Sunday, September 19, 2010

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - La Mandolinata

Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium: 181,250 GBP

90 by 70cm., 35½ by 27½in.

signed with monogram and dated 1869 u.r.

red and black chalks heightened with white on buff paper

Purchased from the artist by Thomas Agnew & Sons, 17 March 1870, for 80 guineas (Agnew's stock no. 9659 and entitled La Mandoline)

W.M. Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti as Designer and Writer, London, 1889, p. 284, catalogue no. 259 (as 'La Mandolinata (The Mandolin Player)');
H.C. Marillier, Dante Gabriel Rossetti – An Illustrated Memorial of his Art and Life, London, London, 1899, p. 155, catalogue no. 221 (as 'La Mandolinata');
Helen Rossetti Angeli, Pre-Raphaelite Twilight – The Story of Charles Augustus Howell, London, 1954, p. 243;
Virginia Surtees, Dante Gabriel Rossetti – The Paintings and Drawings – A Catalogue Raisonné, two volumes, Oxford, 1971, I, p. 121, catalogue no. 211

Rossetti's fine chalk drawing, La Mandolinata shows an unidentified model at half length playing a mandolin. Her hair is dressed with strands of pearls gathered in an elaborate spiral decoration worn at the side of her head (an ornament seen previously in the artist's oil painting Fiammetta (Private Collection) and Monna Vanna (Tate), each of 1866, and Joli Coeur (Manchester City Galleries) and A Christmas Carol (ex Lord Leverhulme collection), each of 1867, and a again in paintings of the early 1870s). She wears a necklace in the form of stylised pansies and at her wrist a bracelet made in the pattern of flower whorls. On the third finger of her right hand she wears a ring consisting of a pyramid of metal with a stone resting at its centre (as also worn in Monna Vanna). Her dress is of a rich brocade pattern of flowers in red on a white of pale coloured ground, in the Venetian style, and falling from below her shoulders and decorated across her corsage with ribbon bows. On the right side is an architectural form decorated with a wreath of laurel leaves at the centre of which the artist has placed his monogram, while from behind the woman's back there appears further sprays of leaves.

Although the woman shown in La Mandolinata is not immediately recognisable as one of Rossetti's familiar models of the 1860s, her brown eyes and dark lustrous hair are feminine attributes of the kind that most appealed to him and which he was eager to introduce into his painted and drawn compositions. Redolent of the artist's work in the period, and in this sense of characteristic produce of the nascent Aesthetic movement, is the model's trancelike expression, as if she is transported into another sphere by the sweet intoxication of her own music-making. With subtlety and poignancy the artist offers the image of a beautiful woman, but one who remains elusive in the privacy of her own dream existence. La Mandolinata takes its place with other works by Rossetti of the 1860s showing women making music and playing musical instruments, and into which are instilled metaphors of imaginative departure from the actualities of daily life into a parallel and eroticised state of mind. The series commences with The Blue Flower (Barber Institute, University of Birmingham), of 1865, for which the painter's mistress Fanny Cornforth was the model, and in which a Japanese koto is played. The aforementioned A Christmas Carol, incorporating further exotic motifs suggestive of a secluded and artificial existence and for which the model was Ellen Smith, followed in 1867, while in the early 1870s Rossetti painted The Bower Meadow (Manchester City Galleries), in which Marie Stillman and Alexa Wilding play a zither and a mandolin respectively, and Roman Widow (Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico), in which Alexa Wilding is seen to rest each of her hands on the string of two separate stringed instruments, in idle distraction and in expression of her grief. Rossetti was the exponent of a subject matter which regarded the motif of music-making as a means of glimpsing the inner soul of the female persona.

Although not referred to by its given title in Rossetti's correspondence, on two occasions in the summer and early autumn of 1869 he mentioned chalk drawings that he had recently worked on and which were in the process of being sold. The first of these letters, dated 27 August and written to Frederic James Shields from Penkill in Ayrshire, reported that 'At this moment I hear from London that Agnew has called & bought 2 chalk drawings I left to be shown to him for 80gns each. If he will go on, this will furnish some profitable pot-boiling; & I tell you, as you were the first to suggest a connection with him'. (William E. Fredeman, The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Cambridge, 2004, IV, p. 254). This was followed by an interesting account of Rossetti's drawing method and recommendations as how to achieve richer effect in chalk by careful selection of tinted paper and by building up the textures of the composition by applying layers of chalk of different colours over the sheet. Then on 7 September he wrote to Jane Morris in Germany, again from Penkill, telling her that 'Work has been going on in the regular pot-boiling line while I have been away [...] and Agnew has been buying the drawings I did just before I left'. (Fredeman, ibid., p. 269). By this period in the artist's career, elaborate chalk drawings, made in their own right rather than as preparatory studies and done to be framed and displayed, had become one of his staple forms of production, and an important source of income.

Agnew's stock books confirm that the two drawings which Rossetti wrote about in his letters to Shields and Jane Morris were Penelope (Lord Lloyd-Webber Collection) and the present La Mandolinata. The two drawings were in fact bought separately, with Penelope recorded as entering Agnew's stock on 1 September 1869, and La Mandolinata not until the following March. Rossetti's asking price of 80 guineas was paid for each, and both were bought for stock rather than on behalf of clients. Penelope was sold to James Leathart in December 1869, while La Mandolinata was sold to J. D. Birchall on 5 March 1872.

