Dealers in Fine Art 1800-1950
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Before visiting Italy between 1836 and 1838, William Collins had attempted only one religious painting. This was in 1811 at the start of his career. He had been wondering about whether to branch out into historical painting, then considered in Academy circles to be the highest form of art. Collins asked his occasional mentor, the senior Academician Joseph Farington for advice - and Farington told him to stick to what he was good at.

Nevertheless, that autumn Collins painted Christ Besought for the Recovery of Peter’s Wife’s Mother. This subject, John_Bridgesrecounted in Matthew, Mark and Luke, can be seen in the artist John Bridges’ 1839 version, in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.  The present whereabouts of Collins’s earlier version are not currently known. After painting this, Collins went on to have a highly successful career as a painter of landscapes, coast scenes and children. He made no further attempt at a religious painting for over 25 years.

But in Italy Collins was able to study the great Renaissance masters, in Florence, Rome and Venice. His late works, painted between 1839 and 1844, show how his travels changed his style. Some of them are pure Italian landscapes, suffused with Mediterranean light. Others feature monks – singly or as a group - put in for picturesque effect. And there are half a dozen works that are religious in nature. Four of these were commissions, but two were subjects which Collins chose to paint himself.

Sigmund and Jocelyn recently acquired perhaps the most remarkable of these,A-452 his The Virgin and Child. Whilst  in Florence, Collins almost certainly had the opportunity to look at Andrea Mantegna’s Madonna of the Cave, which has some similarities, in terms of both the composition and the Virgin’s expression.

Andrea_Mantegna_104In his 1848 biography of his father, the writer Wilkie Collins devoted nearly two pages to the painting, commenting on its originality of composition, and, writing of the Virgin’s expression. 'An ineffable tenderness, serenity, and peace, is expressed in her features, -- in the tranquil simplicity of her attitude,--  in the solemn, almost melancholy , stillness and repose of her whole figure.'   

The Virgin and Child was the last picture Collins painted before the opening of the 1843 Royal Academy exhibition in May. It seems that the paint was not completely dry in time. Originally the Virgin was fitted with an arched spandrel slip frame and after cleaning the impression of this could be seen in the paintwork. (Cleaning and conservation have also revealed the star grouping known as The Sickle, in the constellation Leo, at the top of the rock arch.) At some point in the 20th century the painting was given a conventional rectangular frame, but it has now been reframed in the manner that Collins intended.

The Virgin and Child remained with the artist’s widow Harriet  till her death in 1868. The pre-Raphaelite artists who visited her at the home she shared with her second son Charles Allston Collins, would have known the painting well. In 1853 William Holman Hunt used a similar arched slip in his The Awakening Conscience, and the same profile was used by other  pre-Raphaelite painters.  

Despite Wilkie Collins’s lack of religious belief and unconventional attitudes toward family life, it seems clear that The Virgin and Child was also a favourite with him. After his mother’s death, Wilkie kept the painting for the rest of his life. It only left the Collins family when it was sold by Wilkie's executors in February 1890.
Anyone who lives in or visits the countryside will be aware of large numbers of barn conversions and cottage modernisations. Many of these have been carried out for well-heeled city-dwellers who have migrated to the country or have them as second homes. 

But these attempts to remake the countryside are roblematic for other residents. It’s as if incomers are attempting to impose a tasteful vision on to the messy reality of life in a rural community. The issue was explored in this recent Mumsnet thread

The tastefully improved dwellings of present-day incomers are very different from what actual rural cottages look like. But the process of altering cottages - to conform both to an imagined past, and to an aesthetic ideal – has a long history, in which artists have played a notable part.

Perhaps the best known of these artists was the watercolourist HelenBy_the_Cottage_Gate
Allingham, who was active during in the 1880’s and 1890’s, Even at  the time her paintings were considered at the time to be romanticised and sentimental. She tended to concentrate on larger buildings which were nearer in size to a country house. Allingham also wasn’t above making some alterations for the sake of making the scene look tidier and more aesthetically pleasing.  
 Marcus Bourne Huish, who wrote ‘Happy England’ a 1903 book on the artist’s  work, observed, One of the … alterations that Miss Allingham allows herself is the substitution of diamond-paned lattice windows throughout a house where she finds a single example in any of the lights…

Despite - or perhaps because of – their sentimentality Helen Allingham’s paintings are regularly sold for four figure sums at auction. But there’s plenty of more affordable work by other artists working in a similar vein. Our picture A Cottage In Its Garden Stood by M Sapsworth is an example.
We also have three paintings by Allingham’s lesser known contemporary Louisa Margaret Watts. One of them features Welford-on-Avon. This village is A-30Afamous for its timber-framed cottages, mostly roofed with thatch, which are thought to date from the seventeenth century.

