Browse Lots

Global notice COVID-19 Important notice
Audio: Claude Gellée, called Claude Lorrain, A Mediterranean port at sunrise with the Embarkation of Saint Paula for Jerusalem
Claude Gellée, called Claude Lorrain (Champagne 1600-1682 Rome)
1 More
The Property of the Smith Family, removed from Hambleden Manor
Claude Gellée, called Claude Lorrain (Chamagne 1600-1682 Rome)

A Mediterranean port at sunrise with the Embarkation of Saint Paula for Jerusalem

Claude Gellée, called Claude Lorrain (Chamagne 1600-1682 Rome)
A Mediterranean port at sunrise with the Embarkation of Saint Paula for Jerusalem
oil on canvas
39¾ x 53¼ in. (100.9 x 135.2 cm.)
in an English mid-18th century carved and gilded frame with pierced scallopshell cartouche centres
Commissioned by Cardinal Domenico Cecchini (1589-1656), Rome.
(Presumably) Louis-François de Bourbon, prince de Conti (1716-1776), after 1757; his anonymous sale (†), (‘Catalogue d’une Collection Précieuse de Tableaux et Dessins de Meilleurs Maîtres de Trois Écoles...’) Paris, 15 March ff. 1779, lot 53, ‘Cl. Gelée, dit Le Lorrain. Un Tableau précieux & bien conservé, de ce Maître. Il représente le Perystile d’un Palais au bord de la mer, & quantité de figures qui paroissent disposer l’embarquement d’une femme que l’on voit au milieu, & entre les mains de laquelle on remarque un chapelet. Ce morceau riche de composition offre une mer étendue, sur laquelle se réfléchit le soleil levant. Le fonds est terminé par des lointains & un beau Ciel, sur lesquels se détache une tour environné de vaisseaux; & la gauche du Tableau est occupée par des rochers garnis de tousses d’arbes. Hauteur, 3 pieds 3 pouces; largeur, 4 pieds 7 pouces. T.’ (920 livres).
(Presumably) either John Damer, 1st Earl of Portarlington (1744-1798), Emo Park, or Joseph Damer, 1st Earl of Dorchester (d. 1798), Milton Abbey, and by inheritance to
Henry Dawson-Damer, 3rd Earl of Portarlington (1822-1889), Emo Park, County Leix.
William Henry Smith, M.P. (1825-1891), or his son, William Frederick Danvers (1868-1928), 2nd Viscount Hambleden, and by descent to the present owner.
M. Kitson, Claude Lorrain, Liber Veritatis, London, 1978, pp. xxxxx, no. 120.
M. Röthlisberger, Claude Lorrain. The Paintings, London, 1961 and New York, 1979, I, pp. 297-9, under no. LV120, erroneously as a version after the picture in the Musée des Vosges in Epinal, partly splitting the picture across two entries, no. 2 and 3.
M. Wood, John Fowler, Prince of Decorators, London, 2007, p. 158.

Mme. M. Pattison, Claude Lorrain. Sa vie et ses oeuvres, Paris, 1884, p. 233 (unnumbered).
M. Rothlisberger, Claude Lorrain. The Paintings, London, 1961 and New York, 1979, I, pp. 297-9, under no. LV 120, erroneously as a version after the picture in the Musée des Vosges in Épinal, partly splitting the picture across two entries, no. 2 and 3.
M. Wood, John Fowler, Prince of Decorators, London, 2007, p. 158.
London, Royal Academy, Exhibition of Works by the Old Masters, Winter Exhibition, 1882, no. 149, as Claude, The Pilgrimage of St. Paula (lent by The Earl of Portarlington).

Brought to you by

Abbie Barker
Abbie Barker Auction Administrator

Lot Essay

‘Although Claude was a painter of fairyland, and sylvan scenery of the most romantic kind, he is nowhere seen to greater advantage than in his sea ports’ (John Constable, Lecture II, The Establishment of Landscape, delivered at the Royal Institution, London, 1834).

