist in Japan Height 8.5cm (3 3/8"), Width 24cm (9 1/2"), Depth 6.2cm (2 1/2") Image courtesy of Adrian Sassoon For Ndidi Ekubia — the artist he represents who is currently exhibiting at Chatsworth — he tells me that some of her range in scale “means that a range of collectors can afford pieces”. And, when talking about 18th century porcelain, he notes that “prices have gone up”, but is keen to stress that some, still, are comparatively reasonable. Some pieces that are “in the same condition as when they were made in the 1750s”, still sell for hundreds, rather than thousands of pounds. As Sassoon says, porcelain “doesn’t fade”; “it’s quite a welcoming market”.  To end our interview, I ask Sassoon if he ever comes across people buying antique porcelain for everyday use: to eat their toast off, serve their dinner on, or drink their tea from. Sassoon’s reply is surprising: “serving some sorts of biscuits or something on a plate isn’t putting it in great danger”. He reminds me that a sculptural vase standing on a shelf is, still, in a way, being used, and makes a case for living with collected objects: “there’s no reason why not to use it. Just with care”. 
img READ MORE

Firing the Imagination

April 01, 2023
From the Paleolithic to Picasso - the rise of ceramics. Billy Jobling Billy Jobling is Senior Writer and Researcher in the Post-War and Contemporary Art department at Christie's, London. ‘Needless to say Sèvres has killed ceramics’, wrote Paul Gauguin in 1889. ‘… With the American Indians it was a central art. God gave man a little bit of mud, with a little bit of mud he made metal and precious stones, with a little bit of mud and a little bit of genius.’ Gauguin’s own radical ceramic works, of which around sixty survive today, rarely appear on the market and can command hundreds of thousands at auction. These vivid, deliberately non-functional vessels were part of his engagement with the ‘primitive’ artistic spirit. The great Spatialist Lucio Fontana, who pushed clay into bold sculptural shapes, similarly claimed to detest ‘lacy designs and dainty nuances.’ His dramatic, Baroque-inspired figures and Crucifixions of the 1940s are especially sought after; a spectacular ceramic fireplace hit the record price of €1,450,200 in 2015. The delicate, decorative objects these modern artists so disdained are, of course, only part of the story. Pottery has been part of human life since the Palaeolithic era and covers myriad forms and functions, from the practical to the pretty and the earthy to the ethereal. Broadly, though, to make ceramics has always meant to work with your hands. The increasing interest in ‘craft’-based TV shows such as Channel Four’s The Great Pottery Throwdown speaks to a renewed popular appreciation for the handmade and tactile. In our age of NFTs and immaterial imagery, ceramics offer something to hold on to, and seem to be having something of a moment. This year’s ennoblement of Sir Grayson Perry, while also honouring Perry’s achievements as a broadcaster, writer and public figure, is testament to ceramics’ ascendancy in the field of contemporary art. Twenty years ago, Perry was the first ceramic artist to win the Turner Prize. His vases might look classical or domestic from afar, but incorporate subversive images and text that deliver biting social commentary and complex autobiographical themes. His Warhol-Basquiat tribute I Want To Be An Artist sold for a record-breaking £632,750 in 2017; twelve more vases have achieved prices over £100,000 since then. PERRY, Grayson b.1960 I Want To Be An Artist, price realised £632,750 Christie’s The ceramics of Pablo Picasso are a perennial—and accessible—auction favourite. Plates, plaques, bowls and vases produced at the Madoura pottery in Vallauris can be found for a few thousand dollars upwards. Inventive, colourful and often charming in design, these editioned works offer an appealing entry point to the Spanish master’s practice. A unique prototype of his Grand vase aux femmes voilées (1950), which sold for almost a million pounds in 2013, holds the record—still a bargain relative to his work on canvas. Collectors of a more esoteric persuasion might consider George Ohr, the self-styled ‘Mad Potter of Biloxi’, who died relatively unknown in 1918. His studio, a five-story wooden pagoda in Biloxi, Mississippi, overflowed with pots in transgressive shapes and colours, many of them rumpled, frilled or ‘scroddled’—made from scraps of differently coloured clay. Half a century after his death, a cache of some seven thousand pots was rediscovered in his son’s auto-repair garage. Artists Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol began buying Ohr in the 1980s, followed by celebrity collectors including Steven Spielberg and Jack Nicholson. He retains a devoted following today: exceptional works command thirty to fifty thousand dollars at auction. The equally rebellious Peter Voulkos, who founded the art ceramics department at the Los Angeles County Art Institute in 1954, reinvented ceramics during the years of Abstract Expressionism. ‘Calling Peter Voulkos a ceramist’, wrote Karen Rosenberg in 2016, ‘is a bit like calling Jimi Hendrix a guitarist.’ A master of functional pottery, he went on to work gesturally and monumentally—sometimes in front of a live audience—creating towering behemoths from paddled, wheel-thrown and slab elements. These ‘stacks’ have sold for major prices in recent years, but Voulkos’s chargers, bowls and plates can still be picked up for a few thousand dollars. LEIGH, Simone b.1967 Untitled VI (Anatomy of Architecture Series), price realised $819,000 Christie’s Among Voulkos’s students was the West Coast abstractionist Ken Price, whose psychedelic fired-clay sculptures drew on Surrealism and surf culture. His work was recently included in the Hayward Gallery’s group show Strange Clay: Ceramics in Contemporary Art, which closed on 8 January this year. The exhibition showcased the medium’s wild mutability in an array of works—by turns painterly and sculptural, cerebral, playful and technically dazzling—by artists including Price, Takuro Kuwata, Rachel Kneebone, Jonathan Baldock, Beate Kuhn and Leilah Babirye. At the Whitechapel Gallery in 2021, Theaster Gates’ exhibition A Clay Sermon explored the material, social and spiritual potency of clay, from its ritual and ceremonial uses to its role in colonialism. Alongside his own early hand-thrown pots, large stoneware vases and totemic ‘Afro-Mingei’ sculptures—which combine themes of Black identity and Japanese philosophy—Gates made a selection of historic ceramics from collections including the Victoria and Albert Museum. ‘As a potter’, the Chicago-based artist said, ‘you learn how to shape the world.’ Simone Leigh, who last year became the first Black woman to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, uses ceramics—among other media—in similarly complex works that layer references to African traditions, ethnographic research, and feminist and post-colonial theory. After years working in relative obscurity, her star has risen over the past decade. A small-scale sculpture from her Anatomy of Architecture series, which conflate women’s heads with pitcher or vase-like forms, recently sold for more than $800,000 at auction. In Leigh’s hands and others, the future of ceramics in contemporary art looks brighter than Gauguin could have imagined.Heavy lies the hand that wears the Crown. How the royals unburden themselves through writing.
img READ MORE

Beneath the Surface - the Power of Infrared Imaging

September 09, 2022
Discovering secrets beneath the surface of a painting can dramatically alter its value. Billy Jobling Billy Jobling is Senior Writer and Researcher in the Post-War and Contemporary Art department at Christie's, London. Examining a painting can be rather like visiting the scene of a crime. What material clues have been left that might tell us how—or when—the work was made? Can we retrace the movements of the artist’s hand, or see someone trying to cover their tracks? Often, the answers lie beneath the surface. Short of physical micro-sampling, infrared imaging offers insightful information that uncovers many hidden clues. A form of energy beyond the visible light spectrum, infrared radiation (IR) passes through some pigments, but not others: crucially, it is absorbed by the dark materials painters have historically used for underdrawing, such as charcoal and graphite. Used correctly, infrared reflectography (IRR) captures an image that effectively renders the paint layer transparent, revealing potentially critical evidence below. Museum discoveries made using this technology, such as the startling spectre of a man behind Picasso’s Woman Ironing (1904), have made headlines for their art-historical importance. As well as institutions, however, the advantages of IRR are available today to private collectors, auction houses and insurers through leading analysis firms like ArtDiscovery. Left, Red and Blue Rayonism (Beach) by Mikhail Larionov. Right, X-ray image of the painting. Credit: ArtDiscovery ‘We use it both alone and in combination with other techniques to answer questions around the condition, the process of development, and the authenticity of works of art’, explains the company’s UK director, Dr Jilleen Nadolny. ‘It has been used to reveal aspects of an artist’s creative processes, underdrawings, alterations and reworkings (sometimes revealing overpainted or faded signatures, text or drawings) and restorations. Infrared examination can also be used to differentiate between certain groups of pigments and inks. IRR methods have come a long way since the Vidicon cameras developed in the 1960s, which required multiple small images to be mosaiced together. ArtDiscovery’s scanning technology is fine-tuned to each artwork, using cameras with different capabilities to record high-resolution images across a range of wavelengths. What is uncovered can be transformative. One client’s painting, Dr Nadolny tells me, had been attributed to a follower of Bellini, and was marred by some later restoration. ‘However, on the basis of the quality of the underdrawing revealed through the IR, the client was able to present the work to a Bellini expert, who reattributed the work to the master himself, increasing tremendously the market value of the object.’ A variation on the reflective technique, known as ‘transmitted IR’, captures IR energy that has passed X-ray-like through an object, exposing even more deeply hidden information. ‘Using transmitted IR on a work that was undergoing research as a possible Titian, we revealed the stamp of King Charles I, “CR”, on the back of the painting, which had been covered for centuries by a lining canvas. The discovery, which helped to confirm the provenance of the piece, allowed the work to realise its full value.’ ArtDiscovery also employ IRR scans in combination with X-rays, their cousins from lower down the electromagnetic spectrum. One such instance found a painting hidden beneath a newly discovered work by Kandinsky; the concealed composition was matched to a known sketch by the artist, bolstering the attribution. ‘A similar case was a painting deemed to be “after John Constable” that we analysed through technical imaging, unveiling features that helped experts confirming its attribution to Constable himself’, says Dr Nadolny. ‘The artwork, purchased for $5,000, is now estimated to value around $5 million.’ Such dazzling revelations, beyond the reach of the human eye, have sometimes led to the view that the authenticating role of the ‘connoisseur’ might one day be rendered obsolete by cold, hard science. ArtDiscovery, whose team are both technical art historians and trained conservators, see the disciplines as complementary. Carbon-14 dating, for example, can allow connoisseurs to form an opinion according to solid evidence of an object’s age. Equally, scientific work can help to quantify the subtle hallmarks of a specific artist’s technique. Having seen dozens of both real and ersatz Modiglianis, ArtDiscovery has been able to build a detailed dataset on the artist’s idiosyncratic brushwork, which has become a valuable resource for the scholars currently revising his catalogue raisonné. Working together, scientists and connoisseurs are able to pool their expertise to draw conclusions with the greatest degree of certainty—and that certainty has enormous value. As the field of art analysis evolves, new techniques such as sound and laser imaging and elemental mapping promise to reveal new depths of information, though it may be some time before these technologies become viable for regular commercial use. ‘As objects are complex structures, there are many variables when considering the challenges of authentication and attribution’, explains Dr Nadolny. ‘We try to offer the best options to our clients in a manner that works with their objectives.’ For now, infrared imaging remains a vital tool in ArtDiscovery’s interdisciplinary work and is sure to uncover many more exciting secrets yet.
img READ MORE

Expectations vs. Reality

September 01, 2022
When auction estimates go out the window, it can be a big problem. By Charles Hartley Charles Hartley is the Director of Hartleys Auctions Ltd. and specialises in arms, militaria, fieldsports and taxidermy. An Arts and Crafts style brass table lamp, early 20th century. Sold by Hartleys Auctions for £3,600 after an estimate of £150-250. A week ago, the editor of The Open Art Fair Magazine, came to me with a sad tale of an old man who undersold his table. It was a couple of years ago and the gent was flogging his furniture, having sold his stately. “Not to worry”, the guy said when the young Londoner who had been sent down to buy it turned up, “local chap at the auction house has told me what it’s worth so £6,000 will do fine”. The young buyer nearly fell over. He’d been all ready to part with £60,000 and the table sold some weeks later, for £120,000. The lad who’d been sent to buy it, apparently still loses sleep over the incident to this day. So what caused the colossal difference in estimate and sale price? Or to put it as the editor did, “what went wrong?”. I must admit the idea that something had “gone wrong” made me chuckle, being an auctioneer, these are the occasions we dream of. Though like with everything, it is all about perspective. The hopeful purchaser always wants to pick up an item for a song, yet the auctioneer and owner will inevitably want everything to sail well beyond expectation. In any case, for an auctioneer whether selling at or above estimate, it is often a win-win; you are either proved correct, or shown to be an excellent salesman. So, what can cause such a difference, is it a valuer outside of their comfort zone naively walking into the dark? I am not going to say this is not sometimes the case, no matter where you go the valuer is only ever human and simply cannot know everything. But with the resources we have at our fingertips, it is amazing what we can do and most auction houses, mine included, have great depth in experts who work behind the scenes aiding us in our endeavours. Though a specialist in arms & militaria, I am in the main a general valuer. Every day I am placed into houses across the country where there’s always the chance of a surprise. The true skill is knowing something is “special” through its unspoken quality, you then collect data, take necessary measurements and delve into your resources. But even with all the resources in the world, sometimes an item has no comparable, no expert and the valuer must pluck a figure from their gut, place it up for sale and hold on for dear life. Like police officers have a nose for crime, valuers must have a nose for the valuable. Let’s also not forget that a valuer can even get it right, but it only takes two people to want something enough, for a price to rocket and leave would-be competitors to comfort each other with the familiar “they’ve more money than sense”. Frankly, arts and antiques needs such people.  Back in March my colleague Gerard and I spotted an intriguing brass lamp dripping in arts & crafts style, though our initial hunch that it was by W.A.S. Benson was unfounded, we still felt it deserved a higher marketing push. With a “come-get-me” £150 – 250 estimate, we were thrilled when the gavel came to rest at £3,600. Not only did it find its way into the “dick of the day” column of the Antiques Trade Gazette, but they ran an article outing the designer as Arthur Dixon. But the true brilliance of this situation came when they ran a correction one month later, showing an opinion will only hold water until the next piece of evidence appears; in this case the discovery of a historic interiors catalogue for Jesson, Birkett & Co. But ultimately, we had performed our job in spotting the quality and doing the marketing necessary to do right by our vendor. Within the same sale we also had a Chinese censer and cover, estimated at £2000 – 3000 that reached a thrilling £30,000. But when it comes to Chinese pieces, there is little judgement within the market, such results are commonplace as Chinese antiquities have boomed. Often with market movement, there is a lag as experts clamber to readjust and find their feet; after all valuing is often a game of quantitative market analysis. So, when markets shift, previous data can be misleading and with Chinese items the market never seems to adjust enough.  A Chinese cloisonné enamel tripod censer and cover. Sold by Hartleys Auctions for £30,000 after an estimate of £2,000-3,000 A great example of this was seen at Bainbridges of Ruislip in 2010. Clearing a deceased estate their valuer discovered a fantastic Chinese Qianlong-era vase. Far from being a “sleeper”, the valuers saw star quality and much to the amazement of the family, placed it up sale at £800,000 - 1.2million. Yet 30 minutes after the opening bid, Peter Bainbridge brought his gavel crashing down to the sum of £43million! But this rostrum fairy tale was far from complete as over a year later the vase remained unpaid, with everything from simply a bad buyer to talk of Chinese government conspiracy being cited as reasons by the media, suggesting it to be a protest against the sale of historical treasures looted from China – this was of course never proved and the debt was eventually settled.  So, is a high price always a good thing? The sister who placed the vase with Bainbridges should have been over the moon, but soon found herself with a revised inheritance tax bill of over £17million, requested by HMRC before she saw a single penny from the vase. I dread to think the stress this must have caused her and I bet at times she wished it had never happened. Sadly, bad debtors and late payers, particularly when it comes to Chinese antiquities, have been commonplace in the trade. It is now normal to request large deposits on big ticket Chinese items prior to sale and you never count your chickens until they’ve hatched. I will admit that rather than being elated by our recent £30,000 censer, I was left feeling rather anxious. An item always has its best chance in the first sale and if a bad buyer leaves you high and dry, the rest of the market will wonder “what’s wrong with it?”; if unpaid, it will unlikely do as well again and rather than be happy with a price at or above the original estimate, the owner and I will only find ourselves counting the difference between the first and second result. Happily, I can confirm the sale was completed and the censer is currently on a boat back to China. Though I pride myself on a strong sale record and rarely see an auction total not land between the cumulative estimates, there is always the chance of a record ahead. An auction is a wonderfully organic thing where so much of human nature can move a result and even in a time where technology has narrowed the chance of a shock, with a whole planet watching, a more common phenomenon in the ever more virtual post-covid age - there is still the possibility of a life changing moment. 
img READ MORE

