A master’s grief perfectly expressed and antique ceramics delight the salerooms
Huon Mallalieu explores the grief of Rembrandt and the delight of ceramics
The other day in the Rijksmuseum, when discussing Rembrandt’s Night Watch, we wondered whether the pivotal figure of a young woman might have the features of the artist’s wife, Saskia. I had then forgotten that she died in 1642, the year of the painting, and so this figure, on which a strong light is focused, might well be a memorial as well as having an allegoric purpose.
Saskia’s was the culmination of a series of family deaths and it left Rembrandt deeply depressed. Another work of the same year was his 57⁄ 8in by 67⁄ 8in etching of St Jerome in a Dark Chamber ( Fig 2) which has been described by a psychologist as a perfect description of depression. Jerome, who in the 4th century translated the Bible into Latin, experienced the Roman catacombs as ‘walking in darkness like that of hell, pierced by rare beams of light’, much as Rembrandt shows his room. It is necessary to concentrate so that the images emerge from the gloom.
The inventor of mezzotint, Ludwig von Siegen, published his first print also in 1642 and it is a pity that Rembrandt never tried the new technique. It is extraordinary what he could do to obtain similar effects with his more laborious etching, engraving and drypoint. This brilliant impression of the second state, in excellent condition, made £86,500 at Christie’s on July 7.
There is a tenuous link between mezzotint and my next selection from the summer sales, as the subject of von Siegen’s first print was a collateral descendant of the elector Palatine Ludwig V, possible sitter for an 8½in wooden bust ( Fig 1) dating from about 1530, which sold for £629,000—more than four times the estimate—at Sotheby’s on July 5. The identification comes from the period details of fashion and beard and similarities to Ludwig’s medals by Christoph Weiditz (1498–1559) of Augsburg.
Weiditz, incidentally, spent a year producing watercolours of the costumes of the various peoples ruled by the habsburgs, including the first life drawings of Aztecs. he may well also have been a sculptor, as was his father Johann; his brother hans was a wood engraver. Given the price, it is likely that some bidders knew what they were looking at. As the catalogue put it: ‘This extraordinary bust may provide a missing link in the oeuvre of these German Renaissance artists’.
habsburg Spain and Italy featured among the furniture successfully offered by the dealer Kate Thurlow of Gallery Forty One in Battersea at the Olympia fair. A set of four late-17th-century Italian walnut chairs still covered in their original tooled and painted leather had a ticket price of £5,000 ( Fig 3) and a Spanish walnut table of much the same date, with elaborately carved strapwork legs, was offered at £4,850.
The same dealer also had a simple and endearing early19th-century english pub table, priced at £2,200.
The silver-gilt presentation tray that was featured here on June 15 attracted a great deal of interest on Koopman’s Masterpiece stand before selling to a private collector. The dealer also offered an impressive group of Paul Storr pieces, including a magnificent pair of candelabra, 1816 ( Fig 6). These went well, as did gold boxes.
The 19th-century Fox dynasty of smiths have been favourites of mine since Phillips devoted a complete sale to their work ( COUNTRY LIFE, December 15, 1988). The top price then was £5,000, with smaller pieces going for about £100.
Koopman had a set of four silver-gilt candlesticks by Charles Fox, 1829, with a royal crest thought to be that of the Duke of Cambridge, at £39,000. The dealer noted that ‘it was both interesting and encouraging to note how many British clients were buying topquality antique silver’. June was also a month for antique ceramics and porcelain. At Art Antiques London, E. & H. Manners of Kensington Church Street took about £20,000 for a charming Nymphenburg coffee pot dating from between 1760 and 1765 ( Fig 4). Sotheby’s sculpture and works of art sale included what it termed ‘splendours’ from a Mantuan palazzo, many of which were early Italian ceramics. Notable was a 14¼in diameter Tuscan or Umbrian dish dating from between 1450 and 1470 and painted with what is called a ‘contour’ portrait of a young man, that is to say, a profile bust set against a ghostly shadow.
Such dishes of this size are rare and only two were cited in comparison. The first was in the J. Pierpont Morgan, Mortimer Schiff and Dr Bak collections before being sold at Sotheby’s in 1965 and the second, attributed to Faenza, is known from a catalogue of maiolica in French national museums.
This latest one sold for about twice its estimate, making £52,500.
In the same sale, there was an earthenware piece confidently ascribed to Faenza and dated to 1500. This was a 12¼in-high bishop reading on his throne ( Fig 5), which was painted in blue, green and yellow. Figures, known as plastiche maiolicate, are rare and individual saints or bishops rarer still.
This one had come from the Thyssen-bornemisza collection and it sold for a five-times estimate £68,750.
Fig 1: Wooden bust possibly by Christoph Weiditz, dating from about 1530. £ 629,000
Fig 2: Rembrandt’s St Jerome in a dark chamber. £ 86,500
Fig 3: Set of four Italian walnut chairs sold by Gallery Forty One Fig 4 below: 1760s coffee pot. £ 20,000
Fig 5 above: Faenza plastiche maiolicate of a bishop. £ 52,500
Fig 6 left: Pair of candelabra by Paul Storr sold by Koopman at Masterpiece