We are getting ready for London Art Week, the gallery has been re-painted and we have an exciting group of new acquisitions on show. Amongst highlights by major British painters, we have also brought together a modest group of drawings by British neo-classical artists, including a number of sketches by John Flaxman from the collection of Edward Croft-Murray. Jonny will be leading a session looking at neo-classical drawings as part of a series of Slow Art Workshops organised by London Art Week on Sunday 2nd July at 3pm in Clifford Street.
One recent purchase is an engaging pastel portrait of Christopher Norton, made in Rome in 1782 by Hugh Douglas Hamilton. The pastel is fascinating for those of us interested in the history of the art market, as Norton occupied a central role in Grand Tour Rome. Norton was described by the landscape painter Thomas Jones as the ‘Partner or coadjutor’ of one of the leading Roman dealers, James Byres, whom he assisted in his activities as cicerone, dealer and exporter.
Norton and Byres developed a lucrative and highly effective commercial model; wealthy tourists visiting Rome for a short period could rely on the pair to provide every conceivable service, from organising accommodation to supplying antiquities and old master paintings and arranging their shipment back to Britain. This system also allowed Norton and Byres to exercise immense power over resident artists who were keen to attract commissions from British visitors on their Grand Tour.
Jones was a keen recorder of the nuanced etiquette which governed the British artistic community in Rome. Jones described the tradition by which Byres and Norton and their competitor, the British dealer Thomas Jenkins held rival celebrations on Christmas Day for the artists under their protection and noted a painter was expected to: ‘present a Specimen of his abilities to his Protector, for which he received in return an antique ring or a few sechins - these specimens were hung up in their respective Rooms of audience for the inspection of the Cavaliers who came.’ In July 1773 Thomas Banks complained to Nathaniel Smith that: ‘little Wickstead has had most of the portraits to paint last season, owing to the efforts of Messrs Norton and Byres to carry every gentleman they could get hold of to see him.’ Norton and Byres expected a sizeable commission for these introductions; when Thomas Jones failed to produce what was expected, Norton confronted him. An inventory of the house on the Strada Paolina in which Byres and Norton lived corroborates Jones’s observation; the principal rooms were filled with the works of artists that they sponsored. These included paintings by the Irish landscape painter Solomon Delane, a “view of the Ponte Molli” by Jacob More, “a girl reading” by Philip Wickstead, drawings by Louis Ducros and Henry Fuseli and portraits by the Polish painter Franciszek Smuglewicz, by Nathaniel Dance, Pompeo Batoni and Hugh Douglas Hamilton.
In 1790 Hamilton portraits are listed in the ‘Writing Room. Do Mr Probert. Do of Miss Probert from Hamilton. Do of Mr Norton & James Byres by Hamilton (100 crowns)’. The portrait of James Byres is now in the collection of Aberdeen Art Gallery, Aberdeen but seems not to have been conceived as a pendant. Byres is shown seated, his head resting on his hand looking to the left, Norton, by contrast, is looking confidently out at the viewer.
The portrait was probably made shortly after Hugh Douglas Hamilton arrived in Rome in 1782. Carefully and finely rendered, this portrait was made shortly before Hamilton began to produce the great sequence of full-length pastel portraits which distinguish his time in Rome. It is likely that many of these commissions were brokered by Norton and Byres and that the presence of such an impressive and characterful pair of portraits in Byres’ house would have commended him to travellers.
We very much looking forward to welcoming you to Clifford Street over the next two weeks.
Preview Thursday 29 June 3pm to 8pm
Friday 30 June 10am to 6pm
Saturday 1 July & Sunday 2 July 11am to 5pm
Monday 3 to Friday 7 July 10am to 6pm