The reappearance of The Embarkation of Saint Paula from the Smith collection at Hambleden Manor, Buckinghamshire constitutes the most important rediscovery of a painting by Claude Lorrain in more than a generation. It is not that the Hambleden Claude was entirely unrecorded, but it was inaccessible to scholars and students of Claude’s works - even through photographic reproduction - and had been unseen by the public since the late 19th century, when it was last exhibited at the Royal Academy. Over time, claims of authenticity were advanced for various copies of the composition, and a fine but very damaged version in the Musée des Vosges, Épinal, came to be generally accepted as authentic since the 1950s, largely because it was thought to have belonged to Louis-François de Bourbon, prince de Conti (1716-1776), its presumed French royal provenance traced to the middle of the 18th century. However, the recent dismantling of that provenance and the careful examination of the present painting, undertaken only in the last few months after it was withdrawn from a sale (Colefax and Fowler. Then and Now. Collection from Hambleden Manor, Lushill and 39 Brook Street, Mayfair; Christie’s, London, 10 July 2013), has shown the Hambleden painting to be - beyond question - not only Claude’s unique autograph version of the composition, but a masterpiece of the artist’s full maturity. Professor Marcel Rothlisberger, doyen of Claude studies and author of the catalogue raisonné of the artist’s paintings - who had never seen the present painting or an image of it until September of this year - followed tradition in regarding the Épinal version as Claude’s original, albeit with this serious reservation: ‘Rubbed and completely overpainted. Genuine, although the poor condition leaves little of Claude’s hand’. Upon studying the Hambleden canvas for the first time, Professor Rothlisberger declared it a ‘great Claude’, concluding that it is ‘a truly sensational discovery, all the more so as the picture is in such wonderful condition, luminous, visible down to every detail, complete with an elaborate figure scene, the brilliant sun, rippling waves, a Roman temple, trees and rocks’ (written correspondence, 19 September 2013).

The early history of the painting is well known. It dates from 1650 and Claude himself recorded the composition in a wash drawing that he included in his Liber Veritatis (London, British Museum, no. 120; fig. 1), the compendium of 200 drawings made after his painted compositions that the artist arranged chronologically beginning in 1635 to discourage forgery and imitation. The drawing, made in pen and brown washes on blue paper, is signed ‘Claudio.i.v.f’ on the verso and inscribed ‘Cardinalle/csequin’, a reference to the name of the patron who commissioned the painting. This Maecenas was Domenico Cecchini (1589-1656), a member of a not especially affluent Roman patrician family who earned a doctorate from the University of Perugia, and made a career in the papal court, rising in the ranks through several pontificates. He was made Cardinal by the newly elected Pope Innocent X Pamphilj in 1644. Cecchini received lavish endowments and served as Datary to His Holiness (the pope’s personal banker), but fell from grace in 1649 after a confrontation with the powerful Donna Olympia Maidalchini, the sister-in-law and principal advisor of the pope, and mother of Prince Camillo Pamphilj. Cecchini participated in the conclave of 1655, which elected Pope Alexander VII, and died suddenly of apoplexy on 1 May 1656 in his palace in Campo Marzio, Monte Citorio. He is buried in the church of S. Maria in Trastevere, Rome. A modest man of integrity, he left behind a diary that details the many difficulties and vituperative attacks he withstood as head of the datary, and serves as an important source in documenting the vipers-nest of Vatican life and politics in the middle of the 17th century. Unfortunately for our purposes, the diary makes no mention of Claude or the genesis of The Embarkation of Saint Paula. The present painting is the only work by Claude owned by Cecchini, who is not known otherwise to have collected art.

Born in 1604/05 in Chamagne, in the Duchy of Lorraine, to a father who worked as a modest pastry chef, Claude Gellée, called Claude Lorrain, moved to Rome around 1617. He made a brief sojourn to Naples in 1618 to study with Goffredo Wals, returned to Lorraine to assist Claude Deruet with frescoes for the Carmelite Church in Nancy, then returned to Rome in late 1626, never to leave again. He worked as an assistant to Agostino Tassi, and eventually came to share a home and studio with the talented Dutch landscapist Herman van Swanevelt. Claude began receiving praise for his distinctive landscape paintings in the 1630s, and amassing an illustrious array of collectors for the dozen or so meticulously rendered Arcadian landscapes that he was able to produce annually. By 1650, when he moved into newer, richer quarters in the via del Babuino (then known as via Paolina), Claude was famous throughout Europe as the greatest and most lyrical living painter of landscapes, the unrivalled master of the heroic and poetic effects of light. He was, with Nicolas Poussin, the most celebrated and sought-after artist in Rome, numbering the French ambassador, members of the Medici court, more than one pope, and Philip IV, King of Spain, among his patrons.

