Colnaghi Foundation Journal 01 - Page 94

Martin Colnaghi and the National Gallery
Martin Colnaghi carried out much of his business on
his own. As Ripps has pointed out, despite working
for many years alongside Agnew’s and later P. &
D. Colnaghi, no more than a dozen transactions
with either firm can be identified, and very few
joint enterprises. Arguably, his most important
dealings were with Sedelmeyer. Martin Colnaghi
sold Sedelmeyer not only Raphael’s Colonna
Altarpiece, as noted above, but also a number of
Dutch paintings. Most significantly, in January
1899, over a dozen works formerly belonging to
Col. W.A. Hankey, including Jan Steen’s Grace before
Meat, passed from Colnaghi to Sedelmeyer.51 Nor
did Martin Colnaghi employ a large staff to assist
him as other art dealers tended to do. Sir Hugh
Lane (1875-1915), the Irish dealer who would do
so much to promote French Impressionist art and
who founded several public museums, served, as
his first post in the art world, a short apprenticeship
with Martin Colnaghi but may have been the only
person to have held such a position. According to
Lane’s aunt, the Celtic Revival leader, Lady Augusta
Gregory, it was she who got Lane the introduction
to the dealer, having put in a good word for him
with Sir John Charles Robinson, Surveyor of the
Queen’s Pictures.52 In the words of one recent
biographer of Lane, Martin Colnaghi “was to exert
a lasting influence over his young employee,”53
while according to a second commentator a piece of
advice which Lane adopted from his employer was
that the most important training for a dealer was
to see as many works of art at first hand as possible;
this induced him to conduct his fruitful tour of Irish
country houses in 1903.54 Although the employment
as set up in 1893 gave Lane “twenty shillings a
week and an indefinite position in the gallery,” 55
the contract only lasted about a year. This was due
largely to a personality clash, despite their mutual
interest in the Old Masters and a shared disinterest
in the developing field of academic connoisseurship.
In Lady Gregory’s words, “Colnaghi did not much
like him” and “showed no inclination to help him to
knowledge, he would not even speak to him about
the pictures that came and went.”56 Lane’s dismissal
was likely to have been, according to Ripps “linked
to [Martin Colnaghi’s] suspicion that his young
employee had played a hand in the consignment
of a freshly-painted ‘Frans Hals’ to Robinson &
Fisher, which Colnaghi himself had then unwillingly
acquired as an autograph work.”57
Martin Colnaghi and the National Gallery
The French dealer and critic Robert Réné MeyerSée (1884-after 1947) was employed as manager of
the firm, before he went on to join Max Rothschild
at the Sackville Gallery ca. 1909, where he organised
the exhibition of Futurist painting in 1912, and then
to run Rothschild’s Marlborough Gallery at 34
Duke Street, London, which hosted an exhibition
by the Italian Futurist Gino Severini in 1913.58 For
the record too, it should be noted that to extend his
gallery’s American reach, Martin Colnaghi employed
Randolph Natili, an associate of Collis Huntington. 59
Another characteristic that set Martin Colnaghi apart
from his fellow dealers was his unwillingness to employ
cut-throat strategies to increase his profit margin, an
attitude motivated principally by a desire to assist
buyers to secure the paintings they were pursuing.
Ripps has noted, for instance, that the dealer tended to
request a modest commission from clients rather than
selling on works of art at prices grossly increased from
those he had originally paid for them.60 As the obituary
in The Times commented, it was “other people” rather
than Martin Colnaghi who “commonly had the
benefit, for he was what is called a kindly seller.”61 The
same perceptive obituary writer went on to summarize
what he felt had motivated the dealer and what the
consequences were for his business practices: “To pick
up a fine picture … in the dirt … to clean it, and to
hand it to a friend, was a real joy to him … but he was
too independent and too impulsive to create a business
on the large and expensive scale, which cooler-headed
men have formed in these days of great purses and
great prices.”62 Certainly, if one compares the prices
associated with Martin Colnaghi’s picture acquisitions
or sales, they tend to be fairly modest, especially in the
early part of his career.
At the apex of his career, the Art Journal opined that
Martin Colnaghi was “probably the first picture
expert in England.”63 Hardly less fulsome was a
comment in the Daily Telegraph’s obituary that while
“[s]tricter methods of scientific criticism had long
disturbed his ascendancy, and caused him to appear
old-fashioned … in his hey-day he filled the bill as a
critic with the true flair, and was worthily accounted
as a very reliable judge of values of Italian and Dutch
pictures, being a good second in this respect to the
famous Nieuwenhuys.”64 Time has not modified
such opinions, given that as recently as 1996, Martin
Colnaghi was described as “the most prominent
London art dealer of the late Victorian period.”65
Fig. 3 / Gerbrand van den
Eeckhout, Four Officers of
the Amsterdam Coopers’
and Wine-Rackers’ Guild,
1657, oil on canvas,
163 x 197 cm., London,
National Gallery.


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