Welford is just 30 miles away from the Sigmund & Jocelyn office. So shortly after acquiring Watts's A Lane in Welford-on-Avon we decided to go to the village. It would be a chance to compare an artist’s representation with the architecture that’s survived. Louisa Watts set up her easel at the top of Boat Lane, and painted the road going down to the river, with the group of buildings at roadside. Unsurprisingly the 21st century scene is different.  welford

The barn on the right of Watts’s painting has gone completely. Bay windows have been put in on the ground floor of the cottage. There is brickwork between the timber frame elements, and a thatched roof has taken the place of an earlier tiled one

But our guess is that Watts’s watercolours are a more accurate portrayal of what she saw than Allingham’s grander cottage pictures. If Watts had wanted to beautify the Boat Lane picture she could have substituted thatch as a roofing material throughout - anticipating the change a later owner made.

Of course even when Victorian cottage pictures are accurate representations. 21st century art lovers may see them through rose-tinted spectacles.  The houses might lok  more attractive than urban slums. But the inside of a typical cottage would have been small, dark and badly ventilated.  Marcus Bourne Huish comments, The windows in the old cottages were naturally small when glass was a luxury, and became fewer in number when a tax upon light was one of the means for carrying on the country’s wars.  They were usually fitted with the smallest panes, fitted into lead lattice, so that breakages might be reduced to the smallest area…

Our conclusion would be that both TS Eliot  and Mumsnet posters are right in  thinking that 'human kind cannot bear very much reality'. A great many of us – whether or not we are artists – don’t want to look too far beneath the surface. We much prefer to construct our own versions of the countryside.

Sibyl Ruth & Alan Bean
Thomas Café (1817-1909) was a London painter, specialising in coastal scenes and landscape, who exhibited at the Royal Academy and Royal Society of British Artists. This drawing was made A-407
by him at the start of his career, when he was in Edinburgh. It is endorsed in the left hand margin in pencil: Date on door 1569 Dunbar Close ... T. Café.

The close is still there, just past Canongate Kirk, on the Royal Mile, It’s named after the eighteenth century writer David Dunbar, who owned the buildings on either side.

Nowadays people go there because, through a stone gateway at the end, there is a beautiful secret garden. It was laid out in the nineteenth century by the eminent biologist Sir Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) and was given to the city in the 1970s.

All that now remains of the original buildings is the gateway to this garden But in the late eighteenth century the tenement housed a celebrated tavern, Mrs Love’s Oyster Cellar. Oysters, which formed a staple part of the diet of the poor, had originally been sold in cellars. And even if the premises were above ground, the original name stuck.

The Oyster cellars often doubled as drinking dens. More genteel people, who fancied slumming it, would go there to enjoy a traditional ale and oyster supper. In 1774 the Englishman Edward Topham visited one of these cellars and recorded his impressions:-

‘A few evenings ago I had the pleasure of being asked to one of these entertainments by a lady. At that time I was unacquainted with this scene of high life below stairs, and when she mentioned the location Oyster Cellar, I imagined I must have mistaken the place of invitation. The large table, round which they were seated, was covered with dishes full of oysters and pots of porter. The conversation, which had hitherto been insipid, now became lively…..When the company were tired of conversation, they began to dance reels, which they performed with great agility and perseverance. One of the gentlemen, however, fell down in the most active part of it, and lamed himself, so the dance was at an end for the evening.…’

There is more evidence of a good time being had by all in Cassell's Old and New Edinburgh: Its History, Its People and Its Places, which was published in the 1880s:

‘In the letters added to the edition of Arnot’s “History in 1788' we are told that in 1763 there were no oyster cellars in the city, or if one, it was for the reception of the lowest rank; but, that in 1783, oyster cellars, or taverns taking that name, had become numerous as places of fashionable resort, and the frequent rendezvous of dancing parties or private assemblies…

‘In those days fashionable people made up a party by appointment, especially in winter, after evening closed in, and took their carriages as near as they could go conveniently, to these subterranean abysses or vaults, called laigh shops, where the raw oysters and flagons of porter were set out plentifully on a table in a dingy wainscoted room, lighted, of course, by tallow candles….

