This is a story about the British aristocracy.
Three wealthy and titled men who centuries ago went against social expectations.
One was a leading high court judge
who also campaigned for the abolition of slavery.
One was a bastard child of the wealthiest man in England,
and one was the son of a bricklayer,
who in a time with little to no social mobility
rose through the social classes to become a Knight of the British Empire.
Not only were their homes gifted to the Nation,
but also their incredible art collections within them.
If you went to an art gallery in London every day for the next two years,
you still couldn’t visit them all.
The National Gallery, the two Tates,
the Hayward and the Royal Academy
are just a few of the UK Capital’s 857 public art galleries.
This series will look not only at galleries around the world which often get overlooked,
but also the fascinating stories behind them.
Kenwood House, designed by Robert Adam,
is on the edge of Hampstead Heath
and houses of staggering collection of old master paintings,
including Rembrandt, Vermeer,
Reynolds and Van Dyck.
The owner of Kenwood House, William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield,
was an unusual man.
He was the most powerful judge in England,
part of the elite ruling class.
Yet he was also an early advocate for the abolishment of slavery.
In 1772, he presided over the case of James Somerset,
who was bought as a slave in Boston
and transported to England where he escaped.
Somerset won the court case and was freed.
It was a turning point for the abolitionist movement.
Murray’s abolitionist sympathies may have come from his great niece,
one of the most extrodinary woman: Dido Elizabeth Belle.
This is a rare 18th century portrait of a black woman
and her white cousin as equals.
Dido Belle was the illegitimate daughter
of a black slave and William Murray’s nephew
and was raised by Murray as part of the aristocracy.
By all accounts, Dido and her cousin were raised as equals,
and this portrait of the two was seen as an image of the sisterhood
reflecting their equal status.
But looking at it with modern eyes,
we can see it more in the vein of traditional servant
and master portraits of the time.
Belle’s exotic clothing is designed to differentiate her from her cousin,
and the painting reflects the conservative views of the time.
Kenwood House owns a Rembrandt said by many to be one of his greatest.
In his 40-year career,
Rembrandt made at least 80 self portraits,
and here he is presented as an artist in his studio,
in his working clothes, holding the tools of his profession.
And you can really see Rembrandt physically at work here.
The work is rough, the brushstrokes are loose and expressive.
But it is above all a portrait of painful honesty
that shows Rembrandt tired, old and newly bankrupt.
Look at the hat which is painted wet on wet
with just a few rough strokes, he produces intense realism.
He draws on the painting with the end of his brush.
You can see it here and here.
And some parts are painted so quickly with just a whisper of paint.
This begs the question: is it finished?
Probably not, and that’s what makes it so interesting.
The two strange circles in the background
have long puzzled art historians.
And there are many theories.
The most plausible one I think is that he was referencing Giotto,
who in the 14th century proved his artistic skill
by drawing a perfect circle freehand.
It’s harder than you think.
It is possible that Rembrandt is linking himself with another master.
There are only 36 paintings by Vermeer worldwide,
and Kenwood House has one of them.
This domestic masterwork fits so well in the setting of a warm home.
Vermeer wasn’t that famous until the 19th century,
and the family bought this in 1889 for just a thousand pounds.
Only a few years later,
a Vermeer was sold for a hundred thousand dollars.
The artist painted the quiet existence of women.
And here we see a young girl interrupted from her guitar playing.
If you think you’ve seen her jacket before,
you probably have.
It is a well-used studio prop.
It is an understated, subtle scene
and Vermeer uses light to move us around the composition.
In this case the light comes from the right side,
which is very unusual for Vermeer,
and the only other example is the Lacemaker.
Otherwise, Vermeer painted with the light sources from the left
so that the shadows of his right hand
did not fall onto the canvas as he was painting.
This is a late painting by Vermeer,
and we see experimentation.
The guitar player is far to the left.
She is cropped almost photographically
and the room to the right is in shadows
giving a sense of movement as if she has just turned to her right.
Most of his music players stand posed and silent at keyboards
but she is moving.