Claude’s most assiduous patron from 1646 until 1650 was, moreover, Prince Camillo Pamphilj, nephew of Pope Innocent X; Camillo commissioned five major canvases from Claude in these years. As Rothlisberger observes, Cecchini would surely have known of Claude through Camillo Pamphilj, and may well have seen some of the paintings being made for the prince while they were still on Claude’s easel. Indeed, in 1647, Claude was completing a grand, large-scale pair of paintings on marriage themes for Camillo that included a Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebekah (1648; London, National Gallery) and the great Seaport with The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba (1648; London, National Gallery; fig. 2), a work that bears strong similarities to the present Embarkation of Saint Paula made for Cecchini. (The pair of paintings has a complicated history, but, in short, it was never delivered to Pamphilj: as Rothlisberger has demonstrated, because Camillo’s renunciation of the cardinalate and marriage to Olimpia Aldobrandini in early 1647 resulted in his immediate expulsion from Rome by his uncle, he never took possession of the unfinished pair of paintings. Claude subsequently completed the two pictures and sold them to Frédéric-Maurice de la Tour d’Auvergne, duc de Bouillon (1605-1652), who served as general of the papal armies under Urban VIII and returned to France in May 1647. Claude later produced a different pair of paintings for Camillo Pamphilj, who was permitted to return from Frascati to Rome in 1651; they are today in the Galleria Doria-Pamphilj, Rome).

According to Rothlisberger (written correspondence, 30 September 2013), Cardinal Cecchini most likely saw the Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba being planned for Pamphilj in Claude’s studio and requested something comparable, albeit a single work, and somewhat less large and grand. The rather obscure subject of Cecchini’s painting, based on an episode in the life of the ancient Roman saint and early Desert Mother, Saint Paula of Rome (347-404), has no demonstrable personal link to the Cardinal, and was rarely depicted in European art. However, Claude made it the subject of several of his landscapes, first and most prominently in one of a set of four, large vertical landscape canvases with religious subjects painted in 1639-1640 for Philip IV, King of Spain, to decorate the new royal palace on the outskirts of Madrid. The Embarkation of Saint Paula for Buen Retiro (Rothlisberger, no. LV 49; Madrid, Prado) marked a new phase in Claude’s development, introducing a complex construction of space, and a monumentality, solemnity and grandeur previously unexplored in his works. Around 1642, Claude took up the subject of Saint Paula again in a smaller, simplified version of the Buen Retiro composition that later belonged to the Duke of Wellington (Rothlisberger, no. LV 61; fig. 3).

In this painting, undertaken almost a decade later, Claude reconfigured and reemployed figures and architectural elements from both of the earlier Saint Paula paintings, but also from the Queen of Sheba seaport and several other earlier seaport and harbour scenes. Paula and her daughter Eustochium, as well as several other figures, are repeated almost precisely, but in reverse from the Buen Retiro painting. The general disposition of the scene resembles that of a much earlier painting of a coastal view (Rothlisberger, no. LV 2) from around 1633 or 1634, with a colonnaded building on the left, a grove of trees on the right and an open coast view in between, as Rothlisberger has noted. The portico with ships on the left is found first in the Buen Retiro painting, then adapted with slight variations for the Wellington picture, although the architecture towers over the scene in these two vertical compositions more impressively than is possible in the horizontal format of the Hambleden picture. Here, the broad sweep of the seaport is closest to the Queen of Sheba port scene of two years prior: however, the composition opens up with a lyrical and sparkling amplitude not possible in the high, narrow format that Claude had used for the earlier Saint Paula paintings. In those previous works, the figures are dwarfed by the architecture, and the sea is tightly compressed; here, Saint Paula and her entourage assume a heroic, even tragic grandeur, as their story is played out across the picture plane, and
the distant, setting sun bathes the distant ships, rippling waves and noble figures in a shimmering, golden glow as elegiac as it is warming.

