De­light and de­bate

Caro­line Bu­gler ad­mires a col­lec­tion of ex­tra­or­di­nary and beau­ti­ful art and fur­ni­ture that has re­cently gone on loan to the Fitzwilliam Mu­seum

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - The Fitzwilliam Mu­seum, Cam­bridge (01223 332900; www.fitzwilliam.cam.ac.uk)

Caro­line Bu­gler ad­mires an ex­tra­or­di­nary col­lec­tion that’s cur­rently on loan to the Fitzwilliam Mu­seum

WHEN Tim Knox, Direc­tor of the Fitzwilliam Mu­seum in Cam­bridge, first set foot in­side the Cado­gan Square flat be­long­ing to Mas­simo and Francesca Valsec­chi, he was as­ton­ished by the sight that greeted him. He had been in­tro­duced to the Mi­lanese cou­ple by a mu­tual friend, the art dealer Martin Levy, who thought that he would en­joy and un­der­stand the vast ar­ray of art, ob­jects and fur­ni­ture they had ac­quired over five decades.

‘There was this amaz­ing col­lec­tion,’ re­calls Tim, ‘with ev­ery­thing from won­der­ful English Art-and-crafts and Gothic Re­vival pieces to strange Art Nou­veau ce­ram­ics and works by Gil­bert & Ge­orge and Stan­ley Spencer. These were com­bined with Old Mas­ter pic­tures, Ital­ian neo-clas­si­cal fur­ni­ture and sculp­tural ce­ram­ics from Doc­cia.’ The way the ob­jects were dis­played held plenty of sur­prises: ‘You never knew what you might en­counter—in the en­trance hall, a gi­ant Meis­sen vul­ture crouched on an An­glo-in­dian desk from Viza­ga­p­atam.’

The Valsec­chis had, at one point, run a gallery in Mi­lan spe­cial­is­ing in con­tem­po­rary art and Mas­simo had taught at the city’s univer­sity. Schol­arly, eclec­tic and quirky, the col­lec­tion re­flected their pri­vate pas­sions and their de­sire to gather to­gether ob­jects that were in­ter­est­ing and un­usual. Tim’s visit was the first of many and marked the start of a friend­ship and a long-term plan.

‘Mas­simo and Francesca ex­plained that they were giv­ing up their flat and were think­ing of a new project and didn’t want to take the col­lec­tion, which they’d formed in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in Lon­don, back to Italy with them,’ he ex­plains.

Fol­low­ing their ac­qui­si­tion of the enor­mous Palazzo Butera in Palermo and the be­gin­ning of an am­bi­tious pro­gramme of restora­tion in 2016, they needed to find a new home for the art and ob­jects in Cad- ogan Square. The cou­ple en­joyed dis­cussing the pieces, re­veal­ing their sto­ries and jux­ta­pos­ing them in ways that in­sti­gated un­ex­pected con­ver­sa­tions be­tween them and were keen that, wher­ever the col­lec­tion ended up, it should be used to spark new ideas and re­search.

‘One of the things we de­cided was not to group things by type or chronol­ogy’

For a while, they toyed with the idea of set­ting up their own mu­seum, but the plan fell through, although Palazzo Butera will even­tu­ally have its own space for dis­plays. They had pre­vi­ously col­lab­o­rated with Ital­ian uni­ver­si­ties to stage ex­hi­bi­tions and a univer­sity mu­seum seemed a nat­u­ral home be­cause one of the main aims of the col­lec­tion is to en­cour­age peo­ple to look at and think about things in new ways.

As a re­sult, the Fitzwilliam re­ceived the lion’s share of the col­lec­tion—the Valsec­chis knew and par­tic­u­larly liked Cam­bridge as Francesca’s daugh­ter Sil­via stud­ied there—although some works have also been lent to the Ash­molean in Ox­ford.

‘They said “why don’t you come and choose what you want”—i sup­pose I could have bor­rowed the whole lot, but I chose about 130 pieces,’ Tim re­veals. ‘They’ve been very gen­er­ous in say­ing “You take it and do what you like with it”.’

Some of the works have a res­o­nance with those al­ready in the Fitzwilliam, par­tic­u­larly the mu­seum’s glass and ce­ram­ics, Ital­ian paint­ings, Arts-and-crafts fur­ni­ture and the great Ro­man Baroque con­sole ta­ble from Ment­more Tow­ers. Oth­ers are the kind of ob­jects rarely seen in Bri­tish mu­se­ums.

