The current London Art Week (LONDONARTWEEK.CO.UK), which takes place on the premises of 48 dealers, auction houses and galleries in St James and the West End and finishes on Friday, was particularly enjoyable. It runs concurrently with Masterpiece, of which more tomorrow, which takes place in an absolutely enormous tent in the grounds of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. LAW tends to focus more on connoisseurship, talks, special exhibitions and longer term client relationships. Three objects, one talk and one meeting stand out for me, even above the very high general standard, so I have concentrated on these for the rest of this post.
Firstly, S Franses at 80 Jermyn Street are the preeminent textile dealers in London and even very likely in the world. David Franses, who took over the company in 1955, is now ninety three but VERY on the ball, and he was courteous enough to sit and talk to me for well over an hour out of no motives beyond kindness and the wish to share his passion for antique textiles. It was the most fascinating time and I learnt infinitely more than I ever could from books. He was also very funny and told me a wonderful story about the time, egged on by his then small son, he was persuaded to buy a Rolls-Royce. In his pride and joy he set out to visit an established client, the late Sir Simon Sainsbury at Woolbeding House. On arrival Sir Simon noted that he had a new car, saying”Ah yes, I see you’ve got a Rolls-Royce. Quite a lot of people I know have one of those.” But on seeing David was ever so slightly crestfallen by this, immediately remarked “But only you, David, deserve one!”
The firm has extensive conservation workshops and a wonderful archive, containing nearly quarter of a million records, which Tom Campbell headed up for seven years before he joined the Met, where he subsequently did so much to restore and highlight the role of tapestries and textiles as the dominant Renaissance courtly art form.
For London Art Week the firm is showing three seriously important Mortlake tapestries commissioned for the court of Charles 1st. They include a “Vulcan Cast Down” and an “Aeneas Before Dido”. The latter, illustrated below, is based on Book 1 of Virgil’s epic, and was woven during the early 1640s in coloured wools and silks after designs by Perino del Vaga and Francis Cleyn. The colours are extraordinarily fresh and the piece, which is newly discovered, is in remarkable condition. A real treat. At Masterpiece the firm are also showing a very fine Axminster carpet, woven by Thomas Whitty, together with related 18th century furniture, both made for the Earls of Shaftsbury at St Giles House at Wimborne.
I arrived at 16 Savile Row just as Charles Beddington was beginning a talk on 18th Century Venetian landscape painting. I hadn’t booked – you’re meant to and it was very full – but they kindly let me in. Again this was a complete treat. Charles is probably the world’s leading expert on his subject, a very good talker who wears his learning lightly. By listening to him, you discover things you would otherwise would probably never know. His talk was based around ten very fine Venetian paintings and drawings hanging on the gallery walls, mostly by Canaletto and Bellotto and was followed by a discussion that ranged over subjects such as the artists’ speed of execution, their style and manner of painting and the use of different supports. For example Canaletto’s “Old Somerset House from the River Thames” was painted on a very expensive chamfered mahogany panel, almost certainly procured from the time Canaletto was lodging with the cabinet maker Richard Wiggans in Silver (now Beak) Street. We discussed patronage, and the antics of Canaletto’s agent in Venice, Consul Smith, who appears to have continued to take orders for the artist’s work when he was staying in London and then on at least one occasion found a copyist who could produce them as autograph. We even talked about the general use of optical devices such the camera obscura and camera lucida, which were far more common in the period than is often realised, albeit often cunningly disguised by blending different images and viewpoints thus obtained to disguise their use. My absolute favourite of the ten paintings, the one I covet, was an early Canaletto from the 1720’s of “The Grand Canal Looking Towards the Salute”, reproduced below. It has an extraordinarily loose handling of paint, best seen in the moody, atmospheric and overcast sky, alongside great precision of detail in some of the figure painting especially the little group on the quay to the right of centre.
Finally, Trinity Fine Art at 15 Old Bond Street, are showing a magnificent small Renaissance casket from Newbattle Abbey, made in 1565 by the Nuremberg Master of Perspective, featuring complicated marquetry designs of polyhedral solids and engraved plaques; its materials include various woods, engraved bone, mother of pearl, alabaster, etched and fire-gilt iron. Real kunstkammer stuff of the highest order. The casket sits on a stand designed and made for it in the early eighteenth century by the renowned cabinet maker James Moore. It descends from the Marquesses of Lothian into whose possession it had then come through dynastic connections with the Schomberg family. The picture below gives you some idea of its quality: Trinity’s directors were using all their considerable language skills to point out its merits to a number of very interested European collectors.