Look at the strings on her guitar.
They are blurred, which means they are vibrating.
He has captured not just a moment in time, but sound as well.
The pink of the book matches her flushing cheeks
and the fall of her hair matches the picture above.
These are wonderful details designed to pull us in.
The big question is:
did he use a camera obscura, an optical device, to paint this?
It is something I will return to when I make my film on Vermeer.
Sir John Soane’s House is in central London,
and has been an eclectic and quirky museum since 1837.
It has works by Caneletto, Piranesi,
Turner and famously Hogarth.
This is the former home of Bank of England architect, Sir John Soane.
It is a labyrinth of artistic treasures
packed to the rafters with antiquities and artworks,
including a tiny picture room
which is rammed with 118 paintings,
a collection large enough for a room four times its size.
Soane was a working-class boy,
who miraculously rose through the British class system.
His spoiled and snobby sons despised him,
and one, George, wrote an anonymous article
trying to ruin his father’s career.
Soane would get his revenge by cutting George out of his will
and leaving his wealth to the nation.
Geoge was a classic example of a rake or philanderer.
He lived in a ménage à trois with both his wife and her sister
who tried to blackmail Soane.
In fact George’s life was not too far removed
from the theme of William Hogarth’s famous series of paintings:
A Rake’s Progress,
the star attraction of the museum.
The eight-part painting series is a moralistic
and satirical story of the downfall of Tom Rakewell.
The paintings were considered so shocking in Soane’s time
that they were hidden away in secret panels in a room in his house.
To this day you need to ask a staff member to reveal them.
The director, Alan Parker, described them perfectly
as “like storyboards for a film”.
In the first scene, Tom inherits his father’s fortune
and ditches his pregnant fiancée Sara Young.
Seen here weeping in her mother’s arms
as she clutches her engagement ring.
In scene two, the newly wealthy Tom
is surrounded by tradesmen eager to get his money.
By scene three, Tom is in an orgy—
a scene designed to titillate the viewer,
as he is surrounded by prostitudes in various states of undress
note the black spots on their faces that cover syphilitic sores.
Tom in scene four is now broke and arrested by debt collectors,
第四幕 汤姆破产了 还被债主抓住
but is saved by the good Sara Young.
By scene five, Tom is trying to recoup his loses
by marrying a rich old hag.
His eyes however are on her young maid.
Tom here is already losing his wife’s fortune on gambling,
a major problem in the 18th century.
And by scene seven he is in debtors’ prison.
The final scene is Tom in the mad house.
His downfall is complete.
The ever faithful Sara Young is visiting him with their child
but he is too far gone.
These well-dressed women are here to be amused.
The upper classes would pay to see lunatics
in the asylum as a form of entertainment.
They are here to remind us just how far Tom has fallen.
What is interesting is that Hogarth never intended these paintings to be sold.
His main income came from engravings of his work
which were affordable to the new growing middle class.
The brilliant entrepreneur sold subscriptions to his engravings
and these paintings were made to show to potential clients.
Hogarth were so successful
that it wasn’t long before unscrupulous engravers were copying his work
and selling it on the black market,
leaving Hogarth to lobby parliament
to instigate the world’s first copyright act of 1753.
The Wallace Collection is a national museum
in a London townhouse
with 25 galleries of world-class collections.
Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens,
提香 伦勃朗 鲁本斯
Caneletto and Fragonard are the highlights.
Sir Richard Wallace was not your typical Victorian aristocrat.
He was the illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess of Hertford
and was married to a commoner.
But as he was the sole heir,
he inherited the Marquess’s vast fortune
and his extensive art collection.
Wallace immediately went on a spending spree of his own
and bought masterpieces to add to the collection.
But it was his great grandfather, the 1st Marquess of Hertford,
who started the collection,
by buying several Canelettos on a trip to Italy in 1738
directly from Caneletto himself.
The artist was at the height of his fame
and this would have cost a fortune.
The grand tour was a rite of passage for every titled child in England.