Big Name Bargains

July 14, 2022
Some works by renowned artists can be acquired for surprisingly low prices. Francesca Peacock Francesca Peacock is an art, books, and culture writer. The Fall of Icarus by Henri Matisse. Lithograph, 1943, Signed in plate. 26.5 x 35.5 cm Available from Goldmark Gallery for £2,250 What would you think if I told you I have a Matisse on my kitchen wall? Would you think I’d stolen it from some unsuspecting art museum in a yet unreported (but very glamorous) heist? Or that I have greater reserves of art-collecting cash than my somewhat precarious employment as a writer might suggest?  But what if I told you the answer was neither international art-thievery, nor some shady oligarch lover who buys me paintings whenever I so demand. The Matisse in question — which sits above the endless piles of books, half-read magazines, and the general detritus of a kitchen which is rather messier than the delightful interior Matisse himself painted — was acquired in a disappointingly above-board fashion from Goldmark Gallery.  As a lithograph page from Matisse’s 1950 hand-autographed and illustrated book, Poemes de Charles d’Orléans — a fifteenth century French poet, who was captured during the Hundred Years War, and wrote in both Middle French and Middle English — it is hardly one of the artist’s most famous works. But, with its colourful drawings of fleurs-de-lis, and its stanzas of poetry about being utterly indifferent to Valentine’s Day, it is one of my most prized possessions. And, at just under £400, I like to think it was something of a steal. It is, after all, a mere fraction of the auction record for Matisse. His 1923 painting, Odalisque couchée aux magnolias, fetched $80.8 million in 2018. Nor was my bargain a one-off:  Goldmark Gallery currently has authentic works by the artist ranging from £250 to £7,450.  As Mike Goldmark of Goldmark Gallery notes, this proliferation of cheap works is not an accident of history. Matisse, and many other artists, had distinct “social consciousnesses” and “loved the idea that ordinary folk could afford their work”. And, accordingly, they made work expressly for this purpose: unsigned prints, or prints signed in the etching plate or supplied with a justification page — all would, and still do, sell for much less than signed works or paintings.  Poèmes - Charles D'Orléans by Henri Matisse. Lithograph, 1950. 26.5 x 41 cm Available from Goldmark Gallery for £250 And indeed it is just not Matisse that the thrifty art collector can find on the cheap. The auction record for Picasso is a cool $179 million (for his 1955 work Les femmes d'Alger, Version 'O'). But, at Sotheby’s, you can currently find works ranging from 1000 to 10,000 US dollars. In an auction just at the end of June, many drawings, lithographs, and ceramics sold for under $10,000.  Whilst Picasso may now be predominantly revered for his paintings and works on paper, his ceramics — anthropomorphic jugs and vases, and gorgeously colourful plates and platters — are rather better value for any aspiring collector. Still not cheap (a plate sold for over $200,000 at Christie’s in May), they represent a chance for an individual collector to own a work by the artist — even if I can see the potential for tears if some clumsy oaf drops your much-loved artwork when using it as a vessel for their bacon sandwich.  But it is not just the big European names that are able to be bought on a budget. Renowned painter (and sometime-suspected Jack the Ripper) Walter Sickert is currently the subject of a major exhibition at The Tate. Rooms and rooms of famous paintings, on loan from prestigious galleries throughout the world — it is easy to think his works would be off-limits to anyone who did not have a few hundred thousand pounds to throw around.  But, just a few miles north of Tate Britain lies the art collector’s paradise of Abbott and Holder, a gallery on Museum Street. Twice a month, they send out “Lists” of their new stock to avid (and sometimes rabid) subscribers. The foaming-at-the-mouth enthusiasm makes sense when you see the quality of the works: more than once, works by Sickert have appeared on the list for under a thousand pounds. At the moment, four etchings of his are for sale, ranging from £1500 to £1800 — including a particularly brilliant etching of a recumbent figure on an iron bedstead. And, back in March, a rare Gwen John watercolour made an appearance, although at the slightly less wallet-friendly price of £12,000.  ‘The New Tie’ by Walter Sickert (1840-1942). Etching. Second (final) state. Signed. 1922. Signed, titled and dated in the plate. 10.5x6.75 inches. Available from Abbott and Holder for £1,500. 'The Iron Bedstead' by Walter Sickert (1840-1942). Etching. 2nd (final) state. Signed. The first state of this print dates to c.1915 but this, the second state, is probably later. 7x10.5 inches. Available from Abbott and Holder for £1,500. There is, of course, a caveat to be made about these budget-loving works by famous artists. Whilst they will cost you a fraction of the prices paid by international galleries and billionaire collectors, they are, it must be said, not quite the same as the works you might pay to see in an exhibition. It is Sickert etchings, not oil paintings which come up for sale at such appealing prices. And it is Matisse lithographs, linocuts, and posters which are available to purchase for the same price as return flights to somewhere exotic, rather than his more famous paintings and collages.  But, there’s a delight in the off-beat, the unusual, and the otherwise unappreciated: everyone knows of Matisse’s brightly coloured collage works, but how many people have ever had the chance to ponder his love for a fifteenth century poet? And everyone has heard of Picasso’s Guernica, but how many people are able to say “pass the water” and have an original pitcher by the artist handed to them? These cheaper works are not just great value for a keen collector: they are also an opportunity to see — and love — another side of artists we all think we know too well. And, if that’s not enough to persuade you, just imagine the delight of dropping the phrase “my Matisse…” into conversation. C’est parfait, non?   
img READ MORE

The Cult of the 21st Century First Edition

May 19, 2022
First editions may seem like a safe bet but does that follow for more recent, 21st century titles. Alexander Larman Alexander Larman is the author of several historical and biographical titles including The Crown in Crisis & Byron’s Women. He is books editor of The Spectator world edition and writes regularly about literature and the arts for publications including The Observer, Prospect, The Chap and the Daily Telegraph.   JK Rowling has seldom been out of the news over the past few years, but she is most notable from a bibliophile perspective for being that rarest of things: a living author, still relatively young at 56, whose first editions and signed books command dizzyingly high prices. A recent Chiswick Auctions sale saw a set of galley sheets from her first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, sell for £37,500, which a spokesperson for the auction house commented caused ‘quite a stir’, and Peter Harrington are currently offering a signed deluxe edition of 1999’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban for £5000. These are sums far in excess of those realised by any other living writer, which contribute to a sense in the book collecting trade that Rowling remains an untouchable figure from a commercial perspective, whatever social or political controversies she finds herself in. Yet it also begs the question as to whether there is an emerging market for millennial novels and authors to be sought after by both established collectors and institutions and younger, more socially engaged types, who feel an empathy with their creators that they may not instinctively possess for, say, Graham Greene or William Golding.  Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, JK Rowling. Galley Proof. Sold by Chiswick Auctions in April 2022 for £37,500 including buyer’s premium. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, JK Rowling. First Edition, first impression. The first and scarcest of the Harry Potter books. Available from Peter Harrington, £17,500. According to Henry Gott, modern first editions specialist at Blackwell’s Rare Books in Oxford, this emerging market is one that lacks the historical context which many booksellers cherish. ‘Other dealers are much happier to promote younger writers, whereas our attitude is often “We’ll give them a bit of time”. On the other hand, living novelists and their work can still be big business. Gott singles out a signed first edition of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, complete with rare wraparound band (£400), as an example of a much-loved modern novel that is also a highly collectable artefact. (‘If the film had been a bigger hit, it would be worth even more.’) Other examples of currently sought-after millennial novels include Zadie Smith’s White Teeth – Maggs Bros. Ltd. are currently offering a signed first edition for £250, which seems almost cheap – and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series; Gott estimates that a fine signed first edition of the first novel alone would retail at around £1000, and a signed trilogy is currently being sold by Peter Harrington for £2750. White Teeth, Zadie Smith. First edition. 8vo. Original red cloth, spine lettered in gilt, dust jacket. London, Hamish Hamilton. Images from Maggs Bros. Ltd. Available, £250. And there are individual oddities, too. Tom McCarthy’s (daring entitled) debut novel Remainder was rejected by English-language publishers, appeared with the independent Parisian press Metronome in 2005, and subsequently became a bestseller. A first edition of the Metronome edition of 750 copies is currently being offered by the dealer Peter Gidal for £1250.   Yet there is also an element of guesswork about which contemporary writers will become collectable, and which ones will fail to appreciate. Signed books are now much more common than they were, with many authors regularly inscribing thousands of copies pre-publication, and well-known writers have enormous print runs for their new books. Even a signed first edition copy of Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light would only be worth slightly more than its original publication price of £25. Likewise, modishness plays a role in collectability. The author Sally Rooney may be totemic for a certain kind of millennial reader, but Gott is still unconvinced by her longevity, or that of her peers. ‘It feels a bit like the Grand National; many start, but not all of them finish. And it’s a bit of a fool’s game to collect signed first editions almost at random in the hope that their values will appreciate, as many don’t.’ Instead, his advice is for collectors both to acquire the books that they want to read, and to use their own judgement. ‘Even with books that become a phenomenon, they tend to take some time to become represented at our level. Although there are certainly people in their twenties who we’re selling to, there aren’t many living writers who are collected at the highest level – Rowling and Philip Pullman, perhaps.’ And even the big-ticket limited editions may be a waste of money. A signed limited edition of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird sequel Go Set A Watchman is being offered by Lucius Books for £3750. It sounds impressive, but it originally retailed at £2000; at least one other dealer is now offering the book for under that price.  Contemporary collectability may still be fanciful because it lacks the ability to transport buyers that ‘traditional’ bibliophilia possesses. It is wonderful to own a book as it might have appeared in 1925; less so if it first came out in 2015. As Gott says, ‘In my view, the sense in collecting first editions is the idea of obtaining the version of the book as it first entered the marketplace. There is an element of time-travel, or recovery of the past, about it; unless one can have a clear sense that the marketplace or cultural context in which a book has appeared has changed a little, it doesn’t seem to me very compelling to wish to reconstruct it.’  Millennial novels may yet be the future of book collecting. But there may be no need to stockpile the signed Sally Rooneys just yet. Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee. First edition. Signed Limited Edition. Complete with the original mailing carton and paper wrapping with issue number sticker. Images by Lucius Books, available, £3750.  
img READ MORE

