Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London Up to Date, by George Augustus Sala, 1895 - Noon : A Picture Sale at Christies

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    "A GREAT picture sale is a sight worth seeing," observes Mr. Henry B. Wheatley, F.S.A., in his revised and expanded edition of Peter Cunningham's Handbook of London, and in a brief notice of the historic auction room of Messrs. Christie, Manson, and Woods. I should rather think that a great picture sale is a sight worth seeing; and I am about to try whether I cannot conjure up a word-picture of the spectacle in question. The day is Saturday, and the time is high noon. Let us hail yonder hansom, jump into it, and bid the "gondolier" of London drive us to King Street, St. James's. There is a very grand sale of paintings, by the Old Masters, advertised to take place to-day. It is none other, indeed, than the magnificent collection formed by the late Earl of Nineveh, which has been removed from the palatial mansion of the deceased nobleman, in Babylon gardens, S.W.
    We all remember the Earl of Nineveh; his almost boundless wealth; his kind, sympathetic, generous nature; his whims, oddities, caprices, and delusions. He was the son and heir, you will recollect, of the even more eccentric Viscount Sennacherib, statesman, diplo-[-116-]matist, connoisseur, and wit, who might have been Prime Minister of England if his head had only been screwed on the right way. He had an astonishing habit of thinking aloud; and there is a story told of him, that riding home once in his chariot with a noble friend, whom he had picked up on the way, he remarked, quite audibly, to himself: "I suppose this old fool expects me to ask him to dinner." When they arrived at Sennacherib House, his lordship did invite his companion to take pot-luck with him; whereupon his brother peer replied: "That he was not such an old fool as to stay, and that one old fool was quite enough at a dinner of only two covers."
    But there was one department of culture in which Lord Sennacherib's head was decidedly screwed on as right as a trivet. His knowledge of art was extensive and refined; and he formed the nucleus of the splendid gallery which was afterwards completed by his son, who was promoted in the peerage by the style and title of Earl of Nineveh, Viscount Sennacherib of Silkstone, and Baron Wallsend, of Black Diamond Park, near Scuttlesbury, Durham, and Babylon Gardens as aforesaid. You have been sensible enough to purchase a catalogue of the Nineveh pictures; and so you will be permitted to enter Christie's famous saloons ; but you would have acted even more wisely had you come at eleven, instead of twelve. The crush is tremendous. Not only everybody who is in London is here, but a great many people who are not in London appear to be present; that is to say, great nobles and heads of county [-117-]families, who have left town at the end of the season, have returned for a few hours to the Metropolis from their country seats, or from the seaside, to behold, if not to bid for, the pictorial treasures which are this day to be dispersed under the implacable hammer of Mr. Woods. Here they all are: representatives of the bluest blood in England; headed by a Royal duke, a quiet gentleman of military aspect, with a neatly- trimmed moustache and slightly bald; bishops, dignified clergymen, art critics, journalists, and, of course, dealers in works of art, galore.
    Close to you, for example, in the last-named section of visitors to Christie's is Mr. Leopold Lamb, M.P., whose colossal operations as a picture-dealer do not preclude him from sitting for a Lancashire constituency. Near him is a stout, sleek, pudgy little gentleman, with a very shiny bell-topper hat, a cravat of brilliant hue, a gold watch-chain as thick, in degree, as a cable, and many diamond rings flashing on his fat fingers. He is a dark gentleman; his complexion is a rich olive ; his black whiskers are luxuriant, and his hair inclines more to form into ringlets than to be straight. That is the well-known professional virtuoso, Mr. Nicanor Maccabeus, of Old Bond Street. There are a good many non-professional members of a Historic Race in the room; but they are come hither to see the sight, strictly as amateurs. If they purpose to buy any pictures, they will not bid themselves; their commissions for so doing have long since been given to Mr. Leopold Lamb, or to Mr. Nicanor Maccabeus.
    [-118-] You edge your way into the great room which is hung all around with the Nineveh pictures; but the throng is so thick that you have but a distant view of the auctioneer's rostrum, and the easel on which the paintings will, one after the other, be placed by the employés of the firm, and submitted to public competition. It is very hot; but you are so wedged in by humanity, that even if you wished to quit the sale-room - and you have assuredly no inclination to do so - you would experience considerable difficulty in getting into King Street again. Somehow or another, while this strictly "up-to-date" audience are gossiping around you, there arises in your mind the picture of another Christie's, differing from the present one only in its site, and in the costumes of its visitors, as it appeared on the occasion of another great picture sale long, long ago.