There are ob­jects in the Valsec­chi col­lec­tion that Tim has longed to see in the Fitzwilliam, in­clud­ing a lit­tle group of darkly dra­matic pic­tures by the Ital­ian Baroque painters Giuseppe Maria Crespi, Domenico Fetti and Gi­ulio Ce­sare Pro­cac­cini and some bizarre Ital­ian fur­ni­ture in a va­ri­ety of whim­si­cal styles.

Many of the pieces have an in­ter­est­ing prove­nance that un­doubt­edly formed part of their ap­peal for the Valsec­chis, who en­joy a good story: there are a pair of or­nate vases made for the King of Den­mark; a Fuseli paint­ing of Ajax that was one of a num­ber of can­vases com­mis­sioned by the Mar­quess of Chol­monde­ley to fill gaps on the walls at Houghton Hall af­ter its art col­lec­tion was sold to Cather­ine the Great; a chair made for Napoleon’s Min­is­ter of Jus­tice; and a lit­tle ta­ble that the ar­chi­tect-de­signer E. W. God­win cre­ated for his lover, the ac­tress Ellen Terry.

And there are some ob­jects whose strange ap­pear­ance stops you in your tracks, such as the Mi­lanese daybed and a hy­brid neo- Clas­si­cal com­mode both em­bel­lished with Chi­nese fig­ures, which were made at the end of the 18th cen­tury for Villa Silva near Mi­lan, and a 17th-cen­tury X-framed fold­ing stool en­crusted with carved gilt dec­o­ra­tion that would have seated a church dig­ni­tary dur­ing ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal cer­e­monies.

For­tu­nately for Tim, his hands were not tied by any strict stip­u­la­tions about the dis­play of the loans, so he was free to rear­range the col­lec­tion and take an imag­i­na­tive ap­proach to dis­play. ‘One of the things we de­cided early on was not to group all the ob­jects to­gether by type or chronol­ogy— to show all the ce­ram­ics in the ceramic sec­tion, for ex­am­ple—so there’s been a de­lib­er­ate pol­icy of plac­ing things in thought­pro­vok­ing con­texts,’ he says.

Ob­jects of dif­fer­ent dates and cul­tures are dis­played to­gether and, fol­low­ing the Fitzwilliam’s usual prac­tice, art in the pic­ture gal­leries is shown along­side fur­ni­ture and ap­plied art that com­ple­ment it. The Valsec­chi works have been so deftly in­te­grated with the mu­seum’s pieces that, as we walk around the rooms, Tim has to re­mind him­self where some of them are. Luck­ily for the vis­i­tor, they can be iden­ti­fied by their dis­tinc­tive pur­ple la­bels.

One of the most per­fect ex­am­ples of a Valsec­chi piece that com­ple­ments one al­ready in the Fitzwilliam is Stan­ley Spencer’s nude por­trait of Pa­tri­cia Preece. It hangs above the mu­seum’s own Self Por­trait with

Pa­tri­cia Preece, which shows a naked Spencer gazing at his some­time muse and sec­ond wife. The two can­vases were in­tended to be shown to­gether in a ‘Pa­tri­cia Chapel’ that was never re­alised, where they would have formed a trip­tych with the Tate’s fa­mous Spencer, Dou­ble Nude Por­trait of the Artist and his Sec­ond Wife, in which the

nude cou­ple is por­trayed along­side a raw leg of lamb. A fur­ther Spencer from the Valsec­chi col­lec­tion—a large nude self­por­trait draw­ing on the back of a roll of wall­pa­per (the very one de­picted in the portraits) —is on dis­play in the 20th-cen­tury gallery.

It would be per­verse not to hang the two Spencer paint­ings to­gether, but, in other instances, the Fitzwilliam has clearly had fun jux­ta­pos­ing things out of con­text to ini­ti­ate con­ver­sa­tions be­tween less ob­vi­ously con­nected pieces. Cor­nelis van Haar­lem’s

The Choice be­tween Young and Old (1597) —which shows a young woman choos­ing be­tween two lovers, the older one hold­ing a sug­ges­tively droop­ing gourd-like ob­ject— sits above the Fitzwilliam’s much-loved saucy pair of Hog­a­rths show­ing a young cou­ple be­fore and af­ter a hasty sex­ual en­counter.

In the mu­seum’s Cour­tauld Gallery, the Fitzwilliam’s Ti­tian show­ing Tar­quin about to rav­ish Lu­cre­tia is ac­com­pa­nied by two Valsec­chi paint­ings in an im­plicit com­ment on the vi­o­lent scene. ‘We thought we’d have a bit of girl power here,’ says Tim, so he has placed Ju­dith with the Head

of Holofernes by Ti­tian’s Vene­tian con­tem­po­rary, Gio­vanni Car­i­ani, nearby. This sin­is­ter im­age of the hero­ine hold­ing a bloody knife in one hand and the head of the Assyr­ian gen­eral in the other is an ex­tra­or­di­nary as­ser­tion of fe­male strength.

