Andrew Solomon examines the particular fascination of the British portrait.
Other sections of this magazine tell you how to cope with your face. You could correct its flaws with cosmetic surgery, then scrub several perhaps dead layers from its surface, then slather it with creams and lotions at regular but troublesome intervals, and then cover it with make-up to render it virtually unrecognisable. Doing all these things would fit you to mix in the faceless society of the Eighties, where you might suffer the small-scale traumas of alienation and self-loathing, which would be terribly sad. But fear not. While faces have been being standardised by the beauty industry, proud-nosed and wall-eyed and jug-eared collectors have been rediscovering the marvels of the human face in all its dignity and variety, and portraits have reached a new degree of ascendance among serious collectors of British art. The cynic would say that this only reflects the aristocratic aspirations of maturing yuppies, who hope to acquire ancestors; but they would, I think, be missing part of the point: that the human face is, to humans, the most fascinating sight on earth. The endless permutations of that most basic of basic formulas — two eyes, one nose, one mouth, hair, ears, chin (sometimes), and cheekbones (occasionally) — reach into the imagination with a vividness that the formulas of landscape — two trees, one mountain, one stream, shrubs, flowers, sunsets (sometimes), and rodents (occasionally) — or of abstraction cannot hope to match.
The human face in all its glory shows up time and again at Sotheby’s in the sale of Important British Paintings on 16 November. The sale includes consignments from three major collections: work from the fabulous collection of Sir Joseph Robinson; work from the James R. Herbert Boone estate; and work from the BR pension fund collection. All the old favourite names make showings, with Gainsborough, Lawrence and van Dyck at the lead.
Sir Joseph Robinson must have been an odd man. Born in South Africa in 1840, he spent his boyhood as a wool-buyer, traveling among the Boer farms. He later, like so many South Africans, made a fortune in diamonds, and then another in gold; he was apparently a difficult, pugnacious, and altogether unappealing man, who offended nearly everyone with whom he came in contact. At the age of 54, he began collecting old-master paintings for his house in Park Lane; at the age of about 60, he decided that he had collected enough, and took on very little thereafter. In 1910, he put the whole lot into storage and moved back to South Africa, and in 1923 he arranged to have it all sold off at auction by Christie’s. On the eve of the sale, aged 83, he came back to London, and had himself wheeled through the auction exhibition in his wheelchair. History credits him with an unabashed sentimentality which is slightly suspect in such an unpleasant character; it is said that seeing the paintings hung on walls of red silk, Robinson fell in love with the collection he had not viewed for so long. He tried to stop the sale, discovered it was too late; raised the reserves to outlandish levels; and proceeded to buy back all his own paintings.
The high point of the Robinson collection — and, indeed, of this sale of British paintings — is a run of Gainsboroughs, including the Portrait of Mrs. Drummond, a three-quarter-length painting of a dreamy-eyed and pearl-bedecked lady with a sketch (apparently of her own devising), which is estimated at over £1 million. There is also the Portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Dehany and Their Daughter, a full-length triple portrait, estimated at £300,000 to £500,000. Philip Dehany was one of the first devotees of cricket, and was behind the Hambledon Cricket Club, whose motto was “Wine, Cricket, and Song.” His daughter was later engaged to John, 31st Earl of Caithness, who shot himself on their wedding day, and she never married.
It is perhaps the greatest fascination of portraits that they are frozen in time; landscapes change after they have been represented, but their circumstances are not prone to flux, whereas people live on to fulfil tragic destinies or to discover new heights of delight. This happy-go-lucky father with his wife and his still-innocent two-year-old child acquires an internal drama in the face of the miseries that would follow; it is the moment before tragedy strikes, preserved by someone who could never know what was to come, like a nativity by a painter unacquainted with the circumstances of the crucifixion.
The other Gainsboroughs are also lovely, if slightly less important; there is one of Admiral Lord Graves, estimated at £80,000 to £120,000, and one of Miss Katherine Edgar, whose descendants remembered her as “Good Aunt K”; this is estimated at £40,000 to £60,000. The other great highlight of the Robinson collection is the Reynolds Portrait of Mrs. Matthew, who died at the age of 38, and whose spaniel, standing in front of her in this portrait, was later included by Reynolds in a portrait of her daughter; this is estimated at £200,000 to £300,000. There is also a van Dyck Portrait of Lady Herbert of Raglan, estimated at £40,000 to £60,000.
The second major consignment in the sale is from the collection of James Rawlings Herbert Boone, and his wife, who sported the singularly unfortunate name of Muriel Wurtz Dundas Boone. The sale of their estate has extended through several sales and several nations this year. In this sale, there is a Lawrence Portrait of the Prince Regent, later George IV, estimated at £600,000 to £800,000. The painting was the first full-length portrait commissioned from Lawrence of the prince, who was Lawrence’s great patron. It was commissioned by Lord Charles Vane-Stewart, who was also a friend and patron to the artist. Here it is a dashing, if neckless, prince who stands before us, dressed in his Field Marshal’s uniform as the victor of the Napoleonic Wars; his gaze is calm and his stance assured, though the sky behind him is filled with grey clouds and turmoil.
A portrait of William Herbert, Third Earl of Pembroke, by Daniel Mytens, is in the Boone property, and is estimated at £60,000 to £80,000. William Herbert was something of a Renaissance man in the Renaissance; an accomplished poet, he was a great friend of John Donne and of his relation, George Herbert. In his youth, he was a regular at the court of Elizabeth, but he was, according to Clarendon, “immoderately given up to women… [and to] pleasures of all kinds, almost in all excesses,” and Elizabeth expelled him.
Also in the Boone collection is a van Dyck Portrait of Philip Herbert, Fourth Earl of Pembroke and First Earl of Montgomery, which is in a fine seventeenth-century frame, and is estimated at £200,000 to £300,000. Philip Herbert was the younger brother of William Herbert; he was a great favourite of James I — and we all know what that means — who was distinguished by his “handsome bearing,” which, this portrait would suggest, rather deserted him later in life.
British portraits are also making a brave showing at Christie’s; on 6 December, King Street will offer the original terracotta model by Michael Rysbrack for his portrait bust of John Palmer.
This month Christie’s is also holding a charity sale to benefit the London Lighthouse. The sale will include work by virtually every major painter working in Britain today. Some of the work is sure to be spectacular, and the cause is certainly an important one; the sale is on Wednesday 2 November in the evening.