A Gallery of One's Own

March 24, 2022
How and why collectors live with art installations at home. Matthew Turner Matthew Turner is a writer, editor, and Senior Lecturer at Chelsea College of Arts. His work has appeared in Frieze, Art Review, gorse and others. “The House of the Farmer”, a site-specific installation conceived by British artist Mike Nelson and curated by Didi Bozzini, at the Palazzo dell’Agricoltore until June 2022. Image courtesy of Palazzo dell’Agricoltore, credit: Lucio Rossi. It was dark in the basement of the German castle. Some dusty light came in through the floorboards and in front of me there was an open bank vault door. The place was empty and I felt I shouldn't be there even though I had been sent by my boss. I looked around to check nobody was around and I went in.  Inside I could just make out the faint glint of metallic objects and a smell of wet earth surrounded me. Newly graduated from university I was working as an architect’s assistant, visiting the home of a collector to measure some of its outbuildings so more of the estate could be turned into gallery spaces. The client was a hedge fund manager with a vast private collection and wanted the extra room to house complex installations by Anselm Kiefer and Anthony Gormley. It was going to be a tricky project with both artists requiring reinforced floors to carry tonnes of sculpture and walls to be absolutely straight within fractions of a millimetre. However, that day I had mostly been distracted leafing through paintings worth millions that were just stacked against the walls.    Edmund de Waal, Cupboard Cargo, 1999 installation at High Cross House, Devon. Image courtesy of Edmund de Waal, credit: Sara Morris. Within the vault, after a slightly panicked search, I found a switch and the strip lights buzzed on one by one. I was surrounded by glass vials containing strange, autumnal pigments, clerical clothing spread out like pieces of meat and surgical instruments. It gave me the feeling of fear and intrigue I remembered from hearing ghost stories as a child. The next day I found the client’s groundskeeper and he told me it was an art installation by the Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch. He called it the nightmare room and I was relieved I hadn't stumbled on something else.  The room stayed with me, it was like finding a new band I didn't want anyone else to know about, and this highly personal feeling is not uncommon when people talk about their encounters with installation art. The typical boundary between viewer and object is broken and leads to an immediacy and intimacy that is rare in wall-based artworks. Rather than looking at an object from a distance, you are living within the work. Instead of moving from one individual sculpture or painting to the next, you are free to explore an environment that is a complete unified experience.  A permanent display of Edmund de Waal’s work is installed in the Artists’ house at the New Art Centre, Wiltshire. The Artists’ House opened in 2001 and was designed by the architect Stephen Marshall. New Art Centre is open daily 11am – 4pm. Image courtesy of New Art Centre, Wiltshire. I searched for more installations in domestic settings that combined art and architecture. The Californian artist James Turrell has been extending American homes with bunker-like spaces for his meditative sensory installations. In 2008 he created a light coloured pool for a private residence in Greenwich, Connecticut—an artwork the owners can swim through as well as look at. The John Lautner–designed Sheats-Goldstein house, which features in The Big Lebowski, now includes a Skyspace that compresses the sky into a picture and transforms picturesque sunsets into psychedelic dreamscapes. And in Las Vegas the CEO of MGM commissioned the artist to design him a pyramidal installation, which looks like the modern equivalent of a Neolithic monument. Turrell has been so prolific in people’s homes that some get forgotten. A resident in Malibu found one of his installations in her guest house, hidden behind children’s toys, surfboards and exercise equipment.  These spaces are largely detached from the complexities of the domestic, more standalone structures than being integrated into the home. On a less invasive scale, this is where artist and writer Edmund de Waal composes his cargo works, subtle groupings of ceramic vessels that are placed to absorb existing interiors into an all encompassing artwork. At the modernist High Cross House in Devon his pots are half hidden in cupboards, obscured behind furniture or placed high up where people don't usually look. His objects are where you might expect them, but don't look quite like what you would expect. They have a ghostly presence, projecting a feeling of unease, which then throws disquiet across the rest of the space—even those areas the artist hasn't touched. De Waal cleverly negotiates the boundary between installation and interior design to explore feelings of the homely and unhomely, a distinction which is often a problem when artists bring their installations into the home.  Edmund de Waal, Lidded vessel, c. 2005, Tall Lidded Jar, 2006, Tall Lidded Jar, 2006. A permanent display of Edmund de Waal’s work is installed in the Artists’ house at the New Art Centre, Wiltshire. The Artists’ House opened in 2001 and was designed by the architect Stephen Marshall. New Art Centre is open daily 11am – 4pm. Image courtesy of New Art Centre, Wiltshire. “The House of the Farmer”, a site-specific installation conceived by British artist Mike Nelson and curated by Didi Bozzini, at the Palazzo dell’Agricoltore until June 2022. Image courtesy of Palazzo dell’Agricoltore, credit: Lucio Rossi. Their work is site specific, made for a particular location or environment. This could be a white cube gallery space, where Do Ho Suh’s minimal and colourful passageways work so well, without the distractions that come with the interiors of older and more elaborately decorated galleries. Or it could mean they work with historical settings, where you would not expect to see artwork. Mike Nelson, known for winning the Turner Prize and his installation Coral Reef, currently has an expansive work of gnarled tree fragments in the Palazzo dell’Agricoltore, the ex-headquarters of an agricultural consortium in Parma. The nuances of context and how this contributes to meaning, makes it difficult to just place these works into different settings—it disrupts the intentions of the artist. Instead, most are broken down and sold in smaller parts, reducing their impact as a total environment. Or the artists reject selling larger works, relying on the sale of smaller editions, books and drawings to fund their more substantial projects.  A few years ago I visited Sammung Hoffmann in Berlin. The collection is housed over two floors in a private apartment within a former factory and the owner, Erika Hoffmann, welcomes people into her home every Saturday. I was there to see Joëlle Tuerlinckx’s Atlas of wall 81 Extraits, a 1:1 mapping of a space for Manifesta 10 in Saint Petersburg transplanted onto the walls of the collector’s home. The paper, or map, had been hung from floor to ceiling in rectangles and squares of different sizes. There were cut marks where sockets had been traced and rough lines of fluorescent orange paint. It matched the fabric on the dining room chairs and the flowers in vases placed around the room. Associations which drew it into a lexicon of complementary colours, wallpaper and fabric selections, rather than standing out as an artwork. Joëlle Tuerlinckx, "Atlas of wall 81 extraits ‘Manifesta’ #10, Musée Hermitage, Saint Petersburg’", 2014-2017, paper, pencil, casein acrylic, nails, magnets; Warren Platner, Table and chairs, designed 1964/66; Foto studioschuurman. Copyright: Sammlung Hoffmann, Berlin.
img READ MORE

Art Dealing Dynasties

December 09, 2021
A look at two family-run art businesses in which second and fourth generations are taking over. Colin Gleadell Colin Gleadell writes on the art market for The Daily Telegraph, Artnet and Art Market Monitor. Not long ago, an eminent dealer in Old Masters told me he had advised his son not to follow in his footsteps. Good pictures were harder to find, and the pendulum of taste was not swinging his way. However, the issue of succession has not gone away; it is more omnipresent than ever. And, if you are successful in an expanding business, who better to hand it onto than your children. It’s a moot point though, whether art dealing is in the DNA or whether it’s the allure of easy money in a job for which you don’t have to interview that determines things. So, when the art market is on the up, so are the kids.  Over the past decade we have seen several high profile art dealers handing a rein to the next in line – from Pace’s Arne Glimcher, Lisson’s Nicholas Logsdail and David Zwirner, to smaller dealers like Piano Nobile’s Robert Travers and The Open Art Fair 2020 exhibitor Harry Moore Gwyn (both a dealer and an auctioneer like his father). What is clear in all these art dealing dynasties, and going back to Wildenstein, Gimpel and before, is that a lifetime spent in the pursuit of knowledge, wealth and beauty, not be forgotten at the end. That would be such a waste.     In the first of a series on art dealing dynasties, Colin Gleadell talks to two London based families in which second and fourth generations are taking over in the quite distinct areas of historic Chinese and Japanese paintings and works of art, and the latest international contemporary art.   Paul and Oliver Moss Paul Moss. Courtesy Sydney L. Moss Ltd. For dynastic longitude, Sydney L. Moss Ltd, London dealers in Chinese and Japanese works of art, is hard to beat. This year is their 111th as the fourth generation of the family settles into its stride. Now aged 70, current clan leader, Paul Moss’ early memories of the family business were rows of dusty shelves full of ceramics. “I hated it,” he says, but he was interested in China, and after a little encouragement from a history teacher who told him going to university was the best way to meet girls, he went to Durham University where he studied Chinese and wrote his dissertation on Tibetan thangkas. After an extended Indian temple hopping tour and some translation work for his uncle, Hugh Moss, in Hong Kong, Paul took over the family business in 1979, aged 28, after his father, Geoffrey  died prematurely. Both Paul’s father and grandfather (Sydney), were pre-eminent in the fields and were presidents of the British Art & Antique Dealers’ Association (BADA). Sydney was a founder of the industry’s flagship event, The Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair in 1934.  Although the business had had its ups and downs – “sell the Bentley, travel by bus”, Sydney told Geoffrey after an impulsive purchase at auction – there was a certain amount of family pride at stake when Paul moved into the driving seat. The market for Chinese antiques was beginning to heat up (though nothing like today), and Paul applied his own academic and aesthetic interests to refocus the business away from predictable Chinese ceramics to the literati arts and, significantly, the less expensive arts of Japan, on which he has published numerous books, notably a three-volume tome on the eccentric stag antler carver, Kokusai, in 2016.  That publication coincided with the growing likelihood that the government would ban the trade in antique ivory works of art, a trade which included the Japanese netsuke in which Paul excelled.  In a 2017 interview with the Antiques Trade Gazette, he  addressed the dynastic issue with characteristic aplomb saying: “I bestride my indulgences like a colossus; art dealers are a one-man show.” But he knew he would have to make room for the next generation before long. Two years later, as the anti-ivory legislation date began to close in, he announced that he would take a back seat and that his son, Oliver, then 34, would take control of the business.  Oliver Moss. Courtesy Sydney L. Moss Ltd. In one sense, the transfer was timely because Paul’s aversion to Instagram might not have helped him cope with the pandemic lockdown situation. Oliver, on the other hand, had been good at maths at school, understood technology and had been thinking in terms of business management – which, as luck would have it, is just what Paul, more focussed on scholarly research, was going to need.  Oli’s training was, as he puts it, ‘unusual’, building on his father’s old fashioned card index system which recorded ‘painters, collectors and hangers on’. But with the advance in technology, which his father had not mastered, he developed a new outreach system, bombarding clients with regular e-blasts detailing 10 objects at a time.   In spite of Paul’s colossus complex, the pair work well together. The only area of disagreement in our conversation came when discussing art fairs. Having distanced himself from the fair circuit early on, Paul agreed to apply for TEFAF, Maastricht in 2015, and he and Oli quickly became part of the  furniture there. Then “what about doing Masterpiece, or TEFAF New York?” chimes Oli. “Be careful,” says dad, questioning the timing and emphasising how many good American clients they already have...but then backs down. “I’m only a shareholder, a consultant,” he says. “Oli makes all the decisions...” Nicholas and Alex Logsdail Nicholas Logsdail the founder of Lisson, London’s leading gallery for international contemporary art over 50 years ago, was the first member of his family to become an art dealer but will not be the last. He had a Victorian forebear who was a painter (William), and he was taught to paint at a young age by the English fauvist, Sir Matthew Smith. He was also inspired to look at art by his uncle, author and collector Roald Dahl....but no one taught him how to sell art. “I don’t think it’s necessarily in the DNA”, says Logsdail, 76.  Nicholas and Alex Logsdail. Courtesy Lisson Gallery, photo by Roberto Chamorro. His father, a stockbroker, discouraged him because ‘the art world was full of shady characters’, he says. Perhaps that is why he may prefer the term ‘gallerist’ to ‘dealer’ as he does not buy and sell but promotes new work by living artists. Logsdail never really set out to be a dealer; he was an artist. He kind of fell into it as a student at the Slade after he found lodgings in a disused house in Marylebone where he could show his own art and that of his friends. By the mid to late 80s Lisson was home to the most talked about artists in Britain – Richard Long, Bill Woodrow, Tony Cragg and Richard Deacon, winning one Turner prize after another. In addition, it introduced the latest American minimalist art by Donald Judd and Sol Lewitt to British collectors like Charles Saatchi.  Now it has grown  into a $100 million a year powerhouse representing such major international artists as Anish Kapoor and Ai Weiwei with branches in New York and Shanghai as well as London. Whilst building this empire, it was only natural that Logsdail should want his children to be part of it. Of his four children, his daughter, Kitty, is a chef, and eldest son, Rory, a painter who does his own thing, entirely separate from the gallery. The next son, Alex, studied music developing a penchant  for German electronic bands and punk. Jobs in the gallery kept him going while he  pursued his music career,  until he realised how minimal the chances of success were.  Joining his father’s business was not a foregone conclusion, he says. The first shift came in c. 2005 when he met the editor of Art Forum magazine who offered him an internship in New York. Leaving home for the Big Apple, there followed four years of doing various art world gigs and having the time of his life. “It was wild, crazy and energetic” he recalls “often staying up til 4am...”.  At one point his father took him to an exhibition in Los Angeles with Anish Kapoor. Succession talk was not on the menu. But Kapoor brought the subject up  and told Alex that if he was going to run a gallery, he ‘would have to be better than your dad.’ “That was scary,” says Alex.  “But the real turning point was in 2009 when I got ill in New York and was faced with a $25,000 medical bill. I had to come home to London and work it off at the gallery.” Before he knew where he was, he had become completely immersed in the business and was appointed associate director. Wanting to make his own way, he returned to New York and searched for a gallery space. By 2012, Lisson New York was born under Alex’s directorship. “We did not agree on everything” he says, “but I introduced a number of new artists to the Lisson programme”, like the now hugely successful African American, Stanley Whitney. Nicholas was not prescriptive but told his son the most important thing was to be original.  “I used to think I was always up to date with the contemporary art world”, says Logsdail, “but not anymore. Now I have to ask Alex things  and he tells me things I don’t know about.” At least as Nicholas Logsdail embarks on his third quarter of a century, he’s got the issue of succession sorted, with yet another son waiting in the wings. “I’m a lucky ducky”, he muses contentedly.  To be continued....
img READ MORE

Where the Value of Silver Lies

September 23, 2021
Design, age, and provenance can all have a part to play in the value of antique silver. Charles Hartley Charles Hartley is the Director of Hartleys Auctions Ltd. and specialises in arms, militaria, fieldsports and taxidermy. A Queen Anne silver punch strainer, Henry Tolcher of Plymouth, Exeter, c.1710-5, 16.5cm long. Image courtesy of Michael Baggott. As an auctioneer, many summers have passed cruising around the sunny countryside bouncing from valuation to valuation. You never know what you might find and this truly is the best part of my job, from dusty houses filled with ancient oak to sleek modernist interiors accented with Danish teak and impressionist art. Though this presents a patchwork quilt of variety, there is always one constant, my late father’s leather gladstone valuation bag and its contents. Other than the pens and paper, possibly the three most highly used pieces of equipment in this bag of tricks would be my eyeglass, silver scales and my pocket book of hallmarks barely holding onto its cover. But what is the true value to those silvery items hidden amid the bric-a-brac, that have me rifling through sideboards and flipping over salvers?  Easy, you may cry, a quick google and you will see a multitude of websites listing bullion prices changing on a daily basis. Silver is of course often valued by weight and though this is an oversimplification, it does bode true, though typically only with damaged or very dull items. One afternoon working at my desk one of our trusted house clearers appeared at my door with a glint in his eye. He’d been sent to a house that I had not visited, this is not typical as usually I would value the property first, but in this case the items were in such a poor state, that the solicitor had deemed it unfit for sale and in need of a heavy hand. He was 99% right: upholstery was moth eaten, furniture wormed and mold ravaged the paintings. Though what was that brick supporting the rotting settee? It was a 999.9 grade 5000g solid bar of silver from the Argor-Haraeus Mint - which went to auction selling by weight for £3,388. But please don't think this means it’s time to take grandma’s silver tea set to the nearest “cash for gold” store. Bullion price is only one part of the equation which is used to value an item, as so much more in the nature of the piece could add to this.  The design credentials of silver will always impact the value, be it a Mappin & Webb classic or a Georg Jensen statement of arts & crafts design, such as a 20th century tazza I auctioned in March. Its “melt price” would only add up to £540, but on the day it raised over eight times that, seeing £4,598. This same category could also cover “novelty” silver, where small quirky pieces demand a high value with avid collectors desperate to fill a certain gap in their cabinet - like a rabbit pepperette by Sampson Mordan of London 1899, which I sold in 2019 for almost 23 times the melt price at £700.  Paul Storr (1771 - 1844), a pair of silver-gilt wine coolers & stands, silver-gilt , George III, London, 1809, Maker’s mark of Paul Storr, H: 35.5 cm. Image courtesy of Koopman Rare Art. Another major factor is age. “Flog It” star Michael Baggott became enamored with the world of hallmarks. He points out that “hallmarking was brought in to assure that no one sold substandard wares to an unsuspecting medieval public and is possibly the oldest bit of consumer protection. Although only introduced to assure purity, happily these marks can allow anyone to know who submitted an object for assay, where in the country it was marked and most importantly when. This immediately gives so much historical information, making silver collectors amongst the luckiest in the field of collecting”. Proving the point, amongst Michael’s collection is this small West Country orange strainer. Weighing only 2oz 9dwt, the value of the silver would be around £35. However, as a very rare provincial Queen Anne example, by Henry Tolcher of Plymouth (c.1710-15), it is worth roughly a hundred times more at £3,750.  But if you truly want to stretch the value of silver you have to not only look at the age and design of a piece, but its provenance. No better place to represent this is Koopman Rare Art, which is one of the world’s leading dealers specialising in antique silver, gold boxes and objets de vertu. Director Lewis Smith explains that “one of the great points with important silver is that it was often made for important families and individuals. Secondly, it often was designed by the great names to fit into houses that were being built at the height of fashion of the day”. Asking them for examples, Lewis spoiled me for choice, but my favourite amongst their offerings was a pair of Paul Storr wine coolers. The identical model is displayed in the royal collection, the V&A and by strange coincidence The White House, Washington. These were made around the time that the British burnt the building down during the War of 1812 and since their creation have held a long list of aristocratic owners and are valued in the hundreds of thousands.
img READ MORE