That time is a summer noon in the year 1808. The place is not King Street, St. James's, but Pall Mall. The spacious, lofty room draped with paper of a bluish-grey tint, and lighted from the top, is hung with pictures, large and small, by the Old Masters, and the ladies and gentlemen who gather round Mr. Christie's pulpit are clad in garments which to you appear very quaint and curious. There are officers in full scarlet regimentals, with huge cocked hats, decorated with tall plumes, who are flirting with ladies whose waists are just under their armpits, and whose head-dresses are either green jockey caps, or pink gauze turbans, adorned with birds of paradise. There are bishops, too, in 1808, as there are in 1892, but the Right Rev, members of the Episcopal [-119-] Bench wear three-cornered hats and voluminous wigs, like birds' nests, plentifully powdered. There are county gentlemen in driving coats of many capes, such as the old hackney coachmen used to wear; and tearing young dandies in pea-green coatees, buckskins, and topboots. "Yes," a voice by your side observes with a slight chuckle, "that's quite a faithful picture of the Christie's which I drew long, long ago." You turn in some slight astonishment. How on earth did the speaker know anything about the impression which was passing through your mind? and if he did paint the picture in question, he must be at least, you think, a hundred years old. Instead of a white-headed centenarian, you behold a buxom, middle-aged gentleman, with mutton-chop whiskers, powdered hair, dressed in a sky-blue coat, a white-and-pink striped nankeen waistcoat, stockinet pantaloons, and Hessian boots.
    "My name is Rowlandson," says the middle-aged gentleman, with a polite bow. "You have heard of me, no doubt. Rowlandson, the caricaturist. I etched and aquatinted that picture of Christie's for my friend, Rudolf Ackermann, the publisher in the Strand, for his great work, The Microcosm of London." "Yes," adds another voice, with a slight foreign accent, "that is quite true, Mistare Rowlandson, but I draw the architecture of all de building, and all de room in ze Microcosm". You perceive close to you a thin figure, something like Voltaire in mien, with scrupulously-curled locks, and a pigtail, a maroon-coloured coat, sea-green small clothes, white stockings, and wearing buckles [-120-] on his shoes. He bows even more politely than Mr. Rowlandson had done, and informs you that his name is Pugin, that he is a French émigré and that he had a son who became very famous by his achievements in the revival of Gothic architecture in this country, and a grandson, who was also a distinguished architect, but who was also even more remarkable from his hostility to the late Mr. John Rogers Herbert, R.A.
    There is not the slightest use in your rubbing your eyes, and asking yourself whether you are asleep or awake, or whether Chaos has come again. The sale is in full swing; the biddings for each masterpiece of art succeed one another with magical rapidity; and the bids, mind you, are not rising by pounds at a time, perhaps to a hundred, but by fives, and tens, and fifties to thousands of guineas. You are a bit of a linguist, more by accident than by inclination; thus you can understand the remarks of a spectator behind you, when a sumptuous painting of the Grand Canal at Venice is knocked down for two thousand five hundred guineas. "Corpo di Bacco!" exclaims in Italian, with a decided Venetian accent, the voice behind you. "Two thousand five hundred guineas for that picture of Canaletto! Why, I sold it to Signor Smith, the English Consul at Venice, when I was a scene-painter at the Fenice Theatre, for fifty ducats. That would be about forty pounds sterling. For years Signor Smith bought my pictures ; but his usual price was ten ducats, and I am told that he made a good deal of money by selling my canvases to the rich English travellers who visited [-121-] Venice." But how can that be, you ask yourself in sore perturbation? The wonderful painter of outdoor Venetian life - he scarcely ever ventured on portraying an interior, - Antonio da Canal, otherwise called Canaletto, died in 1768. Is Sir Frederick Leighton's picture in this year's Academy to be more than realised? Is the land as well as the sea giving up its dead?
    Vain to inquire. Still the bidding goes on; the aristocratic crowd surge from side to side, stare, cough, and titter. Now and again, when some exceptionally renowned masterpiece makes its appearance on the easel, or some almost unprecedented price is reached, thunders of applause resound through Christie's spacious halls. A kind of mental vertigo comes over you. Mirage succeeds mirage in your mind; and, upon my word, so many and so strange are the scenes presented to you, that if an individual clad in Oriental garb were suddenly to inform you that he was Timour the Tartar, while another, in a shining helmet, and bearing a richly embossed shield, were to hand you his card, and tell you that his name was Achilles, and that he had once the pleasure of meeting you at the Camp before Troy, you would only be able to shrug your shoulders despairingly and opine that Chaos really had come, and that you were in the very midst of it.
    Hark! what is that old gentleman grumbling about, who is striving to force his way through the crush to the rostrum. A grey, grizzled, wrinkled, ragged-moustached man in desperately shabby clothes, and altogether with a sadly poverty-stricken, not to say insolvent, [-122-] aspect. His black cloak, doublet, and breeches of late seventeenth-century fashion, are all patched and frayed. He wears a battered, slouched hat, and black worsted stockings, almost past darning. "Yes," he cries to you in Dutch, as though he was an old acquaintance - he is, in the spirit, a very old one - "I am bankrupt, I am insolvent, I am next door to a pauper. I had wealth once; but at least I spent my riches in no unworthy manner. I laid out thousands upon thousands of guilders, just as your own Sir Thomas Lawrence did, in buying pictures and drawings by the Old Masters. But crack! A war between Holland and England broke out. I was suddenly called upon to settle the accounts of the patrimony of my son, by my first wife. I had to sell my Old Masters, and my own paintings too. There was no money in Holland, not a stiver; all owing to the accursed war. The sale brought a wretched result, and I was ruined. Now the auctioneer has just sold one of my finest pictures for only fifteen hundred pounds; it should have fetched four thousand. It shall. I was not always the ragged old beggar man you see. Look at my portrait of myself in the Dresden Gallery. Handsome, jovial, gaily clad, waving aloft a beaker of wine, with my bonny wife in silks and satins on my knee. Englishman, I am Rembrandt Geretz Van Rhyn."