‘Ladies and gentlemen alike indulged in an unrestrained manner in sallies and witticisms, observations and jests, that would not have been tolerated elsewhere; but in those days it was common for Scottish ladies, especially of rank, to wear black velvet masks when walking abroad or airing in the carriage; and these masks were kept close to the face by a glass button or jewel which the fair wearer held by her teeth.

‘Brandy or rum punch succeeded the oysters and porter ; dancing then followed ; and when the ladies had departed in their sedans or carriages the gentle- men would proceed to crown the evening by an unlimited debauch.’

Mrs Love’s Oyster Tavern is said to have been frequented well into the night by the poet Robert Burns – a man who certainly enjoyed an unlimited debauch - during his stay in the city between 1786 and 1788. So at certain times of day Dunbars Close was likely to have been a very noisy place.

Café’s drawing though, appears to show the morning after the night before. Just hours ago drunken gentleman and masked ladies may have gone in search of their carriages, but now Dunbar’s Close is deserted - apart from two or three small female figures, visible to the right.

Sibyl Ruth & Alan Bean
These days emerging artists often choose to rent studios near urban centres, where prospective customers can easily visit. More established painters may situate themselves further afield - in some suitably bohemian suburb - on the basis that clients will be prepared to travel to see them.
Certainly this is how things work in contemporary Birmingham. We had imagined that matters were much the same in the 19th century when the landscape painter Jonathan Rabone Harvey (1866-1933) lived in the city. But after acquiring a drawing and an etching by Jonathan’s son Herbert Johnson Harvey, we began to research the family’s regional connections. We were initially surprised to discover the Harveys were based in Sparkhill.

These days Sparkhill is not a particularly arty part of the city. It’s a multicultural inner city area, with four mosques, plus some good fabric shops and a number of popular Balti houses. But in the nineteenth century, the area was very different.A-449

For the earliest decades the area was farmland with just a single hamlet. Then, in the 1850s, an area of land was bought by a building society and sold to developers who built houses for Birmingham’s expanding working class.  Larger middle class houses were built in a plot near Stoney Lane.

Presumably it was one of these bigger houses that Jonathan Rabone Harvey bought in the 1880s, after returning from the Slade School of Art. Although by that time Sparkhill itself was almost all built up, there was still open countryside to the south and east. This may have provided an inspiration for the pastoral scenes of grazing animals and country folk that he liked to paint.

Herbert Johnson Harvey (1884-1928), one of Jonathan Rabone’s ten children, followed in his father’s footsteps.  After attending classes at the Birmingham School of Art he also went to he capital to further his artistic studies. In later life he lived in Earl’s Court but remained part of the West Midland art scene, becoming a member of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists and exhibiting there regularly.  

In the 1920s Herbert Johnson began to etch portraits, producing work in which the influence of the great seventeenth century etchers such as Rembrandt is apparent. (Two are in the British Museum and one is in the National Gallery of Art, Washington.) Another of his etched portraits is our Woman in a Scarf shown above.  

We recently made contact with Herbert’s grandson Jonathan. It was good to learn that descendants have continued the family’s artistic tradition, becoming photographers, and cinematographers. Jonathan has confirmed that not just the A-450etching but also the chalk drawing are of his grandmother, Gertrude.  

We’re particularly glad to have acquired these artworks  since, unfortunately, Herbert Johnson Harvey died suddenly  of a heart attack in his early forties, and only about 35 of his etchings are thought to have survived.

Sibyl Ruth & Alan Bean
Dealing with neglected works of art means that often Sigmund & Jocelyn know just a few tantalising details about the artist and their painting. But our researches into the life and career of William Collins means that we’re in the happy position of being particularly well-informed about his Sketch for The Cherry Seller.