Purchasing Portraits

June 03, 2021
Portraits are having a moment - but why do people buy pictures of strangers? Joe Lloyd Joe Lloyd is a journalist who writes about architecture and visual art for The Culture Trip, Elephant, and The Economist's 1843 magazine, among others. John Vanderbank (1694-1739), Portrait of a Young Gentleman and his Greyhound, signed by the artist ‘John Vanderbank 1726’, 127 x 102cm. Image courtesy of Period Portraits. Last month, a work by a little-known old master defied all expectations. German baroque painter Johann Heinrich Schönfeld’s A bearded man in armour was auctioned for $150,000 at Christie’s, almost double its $80,000 estimate. It is a striking painting, warm-toned and subtly articulated. But Schönfeld, for all his talent, is hardly the sort of name that usually sets the art market alight. What could have caused this uptick? Portraits are enjoying a moment. The past few years have witnessed numerous acclaimed exhibitions dedicated specifically to the genre, from Goya at the National Gallery to Lucian Freud at the Royal Academy. But their popularity reaches beyond the hallowed halls of the art world. “You see portraits now on television adverts,” says art dealer Nick Cox, “you see them everywhere. Now even young couples putting their first home together might potentially buy a Victorian portrait to put in their dining room. It’s a trend across all eras and price points.” Cox runs Period Portraits, a web-based dealership specialising in 17th to 20th century portraits. He believes recent years have seen a shift among collectors. “Though there are still people who are just into, for example, Civil War portraits or military uniform,” he explains, “the new type of collector often buys across a whole range of genres and periods.” Frans Pourbus the Younger (1569 – 1622), An unknown noblewoman of the Bourbon court, oil on canvas, 75 x 58 cm, circa 1615. Image courtesy of The Weiss Gallery, London. Portraiture is itself an enormous field, and an immensely varied one. For many artists, it was a route to success. Portraits are generally smaller-scale and less time-intensive than history paintings. They also fed a near-constant demand. Rulers and courtiers needed them to project their might and majesty. The ever-growing middle classes followed, commissioning portraits as status symbols and decorations. Nicolaes Maes, among the most in-demand of Dutch Golden Age portraitists, left five houses and 11,000 guilders at his death (his tutor Rembrandt only earned around 340 guilders in a good year). Formal painted portraiture began to wane in the 19th century as photography engulfed some of its functions, though numerous artists continued to paint portraits. But portraiture in its loosest sense is arguably more prominent than ever: in profile pictures, avatars, social media posts. “At the moment,” explains Cox, “we live in a selfie-obsessed society, full of disposable images. Portraits do a similar thing, but with more permanence.” Their current popularity combines our mania for depictions of people with a desire for less ephemeral, more material images. While the prosperous and powerful used portraits to immortalise themselves and their families, however, today’s collectors seldom have such connections. To collect historic portraits is to be surrounded by long-dead strangers. Wherein lies the appeal? Sometimes, it comes down to the aesthetic. “As with any other work of art,” says Mark Weiss of Weiss Gallery, which has specialised in old master portraits since 1985, “there is the intrinsic beauty of the portrait itself. Portraits of a beautiful or handsome sitter will always have great decorative appeal.”  An image of an attractive person can light up a room. As can one of a strikingly unattractive person: cognitive scientists have found that beautiful and ugly artworks light up the same area of the brain. This might explain the enduring popularity of works like Quentin Matsys’ The Ugly Duchess, or the enormous  $137.5 million auction price achieved by Willem de Kooning’s Woman III in 2006. But there are reasons beyond the purely visual. One is provenance. “It could have come from a famous royal or noble collection,” says Weiss, “or one now dispersed.” To own a painting once held by the Duke of Mantua links you to an esteemed past collector. “It could be,” says Cox, “the history that they're interested in, it could be the decorative aspect of the costume. And then there's the human, fundamental thing of the gaze, wanting to lock eyes with people.” British School, Studio of Sir Allan Ramsay (1713-1784), Portrait of a Lady and Her Child, circa 1760, 76 x 104 cm. Image courtesy of Period Portraits. Studio of Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599 – 1641), Charles I (1600 – 1649) in coronation robes, oil on canvas, 223 x 149 cm, circa 1636 – 1640s. Image courtesy of The Weiss Gallery, London. It was the costumes that initially attracted Cox, who previously worked as fashion editor for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. But his interests soon broadened. “What I love about dealing in portraits is that every time you acquire one and research it, it opens up a window into a specific area of history.” Portraits serve as authentic gateways to a different era. Those attracted to Tudor age, for instance, might be drawn to portraits that embody that milieu. This March, Sothebys sold a cache of Tudor portraits estimated at £80,000 for a staggering £650,000. It is likely that the recent abundance of books, film and television set in the period, from Wolf Hall to The Other Boleyn Girl, influenced this upsurge. Portraits are never just of a person, but also about them. Clothing, facial expressions, posture, scenario: all tell us something about the subject, or the image they wanted to present. “A portrait,” says Weiss, “is by its nature a unique creation capturing a specific moment in the life and times of a person — and which more than often is the only surviving memento of that life. That in itself can be a very compelling motivation.” Owning a portrait gives you the exclusive ability to commune with an individual across time. What more could a budding collector want from a painting?
img READ MORE

The Allure of Imperfection

November 30, 2023
Condition is everything, including for those pieces that are purposefully restored. By Emma Chrichton-Miller As everyone in today’s art and antiques market is aware, condition is everything. Collectors are increasingly disinclined to take on objects which are not immaculate.  A handsome degree of patina on some Georgian furniture is allowed, but otherwise gleaming perfection is the order of the day. There is one field of collecting however where there is leeway. Japanese craftsmen have long espoused the values of imperfection encapsulated in the phrase, wabi-sabi. It was the fifteenth-century Buddhist monk, Murata Shukō, creator of the Zen-influenced tea-ceremony, who is credited with developing an aesthetic of deficiency. He suggested that alongside Chinese ceramics, with their regular forms and perfect glazes, practitioners of the tea ceremony should also use humbler, rustic Japanese wares which bear the marks of their making. One quote ascribed to him, from a document now known as the Kokoro no fumi (“Letter of the heart”), is the saying, 'A moon which is not behind clouds is disagreeable.’ The lesson from this is the beauty also of transience: that it is the movement of the clouds to reveal and conceal the moon as it itself moves, that makes the scene so beautiful. At last year’s Treasure House Fair there were two objects that derived directly from that tradition - the tea bowls of Raku Kichizaemon XV on show at Offer Waterman. These lively, irregular raku tea bowls, though made in 1987 and 2002, reach back through centuries. The gallery explains that “the artist uses clay often prepared three generations ago by his ancestors in the creation of these rich and rugged tea bowls. It is this permanence and continuity [that] sits at the heart of the family tradition.” These works also display an affinity with Offer Waterman’s Modern British art works. This is partly because during the 1920s the British potter Bernard Leach brought these Eastern ideas directly into the mainstream of thinking about art, design and craft in Britain, with his writings but also with the founding of his Leach pottery in St Ives, in 1920, aided by the Japanese potter, Shoji Hamada. Offer Waterman regularly shows other potters within this Anglo-Oriental tradition - including the highly various works of Lucie Rie, which revel in the accidents of form that arise in the moment of throwing and the ebullient drips or volcanic explosions of glaze that her once-firing method encouraged. White Raku Rekiyū type tea bowl named Ganshō (Pine Tree on the Rock), c.1987 by Raku Kichizaemon XV b. 1949. Image courtesy of Offer Waterman. Dutch artist Bouke de Vries, who is presented by Adrian Sassoon, takes the idea of imperfection further. An expert in the restoration of priceless historical ceramics, some years ago de Vries began to make art works that emphasised rather than hiding what he describes as being the most dramatic moment in the art work’s life. De Vries comments, “I was always a bit bemused by people’s obsession with things being perfect. In ceramics, damage is a no no. And yet we venerate the Venus de Milo.” Recognising that the fragments of fine ceramics had their own poetic power, he has used these to create a range of new vessels. Sometimes he uses kintsugi, or the art of mending visibly with gold leaf; sometimes he collages pieces together from different broken pots to create a new whole, vibrant with its own life; and sometimes he places the broken pieces of a historic piece inside a transparent glass vessel shaped to offer a ghostly match for the original form. 18th century Worcester porcelain teapot fragments with butterflies within a perspex box, 2022, by Bouke de Vries. Image courtesy of Adrian Sassoon. Another aspect of wabi-sabi, or the valuing of impermanence and imperfection, is a love of nature and natural processes. At last year’s Treasure House Fair, Geoffrey Diner Gallery showed some of the beautiful tables by Japanese-American craftsman and designer George Nakashima. These take their form from the untrimmed shape of the original tree, whether cut length ways or across the trunk. At the root of his philosophy of making was the idea, expressed on his website, "A tree is our most intimate contact with nature.” As humans, throughout history, we have seen ourselves reflected in nature. This lies behind the traditional admiration of many Chinese and Japanese scholars for strange and marvellous twists of root or branch or stone, which tease the imagination. Dealers Patrick and Ondine Mestdagh, from Brussels, exhibitors at Treasure House Fair, have available currently a Japanese bamboo scholar's object or “okimono”. Depending upon your angle of vision, this entirely natural object looks like a dragon or an insect or the branch of a tree.  A Lighthouse Called Kanata is a Tokyo-based gallery committed to introducing to Western as well as Eastern audiences contemporary art works inspired by a distinctly Japanese aesthetic. One of their artists is Osamu Yokoyama, a graphic designer turned master of bamboo. He captures the wayward organic energy of the material and turns it to his own expressive purposes. As the gallery suggests: “For it is within its bends and curves, its ability to be cut, bound and stretched to its limits, that one can find the meandering, ethereal and poignant vicissitudes of life itself.” Yakinuki type black Raku tea bowl named Kikyorai (Homecoming), 2002. By Raku Kichizaemon XV b. 1949. Ceramic. Image courtesy of Offer Waterman. 3 7/8 x 4 3/4 x 4 3/4 inches / 9.7 x 12.2 x 11.9 cm Raku seal impressed on the base of the bowl. Further: inscribed on the lid of the box Yakinuki Kuro (Yakinuki Black) and Kikyorai on the underside of the lid with kao cypher reading Kichi-Mitsu, as well as the inscription reading Hinoe-uma no toshi Aki (Autumn 2002), the artist's signature Kichizaemon XV (seal) on the base of the box. Learn more in this video about the artist.  
img READ MORE

The Magic of Mood

November 23, 2023
The legacy of dealer decorators such as Robert Kime, Christopher Gibbs and Geoffrey Bennison is that they recognised that antiques had the capacity to transform the mood of a room. By Giles Kime Giles Kime is Executive and Interiors Editor at Country Life. Anyone born much after the swinging sixties will remember a time when good antiques were treated with the sort of reverence normally reserved for senior clergy and decorated soldiers. Knowledge of their past lent them a glow; names like ‘Hepplewhite’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Gillow’ were uttered in the same hushed tones as ‘Major General’ or ‘Archdeacon.’ They still do; pedigree and provenance still rules the world of antiques and rightly, so. The origins of a piece and the hands and houses through which they subsequently passed adds an extra dimension that is transformative and which has the potential to add significantly to its allure.  But it was in the sixties that a new type of antique expert emerged on the scene - and with them a very different type of client. In following decades, Christopher Gibbs, Geoffrey Bennison, Robert Kime, David Mlinaric and Piers Westenholz - most of whom plied their trade around London’s Pimlico Road - recognised that as well as having historic and aesthetic value, antiques also offer a unique opportunity to cast a spell over a space. It wasn’t just clients such as Lord Rothschild and Weidenfeld who bought into this philosophy but also a new generation from the world of film and music, including Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, David Putnam and Terence Stamp. ‘Chrissie Gibbs sought out the unique, the unusual and the unrelated, so you might have a 17th-century sculpture next to a piece of Arts-and-Crafts furniture on a beautiful rug, creating that soft, sleepy aged sense of beauty,’ says the antique dealer Will Fisher of Jamb in London. The emphasis was as much on the whole as it was on the sum of the parts. Richard Coles of Godson and Coles concurs with the sentiment; 'Quality antiques bring depth and gravitas creating focal points in a room, generating a tangible and exciting atmosphere that is timeless, interesting and less liable to date,’ he says.  One of the late Robert Kimes’s most influential projects was the gentle transformation of South Wraxall Manor in Wiltshire for John Taylor and his wife, Geela Nash Taylor, the founder of Juicy Couture. It was not just structural changes such as re-opening the loggia to the outside that brought this beautiful 15th-century house back to life but the extraordinary mixture of furniture and fabrics that lend the house its highly distinctive mood. ‘It had to have some ordinary things in it - and some wonderful things too,’ he commented. And so it does;  the study is furnished with a French ebony and Boulle desk and a gilt mirror, while the family sitting room is anchored by a pastel Smyrna rug. Elsewhere there are antique pelmets, bed hangings, curtains and upholstery as well as embroidered suzanis. There are 18th-century French twin beds in their original Toile de Jouy fabrics, hand-painted DeGournay paper and the Spanish painted leather walls that provide magical backdrops. The value of these ingredients to the succession of spaces was not just as individual pieces but also as components in an entity that enhanced the mood of the building. The drawing room at Wraxhall, designed by Robert Kime. Image courtesy of Robert Kime, photographer Tessa Traeger. Key to the South Wraxall project was the mix of styles and eras; European and Middle Eastern, 17th-century with 18th, ordinary with the extraordinary. That perhaps is one the greatest features of the work of the dealer decorators; in their search for magic, they refused to be hidebound by the period of a building. As a result, the alchemy of their work relied on juxtaposing one piece with another, regardless of its origin. It was a dramatic shift away from interior design projects of the past that had been burdened by historicism and involved furnishing rooms with pieces that were from the same period as the houses they occupied.  What has been exciting about this seismic shift in approach is the creativity that it has precipitated at every level of the market; freed from the constraints of connoisseurship, the process of decorating with antiques has become more creative. While academic rigour still prevails, so too does a celebration of beauty for beauty’s sake and the form, colour and texture that they bring to an interior.  
img READ MORE