John Dearman Birchall came from a prominent and prosperous Quaker family in Leeds. He worked in the cloth industry as a young man but in 1868, aged forty, gave up his business interest and moved to Bowden Hall at Upton St Leonard's in Gloucestershire. He was a passionate collector of blue and white porcelain; in his own watercolour of the interior of the morning room at Bowden La Mandolinata may be seen hanging beside an ebonised and gilded side-board all the surfaces of which are crowded with pots, and with the side walls given over to book cases and recesses containing further pieces of china (figure 00). Birchall's drawing serves as a valuable record of how works of art disparate types were displayed together in the period and how consideration was given as to how all the decorative elements might be harmoniously combined. Birchall and Rossetti were in direct contact in this period, as is documented by various entries in the former's diary (MS in the collection of his descendant). A diary entry for 1868 records that Birchall 'Gave £15 to Rossetti for dwg' (the drawing purchased or commissioned on this occasion is not identified). A further entry describes a visit to Rossetti's Chelsea studio in 1871, although the purpose of this meeting is unknown.

In addition to being a talented artist in his own right, Birchall was a familiar figure on the contemporary art scene, attending dinners and private views at the Royal Academy, Dudley and Grosvenor Galleries, and commissioning designs for stained glass windows from Edward Burne-Jones and decorative designs from Walter Crane. Other painters and draughtsman who were friends of his and who he describes meeting in diary entries were John Everett Millais, Richard Doyle and Frank Dicksee. A further link between Birchall and Rossetti was the Aesthetic designer John Aldam Heaton, who had been a childhood friend of the former's in Leeds and who had been commissioned to paint the interiors at Bowden Hall. Rossetti had known Heaton at least since 1861, when he had stayed with him and his wife Ellen Mary to paint her portrait (Regina Cordium: Mrs Aldam Heaton, ex Forbes Magazine Collection, New York), and from this time forward Heaton became a correspondent of Rossetti's, and one with whom he engaged in business transactions to do with placing works of his with collectors. Whether the idea of acquiring a drawing by Rossetti to place in conjunction with the collection of ceramics at that time by devised by Heaton was Birchall's own or one recommended to him, it was most fortuitous. Rossetti was himself one of the pioneering enthusiasts for blue and white china and had amassed a rich collection of his own in the 1860s in his house in Cheyne Walk in Chelsea.

The late 1860s, and specifically the year 1869 was not an easy time for Rossetti, with a variety of anxieties besetting him. His health was beginning to break down, with particular worries about his eyesight and he was suffering from chronic insomnia. In addition, he had financial problems, exacerbated by debts connected with outstanding commissions and monies previously received on account. Old friendships came under pressure, with a notable falling out with Frederick Sandys, and he was himself increasingly isolated, especially so during Jane Morris's long absence at Bad Ems in Germany, to which place she went in the latter part of 1869 for the sake of her health. Rossetti devoted much of his time to poetry, and particularly after the retrieval of the manuscript of his early poems from the coffin in which his wife Lizzie had been buried in 1862 he was occupied with the revision and preparation for publication of his verse. La Mandolinata - made as has been seen that same summer - may be regarded as especially interesting as coming from a period of turmoil and distress in Rossetti's artistic and personal life when he produced very few other works of art.

J. D. Birchall lent La Mandolinata to the memorial exhibition of Rossetti's works at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1883, presumably having been asked to do so by the artist's brother William Michael Rossetti. In 1889 it was included in the checklist published by W. M. Rossetti as an appendix to his Dante Gabriel Rossetti as Designer and Writer, and then ten years later it was likewise published by J. C. Marillier. Birchall died in 1897, by the drawing remained at Bowden Hall for another twenty-nine years, appearing in the various inventories of the house contents and finally being sold in 1926. in 1928 it appeared at Christie's in London, probably being bought on that occasion by the antiquarian booksellers Spencer and Co, and from whom ten years later it was purchased by the distinguished American academic Dr A. Joseph Armstrong (whose descendants own it to this day). The drawing therefore has an interesting provenance with only one brief period when its whereabouts are unknown.

Dr Armstrong (1912-1954) was professor of English literature at Baylor University, Waco, Texas. He was renowned as an authority on Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and was a keen collector of all material relating to the Brownings (his collection formed the basis of the Armstrong Browning Library Collection of Browningiana at Baylor University. He was presumably in search of Browning material when he visited Spencer's premises in 1938, on which occasion the opportunity occurred to purchase La Mandolinata. He may have felt less confident of judging the merits of a drawing by Rossetti than in his more familiar field of literary manuscripts, and therefore sought corroboration of the attribution. In 1963 Dr Armstrong's widow, Mary Maxwell Armstrong explained in a letter to Virginia Surtees how her husband had 'bought this painting [sic] many years ago from a London dealer, and how to 'allay our fears as to its authenticity [the dealer Spencer] permitted my husband to take the picture in a taxi to the home of two nieces of Rossetti, then living in London. Dr Armstrong did so, [and] found the two ageing nieces who welcomed him warmly'. In her book Pre-Raphaelite Twilight - The Story of Charles Augustus Howell (1954) Helen Rossetti Angeli, herself one of the two nieces visited by Armstrong, described how 'some examples of the kind [i.e. spurious drawings purported to be by Rossetti] were offered for sale to an American - no connoisseur of painting - by a reputable bookshop and art dealer in 1938. Of his lot one alone appeared to be a genuine with a traceable history - a crayon drawing very desirable to possess'. This was La Mandolinata, and thus the attribution to Rossetti was endorsed and the purchase of the drawing carried forward.

Although recorded in the early Rossetti literature, La Mandolinata has remained very little known since the time of its acquisition by Dr Armstrong, and in that time has never been shown in an exhibition of Rossetti's works.

We are grateful to Venetia Harlow of Agnew's for her assistance tracing provenance for this lot.

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