    Surely, this must be a shadowy land, where all things wear an aspect not their own; for just as you strive to catch the eye of the poor broken-down old Dutchman, in order to ask him to call on you and look at a rare etching from his needle, which you recently bought, a [-123-] bargain, at Brighton, he turns into the Earl of Rosebery, who is amicably chatting with the Right Hon. Henry Chaplin. Then again, the Spanish cavalier, with the plumed hat, who has been introduced to you as Don Esteban Murillo, by a Roman ecclesiastic whom you know to be Fra Angelico, turns into Mr. Humphry Ward, of The Times; and Fra Angelico - in the guise of Mr. Frank Burnand - asks you to dinner next Thursday at the Garrick Club. Nicolas Poussin, Claude Lorraine, Jan Steen, and "Bill Hogarth" - dear old "Bill Hogarth" - will be there, and the evening will be a right merry one. I believe you, my Burnand! but why should Mr. B. suddenly inform you - with a long beard, and in a spreading velvet cap - that his real name is Lionardo da Vinci, and that he is bound for France to die in the arms of King Francis I.?
    Mr. Woods has just sold, amidst volleys of cheers, an Adrian Ostade for three thousand five hundred pounds, when a sudden silence conies over the brilliant assemblage. The crowd part; they make a lane, a wide gangway; and, from the door right up to the rostrum, there paces slowly and gently one of the most beautiful young men you ever saw. He is clad in medieval doublet and hose of black damask, and there is a great gold chain about his neck. He may be about thirty years of age; his long and silky hair flows over his shoulders; his eyes are modestly cast down, but when he raises them you see they are large and dark, and almond- shaped, and full of inexpressible tenderness. When he smiles, the smile is that of an angel. 
    [-124-] The Royal Duke steps forward and presses his hand; and then the puissant figure of an ancient man, hoary, majestic, and reverend, arrayed in purple and gold, forces his way through the throng, and casts his arms around the beautiful youth. "This will be a grand day for thee, my son," he murmurs; "thou shalt have thy reward among these English. At least they can appreciate thy divine genius - and mine. In life I girded at thee sometimes, and it may be was just a trifle jealous of thee; but there is no envy, there is no hatred, no malice yonder, in the bright Fields where we live for ever with Apelles, and Zeuxis, and Phidias, and the rest of the Great Company eternally bound together by the links of the love of Art - that Art, of which we were the glories." Strange to say, the figure of the old man eloquent is all at once transformed into that of Prince Soltykoff, who straightway invites the comely young stranger to come and visit him at Newmarket.
    Who can the handsome Italian young gentleman be, you wonder? But first, you are anxious to ascertain the identity of the hoary old gentleman in the vest of cloth of gold, and the purple velvet doublet. You ask Mynheer Albert Cuyp, cattle-painter-who, by the way, an instant ago, was Mr. H. B. Davis, R.A., and who, in another moment, will become Mr. Ashby Sterry, art critic and "Laureate of the Frills" - Who is he? Who can he be, but Michel Angelo Buonarotti? The beautiful young man halts before the easel, on which there is a painting of the Crucifixion. "That is my work," he says. "Of that there can be no doubt, albeit it is a [-125-] juvenile and somewhat crude performance." He gently falls back into the Infinities; the bidding for the picture of the Crucifixion begins; and, after a prolonged and almost frenzied struggle, it is knocked down for ten thousand six hundred guineas to a gentleman with a German name. Not one penny too much for an undoubted work from the immortal hand of Raffaele Sanzio.
    As the memorable assemblage breaks up you rush forward to try to touch even the hem of the garment of the illustrious painter of the Crucifixion and the Transfiguration; but he eludes you, and you can only see him step into his brougham, in which awaits him a handsome, dark, matronly dame, whom you at once recognise as the Fornarina. "How well the Marquis is looking to-day, and the Marchioness too," remarks Mr. Ashby Sterry. "The Marquis of what?" you ask, impatiently. "Why, the Marquis of Asparagus to be sure, and his lovely young Marchioness." Then you remember how many hundred years ago it was that the beautiful young man died in the noontide of his fame, and that only six months ago you read the noble epitaph on his tomb in the Pantheon of Agrippa, at Rome, over against the sepulchre of Victor Emmanuel. Then, as the great gathering at Christie's slowly disperses, there begins to dawn upon you the fact that you have been dreaming a dream, and dwelling among the shadows of departed painters. Still, a picture sale at Christie's is "a sight to see," at all events.

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