18th Century Redivivus

September 28, 2023
How the arcane and fragile porcelain continues to withstand the test of time. by Emma Chrichton-Miller Two stands at The Treasure House Fair openly share their double passion: for eighteenth-century porcelain and for contemporary decorative art of the highest level.  The two galleries are known to each other: Adrian Sassoon and Michele Beiny have been friends for longer than they have been dealers. Beiny, based in New York, started her own gallery in 1987 specialising in 18th and early 19th century English and Continental porcelain and European faience, as well as French furniture and decorations, objets de vertu, and renaissance jewels. More recently, she has broadened her focus to include a handful of contemporary American studio glass and studio ceramics artists - including the renowned Dale Chihuly and Jennifer McCurdy.  Gilded Radiatori Vessel by Jennifer McCurdy 2018, Courtesy of Michele Beiny  Chinese Red Seaform by Dale Chihuly 1995, Courtesy of Michele Beiny Sassoon, meanwhile, early on made French Sèvres his specialism - unrivalled in its decorative exuberance and technical virtuosity - but since the mid 1990’s he has established a significant parallel interest in the work of contemporary specialists in ceramics, glass, gold, silver, paper, wood, lacquer, bamboo and hard stones.   What becomes evident in the displays of both galleries at fairs is the continuity of spirit between the work from these two eras, separated by four hundred years.     Beiny puts her finger on it. “I am not interested in contemporary art that just uses porcelain or glass as a medium. I want to see work by people fascinated by the material, its history and its techniques, seeing where they can push the limits of the material, innovating both at the level of design and craftsmanship.”  She adds, “That’s what they were doing in the eighteenth century - working with porcelain, this great new discovery.”   Today she defines her particular passion as the early years of English and Continental porcelain manufacture - when across the continent princes and monarchs strove to outdo each other in the splendour of the porcelain artefacts emerging from their manufactories. Currently, for instance, she has available a Meissen Böttger porcelain teapot from 1715, named for the alchemist, Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682-1719), credited with discovering the formula for ‘true’ or hard-paste porcelain in 1708. This led in 1710 to the foundation of the Meissen porcelain manufactory by Augustus II, King of Poland. Another item on her website is a Vienna Du Paquier trembleuse cup and saucer from around 1725-30 - just a few years into the earliest phase of production for this Viennese manufactory, founded by the Dutch entrepreneur Claude Innocentius du Paquier in 1719.  She has a strong interest also in English soft-paste porcelain and faience; tin-glazed and enamelled earthenware, which first emerged in France during the sixteenth century, and spread widely across Europe.  Vienna du Paquier trembleuse cup and saucer 1725-30, Courtesy of Michele Beiny   Faience was highly valued among elite patrons during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, before soft-paste porcelain factories came into being but continued to be used throughout the eighteenth century, with inventive fruit, vegetable and animal shaped vessels demonstrating the ebullient creative imaginations of the makers. Beiny comments, “As soon as it becomes repetitive, I am not interested.” In her view, only Sèvres maintained its high standards of experimentation  - “new shapes, new glazes” - into the nineteenth century: “They were haemorrhaging money making porcelain in ever new and innovative ways.”     It is this spirit of excitement that Beiny finds in the American modern and contemporary makers whose work she showcases. She says, “It is seamless, the continuity between Jennifer McCurdy and eighteenth century porcelain.” She is also a significant collector of the work of English potter Kate Malone, represented by Adrian Sassoon. Malone is renowned not just for her expressive, generous forms inspired directly by nature but also by the depth and intensity of her commitment to the science of glazing, of which she has become a master.    Encouraged by Sassoon, she has consistently sought to extend her own technical abilities and learn from the past. Beiny notes; “Kate looks at eighteenth-century faience to inspire her.”  If this seems an obvious inspiration, Kate has looked also at eighteenth-century porcelain, which at first she found a bit cold. “But then you get to Sèvres and there is no way Sèvres is frigid - all those flowing lines, those Missoni zigzags and those checks and those corally patterns, as if they are out of the funkiest magazine from Italian Vogue. You look at those elephant vases or the tureens,” she says, “and the form, the glaze and the decoration are all one fantastic knot intertwined, with relevance to each other. I think that’s amazing.” A Soft-Paste Sèvres Porcelain Tray 1762, Courtesy of Adrian Sassoon All of Adrian Sassoon’s contemporary artists are similarly marked out by their technical brilliance and commitment to pushing the boundaries of their material, whether the master silversmith Hiroshi Suzuki, the British glass artist Colin Reid, the British-based Japanese blacksmith Junko Mori or her compatriot Hitomi Hosono. Miyabi-Fire Vase by Hiroshi Suzuki 2023, Courtesy of Adrian Sassoon Hitomi Hosono’s detailed porcelain vessels, inspired by the natural world and botanical specimens, with their chalk-like finish and gold embellishments, are feats of astonishing technical virtuosity. As the gallery’s website proclaims, “An authority on Sèvres and Vincennes porcelain, Adrian’s specialism has given him an appetite for exquisite design and detail.” It seems they are as abundant today as they were in 1740. A Hawthorn Bowl by Hitomi Hosono 2020, Courtesy of Adrian Sassoon
img READ MORE

American Craft in collectors' hearts

September 14, 2023
How the the humble genre swept its way to the highest ranks of the art world becoming one of the most sought after movements in contemporary design and woodwork.  By Emma Crichton-Miller   Twenty years ago, Robert Travers of the London Modern British gallery Piano Nobile told me; “I was at Sotheby’s for a sale, when I walked through another sale of Modern Design. I saw a table. It was very splendid. I discovered it was by George Nakashima.”   From that point, Travers began to collect good pieces when he came upon them, and indeed deal in them: “I like that East meets West aesthetic and Nakashima’s lovely feel for natural timber.” These have become an essential part of the gallery’s display of their roster of Modern British artists, both in the gallery and at art fairs. Travers comments; “The furniture is not too extreme, but there is this quiet intensity of engagement with the material that is complementary to our pictures.”  George Nakashima Floating Shelf and Frank Auerbach portrait of David Landau at Piano Nobile's stand at The Treasure House Fair 2023 Image courtesy of PIANO NOBILE, London. Today, the market of the Japanese American woodworker, architect and furniture maker, is flourishing. George Nakashima, born in the US in 1905, is widely acknowledged to be the founder of the American Studio Craft Furniture movement, which had its birth in the rural artists' colony of New Hope, Pennsylvania, in the 1940s. After travelling the world as a young man, including stints working as an architect and designer in Japan and India, it was in an internment camp in Idaho that Nakashima met the Japanese master carpenter Gentaro Hikogawa and began to apply himself to making one-off pieces of hand-crafted furniture, using traditional Japanese joinery techniques. In 1943, the American architect Antonin Raymond successfully sponsored Nakashima’s release from the camp and invited him to his farm in New Hope, Pennsylvania. There, in his studio and workshop, Nakashima began to explore the organic expressiveness of wood, and embarked on his hunt for timbers with ever more dynamic knots and burls and figured grains.  While he constructed many different kinds of distinctive furniture, he is best known for his large tables made from giant slices of tree, sometimes entire, sometimes linked by butterfly joints, with the natural edge of the trunk creating the contoured edge of the table.  Minguren II Coffee Table by George Nakashima Image Courtesy of PIANO NOBILE, London. Detail of butterfly joint on Minguren II Coffee Table by George Nakashima Image courtesy of PIANO NOBILE, London. One of the world’s most renowned specialist dealers in the work of Nakashima, is Washington DC-based Geoffrey Diner. His own exemplary cross-disciplinary collecting provides a model for how great art and great design converse together. Growing up in Buffalo, New York, where the leaders of the American Arts & Crafts Movement were highly regarded, he expanded his interest through the 1980s to British Arts and Crafts, as well as contemporary makers. Today, his focus is post-war art and design, and his outstanding display of fine pieces at Treasure House Fair in 2023 included a highly desirable Nakashima Conoid Bench, with split seat and stick back, from 1973,  and a monumental “Minguren II” Coffee Table. Unique three-seater sofa by Wendell Castle Stack laminated walnut, leather, 1974 Image courtesy of Phillips Conoid Bench by George Nakashima Image courtesy of Geoffrey Diner Gallery   Nakashima drew equally on his Japanese heritage and North America’s distinguished Arts and Crafts tradition. Already Wharton Esherick, born in 1889, had begun to work by hand with wood in the 1920s. He was followed by Phillip Lloyd Powell on the East Coast, while on the West Coast Sam Maloof, Jack Rogers Hopkins and Arthur Espenet Carpenter formed another group.  A second generation included the daring sculptural designers Paul Evans (1931-1987), and Wendell Castle (1932-2018), Judy Hensley McKie (b.1944) and Mira Nakashima (b.1942), George’s daughter, who for many years continued to oversee production of furniture in her father’s workshop alongside making her own work. Each pursued their own personal aesthetic, using a wide range of materials, but rooted in a dedication to hand processes - whether the sensuous wood carving of Wendell Castle or Paul Evans’s sculpted metalwork.  Geoffrey Diner Gallery at The Treasure House Fair 2023 Image Courtesy of The Treasure House Fair  Leading collectors of the day - including Nelson Rockefeller, Stephen Spielberg and Diane von Furstenberg - bought enthusiastically, alongside many homemakers who saw in these makers’ work a rebuff to modern mass-production. In 1973, Nelson Rockefeller commissioned two hundred pieces from Nakashima alone for his house in Pocantico Hills, New York. During the 1980s, however, the work of the studio craft makers fell out of fashion. Indeed, Robert Aibel of Moderne Gallery in Philadelphia, a leading gallery for American Studio Craft Furniture, remembers buying a Nakashima dining table and chairs in 1985 for $3000 from a doctor who referred to it as “used furniture.” Aibel had an instinct that there was a market out there, however, and, slowly, the market rebuilt, until the dizzying heights of the early 2000s, when, in December 2006, at Sotheby’s New York, a beautifully patterned, wildly irregular table made from a single cross-section slice of redwood burl, created by Nakashima in 1988 for his patrons, Dr. Arthur and Evelyn Krosnick of Princeton, New Jersey sold for $822,400.  Since then, other notable auction records include the £225,000 paid for the unique stack-laminated walnut three-seater sofa by Wendell Castle, from 1974, achieved at Phillips London in April 2018, and the $382,000 paid in 2017 at Rago Arts and Auction for a 1977 Paul Evans cabinet.
img READ MORE

Fantastical Fabergé

June 06, 2023
The Easter egg everyone wants Poppy Mckenzie Smith As a child, I wanted nothing more than a Fabergé egg. I was endlessly fascinated by their delicate mechanisms, bejewelled panels unfurling like a chrysalis to reveal anything from a sultry ruby to a miniature train. My childlike fascination in Fabergé has been shared by generations of collectors and admirers. Emperors, kings, socialites and princesses from across the globe have all lusted after the unmatched craftsmanship of a Fabergé piece.  An Imperial miniature pendant Easter egg by Carl Fabergé Chief Workmaster: Michael Perchin, St Petersburg, c. 1900. Length: 2.5 cm (from top of loop) Image courtesy of Wartski Much like the Mona Lisa has come to represent the total sum of Da Vinci’s artistic prowess, Fabergé’s genius has been unfairly distilled down to a few handfuls of Easter eggs. In reality, both he (Carl) and the house of Fabergé  produced some of the most unusual and beautiful items running the whole gamut of artisanal skills. Enamelling, gem-setting, goldsmithery, silverwork, glassblowing and wood carving are all present in Fabergé’s works, and the diversity of items would fill a (very glamorous) department store. He created cufflinks and hat pins, parasol handles and cross quartz owls. There was seemingly Edwardian object he could not render beautiful. Hat pin, Carl Fabergé, c.1890 Chief Workmaster: Michael Perchin, St. Petersburg, pre 1896. Contained in its original silk and velvet lined wooden box. Image courtesy of Wartski After inheriting his father’s jewellery business in 1882, Carl Fabergé rapidly developed the name in to an international icon. He moved away from the blingy but traditional gold and diamond jewellery to focus on design-led pieces which showcased his astonishing workmanship. Having studied at Dresden Arts and Crafts School, Carl toured Europe learning different artisanal skills. He went on to work as a restorer at the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg (his home town), focusing on gold and enamel snuff boxes. He quickly put his new skills in to practice – the workshop became renowned for having perfected the enamelling process -  and his works caught the eye of Tzar Alexander III who put them on display in the Hermitage. This led to the first Imperial Easter Egg commission in 1885, and Fabergé was established as the most desirable craftsman in all Russia.  Word of his exquisite objets d’art spread among the world’s elite. By 1890 the Fabergé workshop had doubled in size to nearly 500 craftsmen, and 1900 saw the house’s first appearance at the World Exhibition in Paris. In 1903, the first international House of Fabergé opened on Bond Street, and the great British love affair with Fabergé blossomed.  The great and the good(ish) of Britain vied to procure a piece from Fabergé, but entry to the ownership club was hard to come by. Much like an Hermes Birkin today, it wasn’t possible to simply waltz in and select your bijoux of choice. Introductions had to be made, and handshakes exchanged. For some, the opening of a physical shop was greatly lamented – Empress Maria Fedorovna wrote to Queen Alexandra complaining “Now that that silly Fabergé  has his shop in London, I can’t send you anything new, I am furious!”  An Enamel and Gem-set Easter Egg Pendant by Alexander Tillander, St Petersburg, c. 1900 Signed: ‘AT’ for Alexander Tillander Length (excl. loop): 1.8 cm Image courtesy of Wartski Fabergé’s charm lay not just in his exclusivity, but in his ability to create gifts for the people who had everything. His clients would already have owned houses and jewellery boxes groaning with treasures, so the value had to lie elsewhere. His exemplary craftsmanship was unquestioned, but Fabergé was also a shrewd creator. He knew that his pieces had to be able to surprise and delight those who had grown tired of unbridled luxury. He thus turned to sentimentality. Fabergé knew well of the Brits’ obsession with their pets and was keen to cater to his new customer base in England. Cherished animals recreated in precious gems were enormously popular – a beloved Fox Terrier carved in white onyx with sparkling ruby eyes, a prize bull hewn in glistening obsidian and even an intricately wrinkled turkey decorated with lapis lazuli were given as gifts among the Royal Family. These animal figurines are among the most valuable pieces today and prices can run in to the millions thanks to their clear provenance – many bore the engraved name of the pet depicted making them easy to trace. In a further attempt to woo his British fanbase, Fabergé  decided to capture the very country in his works. Intricate enamelled boxes depicting stately homes and castles painted on to gold and mounted in nephrite frames served as decadent postcards and proved a shrewd business move from Fabergé . How could his clientele resist purchasing such an ornate depiction of their own pied-a- terre in snuff box form? While many modern collectors may be unable to find their own home depicted on one of Fabergé ’s creations, those with a healthy budget will be able to find many items with which to fill it. Kieran McCarthy, an eminent Fabergé  expert and Managing Director at Wartski advised that prices can range from £2,000 for a piece of silverware up to several millions for unique figurines, flowers and animal studies with exceptional provenance. As with any collectable, rarity sharply increases value and can allow condition to be somewhat excused.  A match-striker by Carl Fabergé The matches are taken from a cavity in his back and struck against his sandstone body in order to light them. Workmaster: Julius Rappoport, St. Petersburg, before 1896. Image courtesy of Wartski With such a vast array of items on offer, it can be difficult to know where to begin. What unites these seemingly disparate pieces is the mix of exemplary craftsmanship and sheer whimsy. What desk wouldn’t wish to be adorned by a hefty silver anteater paperweight or a rather cross frog? While the infamous eggs served only to astonish, the more practical Fabergé  pieces are not to be overlooked. A handsome set of cake cutlery can fetch about £8,000, while a cigarette case creeps to the £45,000 mark. For those seeking an interesting yet more adorable entry in to the Fabergé  owners club, sketches of his works are a marvellous alternative starting at about £1000 and offering a glimpse in to the creative process of arguably the world’s most inventive artisan. 
img READ MORE