Fac­ing it is another Valsec­chi de­cap­i­ta­tion scene, An­drea So­lario’s

Salome with the Head of John the Bap­tist, in which the bejewelled pro­tag­o­nist holds a dish to catch the drips of blood from the Bap­tist’s head held up by the ex­e­cu­tioner. A fur­ther Valsec­chi pic­ture of a sev­ered head, this time be­long­ing to a horse and at­trib­uted to the French pain­ter Théodore Géri­cault, has

been art­fully placed above Is­abella Sal­ton­stall as Una in Spenser’s ‘Faerie

Queene’ by Géri­cault’s hero Ge­orge Stubbs, which fea­tures a lion and don­key, both of which are very much alive. Then there are the Art Nou­veau de­lights, which are one of the Valsec­chi col­lec­tion’s high­lights. A show­case in the room hung with mainly 19th-cen­tury Bri­tish paint­ings con­tains a shim­mer­ing dis­play of large vases cre­ated by Louis Com­fort Tif­fany and another case near the French Im­pres­sion­ist pic­tures fea­tures French cameo glass by the Daum Stu­dio of Nancy. Francesca Valsec­chi has al­ways been drawn to glass and ce­ram­ics, valu­ing them both for their fragility and for their sculp­tural qual­i­ties.

Nearby are some fan­tas­ti­cal ce­ram­ics with un­du­lat­ing zoomor­phic and or­ganic forms by the Hun­gar­ian Zsol­nay fac­tory, which is com­pletely un­rep­re­sented in mu­seum col­lec­tions in this coun­try. In the Valsec­chis’ Lon­don flat, these were placed on a large Ro­man neo-clas­si­cal ta­ble, but it is not pos­si­ble to dis­play them this way in a mu­seum, where, for se­cu­rity rea­sons, loaned ob­jects have to be kept be­hind glass. None­the­less, as Tim says, ‘the aim has been to pre­serve some­thing of the za­ni­ness of the orig­i­nal pre­sen­ta­tion’.

In the ce­ram­ics gal­leries down­stairs, a vir­tu­oso model of a barn owl by the Chelsea porce­lain fac­tory is, in fact, an ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­am­ple of Ro­coco sculp­ture; a large white Meis­sen vul­ture has been clum­sily patched to­gether—but that’s part of its story and its charm. ‘I love the way that, when you look closely, you can see what a mess it is. At the be­gin­ning, the Meis­sen fac­tory just couldn’t make these enor­mous an­i­mals with­out them ex­plod­ing in the kiln,’ ob­serves Tim.

In another case, a lit­tle Vin­cennes white model of Madame du Barry’s lap­dog made in the mid 18th cen­tury sits be­side its coloured coun­ter­part in the Fitzwilliam’s col­lec­tion and two of the Fitzwilliam’s Chelsea tureens in the shape of fight­ing cocks ap­pear to peck at a Meis­sen gourd-shaped pot-pourri from the Valsec­chi col­lec­tion.

But what of the ul­ti­mate fate of the Valsec­chi works at the Fitzwilliam? The mu­seum’s col­lec­tions have been largely built up through the gen­eros­ity of in­di­vid­u­als who have given or be­queathed works over the two cen­turies of its ex­is­tence, so might Mas­simo and Francesca fol­low suit? ‘If this Cam­bridge ex­per­i­ment proves a great suc­cess they might even con­sider do­nat­ing the col­lec­tion,’ says Tim, ‘but that’s up to them. It’s on loan for three years min­i­mum and, in the mean­time, they like the idea that we can use their beloved col­lec­tion in thought­pro­vok­ing ways.’

‘They like that we can use their beloved col­lec­tion in thought­pro­vok­ing ways’

Top: Por­trait of Pa­tri­cia Preece and Por­trait with Pa­tri­cia Preece by Stan­ley Spencer. Above: Ju­dith with the Head of Holofernes by Gio­vanni Car­i­ani Self

Cor­nelis Cor­nelisz van Haar­lem’s The Choice Be­tween Young and Old (1597) (top)

Above: Tif­fany glass on dis­play in Gallery Five, which is hung with mainly 19th-cen­tury Bri­tish paint­ings. Dresser (1834–1904) Min­ton porce­lain vase with gilt high­lights Be­low: A Christo­pher

Mi­lanese poly­chrome daybed of 1780 by Giuseppe Le­vati and Giuseppe Mag­gi­olini

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