These were cultural trips through Europe
to see great works of art from classical antiquity and the Renaissance.
On their journey they would buy souvenirs but not postcards.
These were works by Rembrandt, Caneletto and Vermeer.
Caneletto’s paintings see almost photographic in their accuracy to us.
But in fact, he often changed the width of a canal
or removed less important buildings from his view
in his quest to create the ideal image
for 18th century tourists like the Marquess.
What makes the Canelettos in the Wallace Collection so unique
are these two paintings designed as a pair.
Both show the Bacino Di San Marco,
Venice’s inner harbor of Saint Mark’s but from opposing views.
Caneletto shows the view from here looking over the Bacino.
And then from this opposite point of view represented by this painting.
In the first painting we have the Customs House on our left,
and we are looking across the Bacino towards the Church of San Giorgio.
We glimpse the Doge’s Palace over to the left.
In the second painting,
we are now on the terrace of the Church of San Giorgio,
looking at the dome of the Santa Maria Della Salute.
Again we see the Doge’s Palace.
But this time as the view is reversed, it is on our right.
And to the right of Santa Maria De La Salute,
we can also see the Customs House from the opposing view.
The paintings were meant to be hung opposite each other
in which case the direction of the sunlights matches.
The sun comes from the left in the case of the view from San Giorgio
and from the right in the case of the view from Giudecca.
Fragonard’s erotic painting the Swing
originally would have been kept in a private room behind a curtain
as it was so salacious.
The painting was commissioned by the notorious libertine, Baron de San Julienne.
It is Fragonad’s most famous work and an iconic piece of Rococo Art.
It features a young woman in scandalous pink silk
tantalizingly poised mid air on a swing.
Behind her, working the swing is her elderly husband.
And in front of her is her young lover,
getting a good look up her skirt.
Cupid is telling us to keep quiet
as a shoe flies off with abandon.
Women’s ankles were just not shown in public
and had seriously erotic connotations.
In 2021, the painting was restored
and finally we get to see it in its original glory.
Details were revealed, like the rope being frayed,
which adds an element of danger to the scene.
Known as the Mona Lisa of the Wallace Collection,
The Laughing Cavalier is neither laughing or a Cavalier.
But he was given a name in the 19th century and it stuck.
Frans Hals is known for his startlingly realistic portraits
created by very loose and impressionistic brushstrokes
not seen in the Netherlands before.
Hundreds of years later, his painting technique would inspire a new generation of artists,
like Singer Sergent and Edouard Manet.
And Van Gogh in particular would be strongly influenced by Hals.
The loose brushwork on the Laughing Cavalier’s lase collar
is an unparalleled example of Hals’ incredible technique.
We don’t know who the Cavalier is
but we know he was 26 as Hals tells us.
He had to be very rich to be able to afford such opulent clothes.
He was probably single as Hals usually painted men facing left
as part of a marriage double portrait.
And the Cavalier is facing right.
The minutely detailed embroidery on his jacket
can be read just like hieroglyphics.
We find some of the common motifs symbolic of love
including bees, arrows and flaming cornucopia,
which could mean this was a betrothal portrait.
Other symbols like Mercury’s hat and staff
would be associated with good fortune and business.
His pose is casual and makes him appear extremely lifelike
by positioning him in the extreme foreground of the composition.
His left arm on his hip as if he is breaking the picture plane
and spilling out into the viewer’s space
—a true masterpiece.
When these aristocrats left their houses and collections to the state,
it could be seen as a vanity project:
a means of maintaining legacies after their death.
I think what links these three men
is a sense of being an outsider, a sense of difference.
And it is this eccentric attitude
that produces these great collections.
By contrast, the wealthy today see art as a commodity
rather than as something to admire and inspire.
They often hide great artworks in freeports—
offshore tax-free storage—to sit and increase in value
rather than to be seen and appreciated.
There are great philanthropic collectors out there.
But the world needs more men like Murray, Soane and Wallace.
Men who saw that art can transcend social class.
They understood that art should enrich the soul
not the bank balance.
This is a story about the British aristocracy.