The One About Desks

April 06, 2023
A cluttered desk is a cluttered mind. From Georgian to Mid-Century, which era will boost your productivity? Francesca Peacock Francesca Peacock is an art, books and culture writer. Why is a raven like a writing desk? It’s a question the Mad Hatter asks Alice at the poor girl’s confusing tea-party, before remarking that it’s a riddle without an answer. He, and the March Hare and the Dormouse, can’t think of a single link between the bird and a desk. It’s a question I found myself returning to this week, when exploring the endless possibilities of antique writing desks: from bureaus to elegant escritoires and sexy roll tops, surely one — just one — of them must have something in common with a raven.   When you’re writing your witty tweets, verbose Instagram captions, and heartfelt correspondence with one’s lovers (I find that quill and ink has a far higher success rate than a mere text message), how are you sitting? Are you typing from bed, the kitchen table, the loo — anywhere other than a desk? Early 19th Century Regency Period Rosewood Davenport Desk Available from Patrick Sandberg for £3,800 You see, the poor writing desk has rather gone the way of the typewriter, the chaise-longue, and the grandfather clock (as the Mad Hatter says, “If you knew Time as well as I do, you wouldn’t talk about wasting it. It’s him”). They’re thought to be elegant, antiquated, and beautiful — but fundamentally rather redundant and unnecessary in the modern world. Who needs a desk dedicated to writing letters like a Davenport with a slanted top — although, at the time of writing, Patrick Sandberg has a particularly fine rosewood example — when every email can be composed from an iPad? Luckily for the poor old beleaguered writing desk, there are a few Luddites lingering in the world. Deep in the wilds of West London is The Old Cinema — a beautiful antiques shop housed in, as their name would suggest, an old picture house. I spoke to shop’s Will Hanness about the modern-day market for writing desks, and the picture he painted was not as bleak as a world of blandly-furnished We Works and (the worst of all modern inventions) standing desks might suggest.   Danish Midcentury Teak Desk by Gunnar Nielsen Tibergaard for Tibergaard c.1960, £3,995 The Chiswick-based shop gets about one desk in stock a week, with the examples normally ranging from beautiful Georgian bureaus with delicate drop-flap writing surfaces and countless cubby-holes and draws to stash your letters in, to mahogany turn-of-the century Carlton House desks — a style believed to have been designed in the 1790s for George V when he was still Prince of Wales. Sitting down at one of these — or a delicate French desk with curved legs — and the temptation to pretend you’re a Jane Austen heroine, a less-annoying Marie Antoinette, or a correspondent of Charlotte Brontë is undeniable.  But what if your writing desk inclinations are rather more modern, and you fancy trying your hand at some mid-century verse rather than a Regency diary entry? There are many brilliant 20th century desks on the market, from the Scandinavian cool of Gunnar Tibergaard Nielsen’s 1960s teak pieces — complete with stylish desk chairs — to more streamlined, metal designs from the Bauhaus school. Despite being more modern, these pieces are liable to set you back a fair amount more than my lusted-after Georgian bureau — a Nielsen desk and chair can reach £3000.  But my favourite 20th century works have to be those by the Hungarian artist and designer Mathieu Matégot: his desks are little more than bent pipes with a flat surface on the top, but their contortions — and those of his magazine racks, umbrella racks, and plant stands — brilliantly strain at the boundary between functionality and art.  After you’ve bought an antique writing desk, it will magically make you write a masterpiece — that’s how it works, right? It would seem to have been the case for all the writers whose desks are now for sale. Why else would someone in 2009 pay £20,000 at auction for Charlotte Brontë’s small, sloping mahogany desk, unless they thought it would help them pen their very own Villette? More recently, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “writing slope” — not even a full desk — sold for £6000 in 2015: a modern version of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner is surely about to be published any day now.  But, if you do buy an antique writing desk, I’ve got the subject for your masterpiece all planned out. After making time for your love letters, secret missives, and poetry, why not dedicate yourself to writing about why a raven is like a writing desk. C. S. Lewis’s explanation — “"Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is never put with the wrong end in front! — has never satisfied anyone. A proper answer would surely be a book that everyone would read. 
img READ MORE

Firing the Imagination

April 01, 2023
From the Paleolithic to Picasso - the rise of ceramics. Billy Jobling Billy Jobling is Senior Writer and Researcher in the Post-War and Contemporary Art department at Christie's, London. ‘Needless to say Sèvres has killed ceramics’, wrote Paul Gauguin in 1889. ‘… With the American Indians it was a central art. God gave man a little bit of mud, with a little bit of mud he made metal and precious stones, with a little bit of mud and a little bit of genius.’ Gauguin’s own radical ceramic works, of which around sixty survive today, rarely appear on the market and can command hundreds of thousands at auction. These vivid, deliberately non-functional vessels were part of his engagement with the ‘primitive’ artistic spirit. The great Spatialist Lucio Fontana, who pushed clay into bold sculptural shapes, similarly claimed to detest ‘lacy designs and dainty nuances.’ His dramatic, Baroque-inspired figures and Crucifixions of the 1940s are especially sought after; a spectacular ceramic fireplace hit the record price of €1,450,200 in 2015. The delicate, decorative objects these modern artists so disdained are, of course, only part of the story. Pottery has been part of human life since the Palaeolithic era and covers myriad forms and functions, from the practical to the pretty and the earthy to the ethereal. Broadly, though, to make ceramics has always meant to work with your hands. The increasing interest in ‘craft’-based TV shows such as Channel Four’s The Great Pottery Throwdown speaks to a renewed popular appreciation for the handmade and tactile. In our age of NFTs and immaterial imagery, ceramics offer something to hold on to, and seem to be having something of a moment. This year’s ennoblement of Sir Grayson Perry, while also honouring Perry’s achievements as a broadcaster, writer and public figure, is testament to ceramics’ ascendancy in the field of contemporary art. Twenty years ago, Perry was the first ceramic artist to win the Turner Prize. His vases might look classical or domestic from afar, but incorporate subversive images and text that deliver biting social commentary and complex autobiographical themes. His Warhol-Basquiat tribute I Want To Be An Artist sold for a record-breaking £632,750 in 2017; twelve more vases have achieved prices over £100,000 since then. PERRY, Grayson b.1960 I Want To Be An Artist, price realised £632,750 Christie’s The ceramics of Pablo Picasso are a perennial—and accessible—auction favourite. Plates, plaques, bowls and vases produced at the Madoura pottery in Vallauris can be found for a few thousand dollars upwards. Inventive, colourful and often charming in design, these editioned works offer an appealing entry point to the Spanish master’s practice. A unique prototype of his Grand vase aux femmes voilées (1950), which sold for almost a million pounds in 2013, holds the record—still a bargain relative to his work on canvas. Collectors of a more esoteric persuasion might consider George Ohr, the self-styled ‘Mad Potter of Biloxi’, who died relatively unknown in 1918. His studio, a five-story wooden pagoda in Biloxi, Mississippi, overflowed with pots in transgressive shapes and colours, many of them rumpled, frilled or ‘scroddled’—made from scraps of differently coloured clay. Half a century after his death, a cache of some seven thousand pots was rediscovered in his son’s auto-repair garage. Artists Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol began buying Ohr in the 1980s, followed by celebrity collectors including Steven Spielberg and Jack Nicholson. He retains a devoted following today: exceptional works command thirty to fifty thousand dollars at auction. The equally rebellious Peter Voulkos, who founded the art ceramics department at the Los Angeles County Art Institute in 1954, reinvented ceramics during the years of Abstract Expressionism. ‘Calling Peter Voulkos a ceramist’, wrote Karen Rosenberg in 2016, ‘is a bit like calling Jimi Hendrix a guitarist.’ A master of functional pottery, he went on to work gesturally and monumentally—sometimes in front of a live audience—creating towering behemoths from paddled, wheel-thrown and slab elements. These ‘stacks’ have sold for major prices in recent years, but Voulkos’s chargers, bowls and plates can still be picked up for a few thousand dollars. LEIGH, Simone b.1967 Untitled VI (Anatomy of Architecture Series), price realised $819,000 Christie’s Among Voulkos’s students was the West Coast abstractionist Ken Price, whose psychedelic fired-clay sculptures drew on Surrealism and surf culture. His work was recently included in the Hayward Gallery’s group show Strange Clay: Ceramics in Contemporary Art, which closed on 8 January this year. The exhibition showcased the medium’s wild mutability in an array of works—by turns painterly and sculptural, cerebral, playful and technically dazzling—by artists including Price, Takuro Kuwata, Rachel Kneebone, Jonathan Baldock, Beate Kuhn and Leilah Babirye. At the Whitechapel Gallery in 2021, Theaster Gates’ exhibition A Clay Sermon explored the material, social and spiritual potency of clay, from its ritual and ceremonial uses to its role in colonialism. Alongside his own early hand-thrown pots, large stoneware vases and totemic ‘Afro-Mingei’ sculptures—which combine themes of Black identity and Japanese philosophy—Gates made a selection of historic ceramics from collections including the Victoria and Albert Museum. ‘As a potter’, the Chicago-based artist said, ‘you learn how to shape the world.’ Simone Leigh, who last year became the first Black woman to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, uses ceramics—among other media—in similarly complex works that layer references to African traditions, ethnographic research, and feminist and post-colonial theory. After years working in relative obscurity, her star has risen over the past decade. A small-scale sculpture from her Anatomy of Architecture series, which conflate women’s heads with pitcher or vase-like forms, recently sold for more than $800,000 at auction. In Leigh’s hands and others, the future of ceramics in contemporary art looks brighter than Gauguin could have imagined.Heavy lies the hand that wears the Crown. How the royals unburden themselves through writing.
img READ MORE

Look at the Bigger Picture

December 15, 2022
Can Alexander Larman tempt voracious collectors to stray from plain text, and into the colourful world of illustrated books? Alexander Larman Alexander Larman is the author of several historical and biographical titles including The Crown in Crisis & Byron’s Women. He is books editor of The Spectator world edition and writes regularly about literature and the arts for publications including The Observer, Prospect, The Chap and the Daily Telegraph. WATKINS-PITCHFORD, D.J. The Whopper, 1967. available at £950 from Ashton Rare Books When you think of ‘the Golden Age of children’s illustration’, which artists come to mind? The estimable likes of Quentin Blake and Axel Scheffler are perennially popular today, and in the middle of the twentieth century, everyone from Edward Ardizzone to DJ ‘BB’ Watkins-Pitchford produced extraordinarily interesting, brilliant work. To purchase a signed copy of BB’s The Whopper in its original dustwrapper will currently cost you around £950 from Ashton Rare Books, and The Bookshop on the Heath has BB’s own copy of The Countryman’s Bedside Book on offer at the moment, for a comparatively trifling £275.  RACKHAM, Arthur Rip Van Winkle Heinemann, 1905. Jonker’s Rare Books But in order to understand the true ‘Golden Age’ of the medium, you have to go back to the beginning of the century to the Edwardian era, at a time when artists from Arthur Rackham to Kay Nielsen were renowned for their mastery of form, colour and subject. Although the subjects dealt with might seem juvenile, there is absolutely nothing childish about the books that they illustrated – nor the prices that the titles command today, especially the rare signed limited editions that are eagerly sought-after by collectors.  One man who has been dealing in Golden Age children’s books since he began his career is Christiaan Jonkers, proprietor of Jonkers Rare Books in Henley-on-Thames. For Jonkers, it’s easy to say why the books became so successful, from the beginning of the twentieth century onwards. ‘It coincided with the beginning of mainstream colour printing. The four-colour process (where the impressions of four electronically engraved printing plates each printing a single colour, red, green, blue and black are superimposed to produce a multicoloured image) meant it became commercially viable to reproduce detailed watercolour paintings. Beforehand, colour was either added by hand using a stencil process or by lithography, both of which were expensive and time consuming and generally reserved for the grandest natural history books.’  DETMOLD, Edward Illustration from The Arabian Nights, 1924 available at David Brass Rare Books This meant that artists of great genius could emerge, but for Jonkers, there is one figure who is primus inter pares. ‘Arthur Rackham is the most prolific of the golden age illustrators and therefore the best known and most widely regarded.  It was his illustrations to Rip Van Winkle in 1905 which set the template for illustrated books of this period and he continued working until his death in 1939.’ Nonetheless, Jonkers also singles out other artists with distinctive styles. ‘The most notable of these is probably Kay Nielsen, a Danish artist who moved to London and later to California.  His work is very stylised and inventive with a strong fantasy element.  In later life, he worked for Disney and contributed some of the scenes to Fantasia.’  When it comes to lesser-known figures, Jonkers considers Edward Detmold underrated- ‘he is less well known than he should be.  He trained as a zoologist so his animal studies are very precise, but he also had a sparkling use of colour, which is evident in his work for The Arabian Nights and Aesop’s Fables’ – and he has his own soft spot for a lesser-known artist. ‘I particularly enjoy Harry Rountree’s rendition of Alice in Wonderland.  It differs from most of the grand illustrated books of the period in that the book is printed on coated paper throughout so there are illustrations on virtually every page, interspersed with the text.’  These illustrators’ most famous works were sold in limited edition formats, which are now hugely desirable. As Jonkers explains, ‘Although even in their standard format, these books are very much a deluxe production, the limited editions take this a stage further: they are usually on larger, handmade paper, bound in vellum and signed by the illustrator.  There is also the exclusivity of knowing there are only a small number (usually a few hundred) of copies produced.’ The prices are therefore commensurately high, but, as Jonkers notes, condition is vital. ‘It has a significant impact on the value of these books.  They are produced as objects of beauty so being damaged or in rotten condition rather defeats their purpose.  As booksellers, one of our most important services to our customers is to ensure that they are buying the best available copies of these books.  All the books we sell have been carefully checked for any repairs and that they have all the requisite illustrations in an undamaged state.’ Jonkers is in the enviable position of being the go-to bookseller for the original watercolour artwork from these books. He explains that ‘We usually have examples by most of the major illustrators for sale. We follow similar principles in selecting artwork to buy as we do with our books, selecting only the best examples from each illustrator’s range.  The price depends on a number of factors:  illustrators, subject matter, and quality of work being the most significant.  A small Rackham drawing might be £2000, whereas a full-size watercolour would start at about £10,000 but the choicest examples might be in excess of £100,000.’ Not all the work is so bank-breaking, however; Jonkers says that ‘Some lesser known illustrators work can be had from £500 upwards.’  ROUNTREE, Harry Alice's Adventures in Wonderland Nelson, 1908. Jonker’s Rare Books Christmas is, of course, a traditional time for these books to be given as gifts; as Jonkers points out, ‘These books were originally timed to be released for the Christmas market and were sold as ‘Christmas Gift Books’.  It is easy to see why they make such good gifts and will appeal to all book lovers, not just ardent collectors.  That said, we sell a steady stream of these books throughout the year.’ And there are also times when something really unique comes in, which will be snapped up by the eager collector.  ‘Occasionally, we find books which have had an original drawing added by the illustrator, making them unique and particularly special.  Usually these are a small pen and ink doodle; however some years ago we had the limited edition of Alice in Wonderland with Rackham’s illustrations, in which he had drawn a full page in watercolour of Alice and the Queen of Hearts playing croquet.  That was very special indeed.’  So if you fancied a Christmas present to remember, get thee to Henley, forthwith. Whatever you buy is likely to be wonderful, beautiful and unique – and, if you’re willing to spend the money, might even contain its own artistic delights, too.  
img READ MORE