In late 1822 or early 1823, Collins sold two pictures that had been in his studio, unsold, for about ten years to T.C. Higgins, of Turvey House, Turvey, Bedfordshire. Higgins invited Collins to visit Turvey in the summer of 1823. It was in July, in the village of Turvey, that the artist made this plein air oil sketchA-451A for what was to become one of his most famous paintings, The Cherry Seller.    

For the cherry seller himself, Collins used a local man called Odell as a model. Together with his donkey, Odell was something of a local celebrity, For many years he had carried letters, and generally acted as messenger for the poet William Cowper (1731-1800) who had lived for many years in the nearby village of Olney.

The painting was very well received at the 1824 Royal Academy exhibition. Perhaps for contemporaries, the charm of The Cherry Seller would have been its evocation of village life. Then, as now, city dwellers like to escape – if only briefly through art – to an idealised countryside.

That year, the reviewer for the European Magazine waxed lyrical over The Cherry Seller describing it as “a delightful pastoral scene of English rural happiness; wherein we are presented with cottages, the very old-fashioned windows and pinnacles of which speak of primitive comfort. They are embowered in trees, and their gardens decorated with roses, hollyhocks and fruit bushes in profusion. From the porch of one of these cottages a group of children have come forth to purchase cherries; with cheeks which may vie in colour with that exhilarating fruit. The bearer of the cherries is a picturesque, panniered donkey: the merchant who is weighing them out, a silvery-haired old man. The bell tower of the village church is seen in the background. It seems the very heyday of the season of sylvan enjoyment, when nature is pouring forth her abundance, and the very view of the picture - as the song says - ‘gives a summer to the mind.’”

(N.B. The European Magazine was published in London, and it is notable that even in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, that the inhabitants of the capital regarded themselves as Europeans.)

Almost a quarter of a century later the novelist Wilkie Collins reminisced about this painting in The Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq., R.A. 'The extreme picturesqueness and genuine rustic dignity of the old man's appearance made him an admirable subject for pictorial study. Portraits of him, in water-colours and oils, were accordingly made by my father, who introduced him into three of his pictures. The donkey on which he had for years ridden to and fro with letters, was as carefully depicted by the painter as his rider.'

But it seems that having his animal thus immortalised was not enough for Odell. Wilkie Collins goes on to tell us more about the relationship between artist and model – or models...

“On visiting 'old Odell' a year or two afterwards, Mr Collins observed a strange-looking object hanging against his kitchen wall, and inquired what it was."Oh, sir," replied the old man, sorrowfully, "that is the skin of my poor donkey. He died of old age, and I did not like to part with him altogether, so I had his skin dried, and hung up there." Tears came into his eyes as he spoke of the old companion of all his village pilgrimages.'

William Collins made two versions of The Cherry Seller, one of which is in the Bury Art Museum. (The picture can also be seen via the Art UK website.)  Collins’s plein air sketch is a lot freer and more naturalistic than the finished version. It’s even possible that Collins himself preferred it.  At any rate the artist kept it for the rest of his life. In the sale of Collins’s works which took place after his death in 1847, the sketch was bought by pen nib manufacturer Joseph Gillott.

 Gillott was born in Sheffield, but in need of work, he moved to Birmingham in the early 1820s and took up employment in the ‘light steel toy trade’. (This didn’t involve playthings but the manufacture of small items, for personal use.) Gillott’s first manufacturing base was in Cornwall Street. As business expanded he moved to Church Street, then to Newhall Street, and finally, in 1859, to his great factory in Graham Street, the Victoria works.
Joseph Gillott began to buy paintings from an early age, and his collection, housed in his homes in Edgbaston and on the outskirts of London, contained works by J. M. W. Turner and William Etty. Gillott appreciated Turner's talents before they were more widely recognised, buying his paintings when others doubted their worth. Gillott was a great admirer of Collins’s work, and already owned five of his paintings before he acquired this sketch. After Gillott’s death in 1874 the art collection were sold for £170,000. Our Sketch for The Cherry Seller fetched over £94 – equivalent to around £10,000 today.

Joseph Gillott now rests in Key Hill Cemetery, Birmingham,  just a few miles away from Sigmund & Jocelyn’s premises. We’re very glad that one of the artworks from his collection is now – temporarily -  lodging with us.

Alan Bean & Sibyl Ruth
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