Colnaghi Foundation Journal 01 - Page 88



“The volatile and vivacious connoisseur of the old school”:
a portrait of the Victorian art dealer Martin Colnaghi
(1821-1908) and his relationship with the National
Gallery, London
SUSAN NA AVERY-QUASH
Martin Henry Colnaghi (1821-1908) was a picture
dealer and collector with a keen interest in Old Master
paintings, especially of the Dutch and Flemish Schools.
Although he sold only two pictures to the National
Gallery, London, he became a considerable benefactor
to the institution, donating one painting during his
lifetime and bequeathing four others in 1908. More
significantly still, in his will, he left the Gallery the
substantial sum of £80,000, which over the years
has helped to buy at least two dozen more pictures.
This article seeks to disentangle Martin Colnaghi’s
art dealing practice from the better-known one of his
relatives P. & D. Colnaghi, with which it is still often
confused. In the process, it will draw attention to his
business transactions, especially in relation to the trade
in Dutch Old Masters, and discuss the ways in which
Martin Colnaghi’s modus operandi reflected or differed
from standard contemporary practices. The major focus
will be on his relationship with the National Gallery,
London, to highlight an important if overlooked
episode in the institution’s history, and one that raises
broader issues about the acceptance of gifts/bequests
from private individuals by public institutions, not least
the managing of sometimes conflicting expectations of
donors, museum officials and the general public.
Fig. 1 / John Callcott
Horsley, Portrait of Martin
Colnaghi, 1889, oil on
canvas, 111.8 x 87 cm,
London, National Gallery.
Perhaps not surprisingly given Martin Colnaghi’s
generosity to the national collection, there is a portrait
of him in the National Gallery’s collection. Yet the fact
that it has rarely been on public display is consistent with
how overlooked the sitter has been in the Gallery’s history
as well as in the history of collecting and the art market
more generally. Certainly little has been written about
Martin Colnaghi in comparison with his better known
relatives.1 Using the National Gallery’s portrait of Martin
Colnaghi as a starting point, this article will outline salient
aspects of his biography as these relate to his business as a
Victorian art dealer and his interactions with the National
Gallery, seeking to contextualize his actions with those
of his contemporaries in the art world of his day in
order to reach a fair assessment of his contribution.
John Callcott Horsley’s portrait of Martin Colnaghi
(fig. 1) was painted in 1889, and was exhibited at
the Royal Academy that year.2 It was given to the
National Gallery in 1908 by the sitter’s widow, Amy
Mary. Later, it was transferred to the Tate Gallery,
but in 2001 was returned to the National Gallery,3
where it now forms part of the History Collection, the
repository for works of art which are considered to be
of interest primarily on historical grounds rather than
on aesthetic ones. Horsley’s portrait is one of several
likenesses of the dealer. When it was initially offered
to the National Portrait Gallery, the Director Lionel
Cust, rejected it, informing the widow that a likeness
of her late husband by a Mr L. Melville “had already
been offered … and declined, as ‘he was not thought
of sufficient historical importance’.”4 Cust suggested
that she offer the picture to the National Gallery, and
on doing so, the Trustees accepted it, in recognition
of her late husband’s generosity to their institution.5
Four other likenesses of Martin Colnaghi are listed in
the Dictionary of National Biography, although the current
whereabouts of all of them is unknown. To this list
may be added a further painted likeness by Emil Fuchs
even if, once more, its present location is uncertain.6

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