Unreal City still Unrealised

December 08, 2022
The centuries-long struggle to capture the essence of London. Joe Lloyd Joe Lloyd is a journalist who writes about architecture and visual art for The Culture Trip, Elephant, and The Economist's 1843 magazine, among others. Auerbach, FRANK Tower Blocks, Hampstead Road, 2007 available at Marlborough New York London is a difficult city for an artist to capture. Rome has been ossified and Paris homogenised. Everyone knows what they look like. But London is a stranger beast. There are some consistencies — rows of terraces in stock brick, black-painted railings, ragged late Victorian and Edwardian high streets, tiled corner pubs, the red-and-blue roundel of the Underground. There are landmarks, such as the Palace of Westminster and St. Paul’s Cathedral, and an unavoidable natural feature in the form of the Thames.  But London’s palette and profile are ever shifting, from gleaming Portland stone to peeling stucco, stained concrete to shimmering glass. It makes the metropole both thrilling and hard to pin down into a single image, in the way a Haussmannian street corner can come to stand for the whole of Paris. Perhaps this is why London is best appreciated in literature, from Ben Jonson and Daniel Defoe to Patrick Hamilton and Iris Murdoch: it is a place that demands multiple impressions rather than a fixed image.  Nevertheless, some of the greatest names in the history of art have tried. Many of them have brushed with failure. Canaletto's imaginative renderings of Venice proved especially popular with the English. He moved to the country between 1746 and 1755, for a spell living in Soho, and set about attempting to do for London what he had done in his hometown. Though Canaletto created some fine vedute of the Thames, many found his work repetitive and mechanical when compared to his magical views of Venice. One critic even claimed that he was an imposter who had usurped the true painter’s name. This judgement has held true in the art market today: only four of Canaletto’s London paintings are included in his top 50 works sold at auction. L.S LOWRY, Piccadilly Circus, London 1960 Christie’s Over a century later, in 1870, a young Claude Monet arrived, fleeing conscription in the Franco-Prussian War. His paintings of Green Park and London’s docks have none of the freedom and luminosity that had already begun to appear in his French work. It may have been the weather, an attempt to appeal to English tastes or his own dark mood in self-exile. Or it may have been that smog-sheathed London itself failed to ignite his vision. Monet’s older contemporary, Camille Pissarro, fled the Prussians and ended up in suburban Upper Norwood. He brilliantly captured the then-rustic outskirts of the capital. But his work gives little insight into a metropolis by then double of the size of the French capital. All of these painters were, in a sense, outsiders. And many of the great London paintings were executed by those originally from elsewhere. L.S. Lowry, a lifelong resident of English’s industrial northwest, embodied the city's bustle in Piccadilly Circus, London (1960), with crowds rushing beneath the stifling buildings and billboards of the West End. It was sold for £5.6m at Christie’s in 2012, a record for the artist.  BILL BRANDT, A Night in London, 1938, First Edition available at Hyraxia Books £3,250 The American master James Abbott McNeill Whistler spent the majority of his adult career in the city. In his twilit Nocturne paintings, he turned the Thames into a strange, dreamlike place. This not did always find favour with the natives — critic John Ruskin accused Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public's face” after he exhibited the masterful, near abstract Nocturne in Black and Gold (c. 1875), an imagined depiction of a Chelsea pleasure garden. Whistler successfully sued for libel, but became bankrupt in the process. A few years earlier, his Thames Set (1871) of etchings had captured a rather grittier aspect of the city.These 16 prints deftly capture life on the city’s then thriving ports. "I assure you,” Whistler wrote to a friend, “that I have never attempted such a difficult subject”.   Another fascinating outsider-insider is the photographer Bill Brandt, currently the subject of a retrospective at Tate Britain. Brandt was born in Hamburg to a German mother and a British father who had spent most of his life in Germany, and spent his childhood in a Swiss sanitarium and under psychoanalysis in Vienna. But he disavowed his German origins and claimed himself a native of South London. In his 1930s photographs he captured the raw street life of the city as it had never been seen before, capturing everything from the aristocratic town houses of St. James to the tattoo parlours of Waterloo and the porters of Billingsgate fish market.  Bill Brandt, In the Public Bar at Charley Brown's, 1942 available at Holden Luntz Gallery $10,000 Brandt's 1938 photo book A Night in London (1938) did for the British capital what Brassaï’s Paris de Nuit (1936) had done for the French one, leaving no corner unturned. He later wrote: “I photographed pubs, common lodging houses at night, theatres, Turkish baths, prisons and people in their bedrooms. London has changed so much that some of these pictures now have a period charm almost of another century.” This constant change represents perhaps the greatest challenge for those artists aiming to capture the city. Yet there are two post-war painters who arguably do this better than anyone else. Frank Auerbach and the late Leon Kossoff capture their own patches of the city again and again, constantly resisting train tracks, building sites and junctions. Often rendered in heavy impasto, their London paintings show a dirty, fragmented, always moving city. Auerbach himself has repeatedly noted the difficulty of capturing the city: “I have a strong sense that London hasn’t been properly painted… But it has always cried out to be painted, and not been.” Auerbach acknowledged that many artists had captured bits and pieces, but no-one had truly grasped the whole.  Around the turn of the 20th century, Monet made several return trips to London where he took a room at the Savoy and painted the Thames. His extraordinary depictions of a fog-shrouded Westminster only convey a fragment of the physical city. But they also capture something bigger: a combination of the monumental and the fleeting that might reveal something of the ancient, ever-changing city as a whole. Kossoff, LEON King's Cross, Spring, No. 1, 1998 Kossoff, LEON Christ Church, Spitalfields, Early Summer, 1992 Kossoff, LEON A Street in Willesden, Evening, 1982
img READ MORE

A Gallery of One's Own

March 24, 2022
How and why collectors live with art installations at home. Matthew Turner Matthew Turner is a writer, editor, and Senior Lecturer at Chelsea College of Arts. His work has appeared in Frieze, Art Review, gorse and others. “The House of the Farmer”, a site-specific installation conceived by British artist Mike Nelson and curated by Didi Bozzini, at the Palazzo dell’Agricoltore until June 2022. Image courtesy of Palazzo dell’Agricoltore, credit: Lucio Rossi. It was dark in the basement of the German castle. Some dusty light came in through the floorboards and in front of me there was an open bank vault door. The place was empty and I felt I shouldn't be there even though I had been sent by my boss. I looked around to check nobody was around and I went in.  Inside I could just make out the faint glint of metallic objects and a smell of wet earth surrounded me. Newly graduated from university I was working as an architect’s assistant, visiting the home of a collector to measure some of its outbuildings so more of the estate could be turned into gallery spaces. The client was a hedge fund manager with a vast private collection and wanted the extra room to house complex installations by Anselm Kiefer and Anthony Gormley. It was going to be a tricky project with both artists requiring reinforced floors to carry tonnes of sculpture and walls to be absolutely straight within fractions of a millimetre. However, that day I had mostly been distracted leafing through paintings worth millions that were just stacked against the walls.    Edmund de Waal, Cupboard Cargo, 1999 installation at High Cross House, Devon. Image courtesy of Edmund de Waal, credit: Sara Morris. Within the vault, after a slightly panicked search, I found a switch and the strip lights buzzed on one by one. I was surrounded by glass vials containing strange, autumnal pigments, clerical clothing spread out like pieces of meat and surgical instruments. It gave me the feeling of fear and intrigue I remembered from hearing ghost stories as a child. The next day I found the client’s groundskeeper and he told me it was an art installation by the Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch. He called it the nightmare room and I was relieved I hadn't stumbled on something else.  The room stayed with me, it was like finding a new band I didn't want anyone else to know about, and this highly personal feeling is not uncommon when people talk about their encounters with installation art. The typical boundary between viewer and object is broken and leads to an immediacy and intimacy that is rare in wall-based artworks. Rather than looking at an object from a distance, you are living within the work. Instead of moving from one individual sculpture or painting to the next, you are free to explore an environment that is a complete unified experience.  A permanent display of Edmund de Waal’s work is installed in the Artists’ house at the New Art Centre, Wiltshire. The Artists’ House opened in 2001 and was designed by the architect Stephen Marshall. New Art Centre is open daily 11am – 4pm. Image courtesy of New Art Centre, Wiltshire. I searched for more installations in domestic settings that combined art and architecture. The Californian artist James Turrell has been extending American homes with bunker-like spaces for his meditative sensory installations. In 2008 he created a light coloured pool for a private residence in Greenwich, Connecticut—an artwork the owners can swim through as well as look at. The John Lautner–designed Sheats-Goldstein house, which features in The Big Lebowski, now includes a Skyspace that compresses the sky into a picture and transforms picturesque sunsets into psychedelic dreamscapes. And in Las Vegas the CEO of MGM commissioned the artist to design him a pyramidal installation, which looks like the modern equivalent of a Neolithic monument. Turrell has been so prolific in people’s homes that some get forgotten. A resident in Malibu found one of his installations in her guest house, hidden behind children’s toys, surfboards and exercise equipment.  These spaces are largely detached from the complexities of the domestic, more standalone structures than being integrated into the home. On a less invasive scale, this is where artist and writer Edmund de Waal composes his cargo works, subtle groupings of ceramic vessels that are placed to absorb existing interiors into an all encompassing artwork. At the modernist High Cross House in Devon his pots are half hidden in cupboards, obscured behind furniture or placed high up where people don't usually look. His objects are where you might expect them, but don't look quite like what you would expect. They have a ghostly presence, projecting a feeling of unease, which then throws disquiet across the rest of the space—even those areas the artist hasn't touched. De Waal cleverly negotiates the boundary between installation and interior design to explore feelings of the homely and unhomely, a distinction which is often a problem when artists bring their installations into the home.  Edmund de Waal, Lidded vessel, c. 2005, Tall Lidded Jar, 2006, Tall Lidded Jar, 2006. A permanent display of Edmund de Waal’s work is installed in the Artists’ house at the New Art Centre, Wiltshire. The Artists’ House opened in 2001 and was designed by the architect Stephen Marshall. New Art Centre is open daily 11am – 4pm. Image courtesy of New Art Centre, Wiltshire. “The House of the Farmer”, a site-specific installation conceived by British artist Mike Nelson and curated by Didi Bozzini, at the Palazzo dell’Agricoltore until June 2022. Image courtesy of Palazzo dell’Agricoltore, credit: Lucio Rossi. Their work is site specific, made for a particular location or environment. This could be a white cube gallery space, where Do Ho Suh’s minimal and colourful passageways work so well, without the distractions that come with the interiors of older and more elaborately decorated galleries. Or it could mean they work with historical settings, where you would not expect to see artwork. Mike Nelson, known for winning the Turner Prize and his installation Coral Reef, currently has an expansive work of gnarled tree fragments in the Palazzo dell’Agricoltore, the ex-headquarters of an agricultural consortium in Parma. The nuances of context and how this contributes to meaning, makes it difficult to just place these works into different settings—it disrupts the intentions of the artist. Instead, most are broken down and sold in smaller parts, reducing their impact as a total environment. Or the artists reject selling larger works, relying on the sale of smaller editions, books and drawings to fund their more substantial projects.  A few years ago I visited Sammung Hoffmann in Berlin. The collection is housed over two floors in a private apartment within a former factory and the owner, Erika Hoffmann, welcomes people into her home every Saturday. I was there to see Joëlle Tuerlinckx’s Atlas of wall 81 Extraits, a 1:1 mapping of a space for Manifesta 10 in Saint Petersburg transplanted onto the walls of the collector’s home. The paper, or map, had been hung from floor to ceiling in rectangles and squares of different sizes. There were cut marks where sockets had been traced and rough lines of fluorescent orange paint. It matched the fabric on the dining room chairs and the flowers in vases placed around the room. Associations which drew it into a lexicon of complementary colours, wallpaper and fabric selections, rather than standing out as an artwork. Joëlle Tuerlinckx, "Atlas of wall 81 extraits ‘Manifesta’ #10, Musée Hermitage, Saint Petersburg’", 2014-2017, paper, pencil, casein acrylic, nails, magnets; Warren Platner, Table and chairs, designed 1964/66; Foto studioschuurman. Copyright: Sammlung Hoffmann, Berlin.
img READ MORE

