December sales brought rare works from van Leyden and Rembrandt’s fingerprints on a sketch
AT the end of November, I mentioned the sculptor’s fingerprints on a Rodin terracotta bust that I had seen in Paris. Such immediate links to the artist are most often found on terracotta works, for obvious reasons, and it’s always a thrill to discover them.
Occasionally, too, especially in the 19th century, watercolour artists used their fingers to give texture and pattern and their prints may also be found at the edges under the mounts, where they were not intended to be seen.
In oil paintings, one would be most likely to find fingerprints on sketches executed at speed, such as Rembrandt’s Study of the Head and Clasped Hands of a Young Man as Christ in Prayer (Fig 1), which sold at Sotheby’s for £9,480,800 on December 5.
The 101∕6in by 77∕8in panel is likely to be one of three similar works that were listed in Rembrandt’s house in the bankruptcy inventory that he helped draw up in July 1656. Two were hanging in the ‘back room or salon’, which also contained a box bed in which he presumably slept, and the third was stored in the ‘small studio’, perhaps an attic.
A technical examination, undertaken just before an exhibition in 2011 and published in 2017, indicated that the Sotheby painting was most likely completed in one go—ten eersten opmaken, in the phrase of the time. During the examination, old overpainting was removed, together with thick discoloured varnish applied in the mid 20th century, revealing further evidence of speedy working and what is very likely to be the touch of the master himself.
In the original paint layer along the painting’s bottom edge are two finger—or, more probably, thumb—prints (Fig 2).
I spent several very happy minutes studying this little head in close-up and was deeply moved by it. Even though it was evidently based on the purported lifetime description of Christ in the ‘Letter of Lentulus’ (probably a 15th-century fake), it is equally
The modelling of the features, especially the cheekbones, was superlative
evident that it was taken from a live model, possibly a young Jewish neighbour, used by Rembrandt in others of his ‘Faces of Jesus’ series.
The modelling of the features, especially the cheekbones, was superlative and there were wonderful little touches, such as the scratches made with a knife or brush handle, giving flickery movement to the right eye.
At Christie’s, the major Old Master interest was provided by a very rare black-chalk drawing by Lucas van Leyden (1489/94– 1533), by whom fewer than 20 paintings and 27 other drawings survive, all in museums. His contemporary international fame derived from his printmaking skills.
It has been suggested that this 11in by 51∕8in drawing of a young man (Fig 3), which had been carefully cut out and pasted to another sheet in the 17th century, was also taken from life.
Its early history is unknown, but it belonged to the 19th-century antiquarian Matthew Holbeche Bloxham, a nephew of Sir Thomas Lawrence, who was a notable
drawings collector. Bloxham was a passionate Rugbeian—he was the propagator of the William Webb Ellis story of the origin of the school’s eponymous game— and he left about 100 drawings to his alma mater, which has now benefited by more than £15 million by selling some of them, £11,483,750 contributed by the van Leyden.
When he was a cadet in the French navy before founding the British engineering dynasty, the future Sir Marc Isambard Brunel made his own brass-and-
ivory octant with which to navigate. Thus, a solid silver miniature surveying quintant will have made a very suitable present for his son Isambard to give to his own son, Henry Marc (1842–1903).
Octants, quintants, sextants and the like were used to make angular measurements, the names reflecting the arc of a circle each could measure. Thus, a quintant measures 72˚.
H. M. Brunel was notable for his bridges, including Blackfriars railway bridge in London. The family relic (Fig 7) was sold in Fig 7 right: Brunel quintant, likely given by Isambard to his son Henry Marc. £5,410 November by Charles Miller at 25, Blythe Road, W14, making £5,410.
The leader in this maritime and scientific instrument sale, at £16,744, was a set of 12 ship’s mahogany concertina-action folding dining chairs made for a ship of the line in Nelson’s navy. They would grace not just a captain’s cabin, but any dining room (Fig 6).
Given that their early history is likely to have been challenging, the survival of these chairs is exceptional.
Another newish specialist auctioneer in London is Maak, which holds two online sales of contemporary ceramics each year, with viewing at the Royal Opera Arcade off Pall Mall.
The November auction did very well, with a 93% sold rate. Among the highlights were two 1972 stoneware pots by Hans Coper (1920–81), a squeezed vase form and a cup on foot, each of which made £33,600 (Fig 5). Female potters were prominent, including Katharine Pleydellbouverie (1895–1995), whose very satisfying globular pot sold for £2,880 (Fig 4).
Fig 1 left: Study of the Head and Clasped Hands of a Young Man as Christ in Prayer by Rembrandt. £9,480,800. Fig 2 below: Two thumbprints from the painting, likely belonging to Rembrandt
Fig 6: A set of 12 mahogany naval dining chairs. £16,744 Next week My favourite glasses
Fig 3 above left: Drawing of a young man by Lucas van Leyden. £11,483,750. Fig 4 top right: Katharine Pleydell-bouverie pot. £2,880. Fig 5 above right: Hans Coper pot on foot. £33,600