Swords to Sculpture

August 26, 2021
When the demand for samurai swords declined after the Meiji Restoration, artisans turned their skills to decorative objects, and the era was marked by exceptional workmanship. Billy Jobling Billy Jobling is Senior Writer and Researcher in the Post-War and Contemporary Art department at Christie's, London. Silvered bronze Tanuki in the guise of a priest, signed Gyoko, Meiji period. W: 33.5cm H: 18.5cm D: 24cm Image courtesy of Laura Bordignon. In 1868, the Emperor Meiji ascended to the throne of Japan. Reigning until his death in 1912, he oversaw a period of extraordinary social, political and artistic change. Prompted in part by the gunboat diplomacy of the United States, this new era brought an end to the Tokugawa shogunate that had governed since the early seventeenth century, and the transformation of Japan into a modern market economy. The policy of sakoku—which had threatened entering foreigners (as well as exiting nationals) with the death penalty—was lifted. Japan, isolated for more than two hundred years, was opening up to the world. The Meiji Restoration initially spelled disaster for the country’s metalworkers. These artisans had long relied on the patronage of the samurai, the elite military class who administered the shogunate’s provinces on behalf of powerful feudal lords. Demobilised and gradually abolished by the Meiji government, the samurai were prohibited from carrying swords in public. The demand for weapons, armour and other accoutrements of noble households went into a steep decline. As Japan developed its relationship with the wider world, however, new opportunities emerged. In 1867, the country presented its first ever pavilion at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. The paintings, prints, swords, screens, and sculptures on display—entirely novel to most European viewers—sparked a frenzy of interest. Foreign diplomats and advisors invited to Japan early in the Meiji years were equally impressed by the art they saw. Turning their skills to decorative objects, the craftsmen who had lost their samurai clients now found themselves at the centre of a flourishing export market. Meiji period rotating bronze and mixed metal vases, circa 1880, H: 30in D: 16in. Image courtesy of Wick Antiques. With the combination of imperial support, an eager new audience and unfolding creative freedom, Meiji-era art reached great heights of technical and artistic sophistication. To this day, says Charles Wallrock of Wick Antiques, it’s the superior workmanship that attracts buyers of Meiji bronzes. The most exquisite examples—as seen in the world-leading Khalili Collection, and in some Japanese museums—are beyond the reach of most. Often featuring complex inlays of gold and silver, these creations, Charles explains, ‘take it to another level. They’re just breathtaking.’ Works by masters such as Shoami Katsuyoshi can reach hundreds of thousands at auction. At the more accessible end of the spectrum, however, the calibre remains appealingly high. Genryusai Seiya, Charles tells me, ‘is a very popular maker, one of the more commercial, but always a sign of quality. The attention to detail is extraordinary.’ Common subjects include animals such as tigers and bears, and human figures from all walks of life—woodcutters, scholars, young boys at play. Ranging upwards from a few thousand pounds, they are typically ‘table-top sized’, and are sought after by decorative buyers in the United States, Russia and China alike. Apart from a brief dip during the global financial crash of 2008, the market for high-quality bronzes has remained strong, with a recent increase in interest at the top of the range. ‘I’ve got a pair of bronze vases that are very good quality’, says Charles. ‘I love them because they revolve, which makes them different. Those are probably my favourite pieces I own currently, as far as the Meiji period is concerned.’ As Japan negotiated its global identity, cross-cultural currents flowed both in and out of the country. With art students newly able to study overseas, Emperor Meiji encouraged the promotion of Western artistic modes in Japan, most notably in the yoga style exemplified by painters such as Kuroda Seiki; this in turn prompted a reactionary neo-traditional Japanese style known as nihonga. At the same time, the impact of Japanese aesthetics on Western art—for which the nineteenth-century French critic Philippe Burty coined the term Japonisme—was enormous. From intricate enamelwork to the ukiyo-e prints of Hokusai and Kunisada, Japan’s influence resounds throughout the Art Nouveau movement, and in the work of Post-Impressionists including Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh. A large Meiji period silk embroidery of a sea eagle, circa 1890, H: 73.75in W: 56in. Image courtesy of Wick Antiques. The Western craze for Japanese objects continued well into the twentieth century. ‘There were companies through to the 1900s and 1910s doing unbelievable silver and bronze metalware’, says Charles, ‘and even going into the Taisho period, the 1920s.’ Beyond bronzes, countless examples of wood-carving, lacquerware, ceramics and embroidery also stand testament to the era’s remarkable innovation and excellence. ‘Another beautiful thing from the Meiji period was the silk works’, Charles notes. ‘I’ve got one really fantastic one of a sea eagle. The workmanship is just breathtaking, all highlighted in gold thread: you can scarcely believe how somebody could make something so good. They just always seemed to do beautiful things well.’  
img READ MORE

Papering the Past

August 12, 2021
Antique wallpaper provides an insight into different layers of design history, and, with the skill of specialist restorers, it can live on. Cal Flyn Cal Flyn is a writer from the Highlands of Scotland. She writes literary nonfiction and long form journalism. Her first book, Thicker Than Water, was a Times book of the year. Her critically acclaimed second book, Islands of Abandonment—about the ecology and psychology of abandoned places—is out now. Wallpaper fragments rescued from New Lanark. Image courtesy of Allyson McDermott. Have you ever, while decorating, pulled away a fitted cupboard to find another era waiting underneath? An expanse of old wallpaper, perhaps, which has been hidden from view for many decades, or even better—the sheaved edges of every wallpaper that has graced these walls. This is the history of the house, taken corporeal form: layer upon layer of it, sometimes perfectly preserved. And invaluable insight into the tastes and mores of the past. In Britain, the first wallpapers were monochrome prints of pictorial scenes, or repeating floral patterns. They came in sheets a little smaller than today’s A2 printer paper, and were usually used inside cupboards in 16th century merchants’ houses. By the 17th century, these sheets had morphed into longer rolls of the kind we might recognise, and more complex repeating patterns and block printing techniques were in use. Vivid colours, intricate designs and flock textures soon came to the fore, and took pride of place in the grandest aristocratic houses. The introduction of machine printing in the 19th century meant that wallpaper became accessible to the masses; since then, we have cycled through many fashions, each iteration of wallpaper telling us something about the era, inspiring revivalist designs, and sometimes retaining significant resale value. In 2019, for example, Bonhams sold a set of 15 wallpaper panels reputedly removed from Moor Park, a Palladian mansion in Hertfordshire. Dating from between 1790 and 1810, these were prime examples of Chinese wallpaper of the sort that became extremely fashionable in aristocratic circles in the 18th century; at this time, every grand house in Europe would have had at least one ‘Chinese room’ decorated with these intricately hand painted sheets (or European-made ‘chinoiserie’ copies). Authentic Chinese wallpaper was so valuable that it was often removed and rehung in new rooms. The Moor Park Wallpapers featured mountainous landscapes, pagodas, and dragon boats, and were thought to have been removed from the walls when the house was sold and framed. The papers sold for £37,562. The Moor Park Wallpapers: One of a set of fifteen late 18th century Chinese wallpaper panels, sold for £37,562 inc. premium at Bonhams in November 2019. Image courtesy of Bonhams. That same year, Sotheby’s sold a similar suite of wallpaper panels dating from the same period. This suite of 24 panels, featuring watercolour birds flitting through a flowering forest of trees, were first procured for Spetchley Park near Worcester, but never used (“which explains,” the auction listing noted, “the undimmed freshness of the colours”). Initially valued at £50,000 to £100,000, they sold for £137,500. Retouching Chinese wallpaper from The Royal Pavilion in Brighton. Image courtesy of Allyson McDermott. Allyson McDermott, the historic wallpapers expert, had been asked to conduct conservation work on the Spetchley Park wallpapers ahead of the sale. McDermott specialises in complex restoration projects; previously she has undertaken wallpaper conservation at Buckingham Palace, Temple Newsam, and the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, where the Chinese wallpaper of the saloon was removed with palette knives during renovation and rehung in its original position in Queen Victoria’s first floor bedroom. Antique wallpaper can be extremely difficult to conserve: the paper is often discoloured or bleached unevenly by sunlight. Adhesives can fail, or insects like silverfish might eat away at the surface. The sheets might be as thin as cigarette paper, or imbued with poisonous chemicals. (Scheele’s Green, an arsenic-based dye, was commonly used in 19th century wallpapers; in poor conditions it can produce toxic fumes.) Calling in the experts in such cases is critical.  “I do a lot of testing, and work under the microscope to understand how it’s been made and why it’s in the condition it’s in,” says McDermott. They might be affixed with water-soluble glues, and therefore loosened with moisture; others require solvents, or be removed with a backing layer and separated out later. “Historic wallpapers are very fragile. We very carefully separate it along the joins and lift each sheet off in one piece. It’s real heart-in-mouth stuff.” Every project is extraordinary, says McDermott: “everything from identifying a tiny fragment and recreating the design, to conserving an entire room of wallpaper. We’re separating layers from a house in London right now. It’s so exciting: you have a sandwich, which you slowly separate out. We’re finding paper dating back to the 1750s. One of the 1770s wallpapers is very, very bright: yellow and black—who would have guessed it?” McDermott regrets the recent fashion for muted palettes: “Grey, taupe and beige don’t work in Georgian houses. Colour was the thing: blues, greens, reds, yellows—the brighter the colour, the more expensive it was; it was a question of status.” Now her studio also produces a range of contemporary wallpapers based on historic designs, often extrapolated from fragments she has recovered. “So much craft and skill and talent went into 18th, 19th, early 20th century wallpaper,” she says. “You had to create the design, carve the blocks, know how to flock or gild… an enormous amount of knowledge and craft skill. A really good wallpaper stands alongside a work of art.” Far from ephemeral, the most skillfully designed wallpapers will live on for many centuries. Chinese wallpaper in Allyson McDermott’s studio. Image courtesy of Allyson McDermott.  
img READ MORE

Casts and Copies

June 10, 2021
The enduring attraction of the plaster cast. Billy Jobling Billy Jobling is Senior Writer and Researcher in the Post-War and Contemporary Art department at Christie's, London. 19th century plaster bust of Nero, France, circa 1860, H: 57cm x W: 37cm x D: 22cm. Image courtesy of Vagabond Antiques. With the recent frenzy for NFTs, the art world’s long-standing authenticity obsession has arrived at a metaphysical extreme. An NFT, or non-fungible token, is effectively a contract that certifies the ownership of a digital artwork. While that artwork—be it Tweet, gif, jpeg or video—might be infinitely and identically reproduced online, the NFT is unique. It allows the collector to feel they own the original, stable and definitive work from which all others are derived, despite the fact that no such original materially exists. To own an NFT is to claim the elusive essence of the real thing. In the more tangible realm of sculpture, the line between original and copy seems clearer. An ancient Greek or Roman marble—an artwork often equated with the very word ‘antique’—is surely more valuable and important than a plaster cast of that same statue. The cast is not the real thing, and doesn’t carry the same history. Far from being soulless replicas, however, casts are often artistic creations in their own right. Not just more affordable and mobile than their marble counterparts, they also tell fascinating stories about our changing relationship with the past, and provide opportunities for playful and thought-provoking display. The plaster cast’s heyday was in the 19th century. While European society held classical and Renaissance art in high esteem, seeing its greatest glories in person—even as rail travel opened up the continent—was possible only for the privileged few who could afford a Grand Tour. Casts offered access to this cultural grandeur at home. They became coveted household ornaments, as well as tools for artistic education. In 1793, an atelier de moulage was established beneath the Louvre to supply the growing demand for casts from France’s prestigious Beaux-Arts academies. The studio still operates today in a large warehouse on the edge of Paris, and preserves its own artisanal traditions: a six-year apprenticeship is required to become a cast maker, and the creation of a large mould might take a year of work. French cast plaster architectural Ionic capital element, circa 1960. Image courtesy of Guinevere Antiques. A Victorian plaster section from the Parthenon frieze, attributed to D. Brucciani & Co, probably late 19th century, after the antique. Sold for £6,500 at Dreweatts in January 2021. Credit: Dreweatts 1759. A rare pair of busts from the studio of the Neoclassical master Antonio Canova recently sold for almost half a million dollars at Christie’s. They had been cast directly from Canova’s finished marbles during his lifetime, and their flawless surfaces indicated that they had not been used to produce further versions. More typically, a 19th-century cast after the antique might only set you back a few thousand pounds. Modern casts of those casts can create huge visual impact at relatively little cost, as demonstrated in the striking rooms of Aynhoe Park, which juxtaposed monumental plasters from a range of different eras. Casts likewise offer great freedoms in a museum context. A gallery of them can bring together sculptures from locations across the world whose side-by-side display would be otherwise impossible. The plaster Kore of Lyons in Cambridge’s Museum of Classical Archaeology reassembles a figure whose two halves are held in museums in France and Greece; its Peplos Kore, meanwhile, has been brightly painted in a speculative restoration that would be unthinkable with a true ancient artefact. Plaster cast and reconstruction of the Peplos Kore (circa 530 BC, now stands in the Akropolis Museum in Athens). In the Cambridge Museum of Classical Archaeology. Credit: Zde, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. The Aynhoe Park auction featured a number of architectural casts, including one derived from a pilaster at Lincoln Cathedral. Such moulds, taken in-situ, harmlessly duplicate fixed elements without the need for their removal. If the 7th Earl of Elgin had used this method two centuries ago, the Parthenon might look very different today. Indeed, if casts had been made at that time, they could have recorded features of the marbles that have since been lost. The British Museum’s were overzealously cleaned in misguided attempts to restore them to ‘that state of purity and whiteness which they originally possessed’, scouring away significant surface detail; the parts of the frieze that remained in Athens have been damaged by air pollution and acid rain. This aspect of the cast—its ability to capture the state of an object prior to erosion, destruction or restoration—informs the work of the art conservation company Factum Arte, which uses pioneering 3D technologies to document at-risk monuments down to micron levels of accuracy. In 2013, they completed a facsimile of Tutankhamun’s tomb, whose fragile state of preservation is threatened by the flow of visitors. Historian Tom Holland was not impressed. ‘In our society there is a huge premium set on authenticity,’ he said at the time. ‘Clearly, were there not a difference between the original and a copy, it wouldn’t matter—you could make a replica and trash the original.’ Anyone who has seen the queue to view the Mona Lisa, or observed the heights of NFT mania, would have to agree. But reproductions have important roles to play, and we would be poorer without them. Today’s copy, after all, might be tomorrow’s real thing: many ancient Roman sculptures are replicas of much older Greek originals, long lost to the ravages of time.  
img READ MORE