Beside the absolute mastery of execution evident throughout the painting - the magically sparkling shifts of light on the rippling waves of open sea, the reflections of the sun off the masts of the ships, the entirely convincing effects of back-lighting on the figures who face away from the setting sun - that displays so characteristically Claude’s hand, technical examinations of the Hambleden painting reveal further evidence that the painting is Claude’s original. Simon Howell of RMS Shepherd Associates notes (examination report, 24 September 2013) that it is executed on a buff-coloured ground over a herring-bone weave canvas that is typical of Claude’s authentic works. More striking, are the extensive changes and quite dramatic adjustments made to the architecture on the left of the composition and the tower in the central background, apparent in infrared-reflectography (fig. 4). As the infrared images clearly reveal, the entablature above the Corinthian columns was significantly higher and more jutting originally, and was decisively scaled-back by Claude, while the small tower that now shimmers, dream-like, above the central horizon was originally a much higher, wider and more imposing structure that dominated the background. Claude’s decision to diminish its impact was a clear improvement, as the dramatic scale of the tower as it was previously conceived would have distracted from the principal scene being played out on shore.

The superior quality of the Hambleden painting, coupled with the evidence of extensive pentimenti beneath the final paint surface demonstrate that it is not only from Claude’s brush, but the first version of the composition. As Claude did not, as a rule, repeat his compositions slavishly, the newly recognised autograph status of the present painting casts into doubt the legitimacy of the Épinal version and raises questions about whether it could, in fact, have been the painting sold from the collection of the Prince de Conti in 1779.

A libertine of royal lineage and vast wealth, Louis-François de Bourbon, prince de Conti (1717-1776) (fig. 5) was one of the most ambitious and distinguished art collectors of the end of the Ancien Régime. His collection of 760 pictures, sold at his residence, the Palais du Temple, in April 1777, comprised one of the great auctions of the century, meticulously catalogued and recorded in marginal illustrations by Gabriel de Saint-Aubin. The 250 French paintings in Conti’s collection included some of the greatest masterpieces produced over the previous two centuries, among them Louis Le Nain’s Forge (Louvre) and Nicolas Poussin’s Achilles Among the Daughters of Lycomedes (Richmond, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts). It is unlikely that Conti would have mistaken a copy of Claude’s painting for the real thing, so while Saint-Aubin’s illustration of Conti’s Saint Paula is too summary to indicate with certainty that it was the version that was to enter the Portarlington collection, then the Hambleden collection, it seems probable that this was the case, and more likely that the Hambleden painting once belonged to Conti than the disappointing version today in Épinal.

After the Conti sale of 1779 there is no explicit reference to the Embarkation of Saint Paula until 1882, when it was lent by Henry, 3rd Earl of Portarlington (1822-1889) to the Royal Academy. The earl’s main seat was Emo Park, County Leix, begun for his grandfather, John Damer, 1st Earl of Portarlington (1744-1798), whose grandfather, Ephraim Dawson, M.P. for Queen’s County, assembled very considerable estates including that at Portarlington. But the third earl had also inherited Milton Abbey and the major portion of the considerable estates in Dorset built up by the Damer family which had passed to his father Captain the Hon. Henry Dawson (1786-1841), younger brother of John, 2nd Earl of Portarlington (1781-1845), on the death in 1829 of Lady Caroline Damer, daughter and eventual heiress of Joseph Damer, 1st Earl of Dorchester (d. 1798), whose sister Mary, wife of William Henry Dawson, subsequently Viscount Carlow, was the mother of the 1st Earl of Portarlington. The third earl thus inherited the collections of both his grandfather, Lord Portarlington, and his great grandfather, Lord Dorchester, with the great houses both had commissioned, Emo and Milton Abbey, the first designed about 1790 by the great Irish neo-classicist, James Gandon, the second built in 1771-6 to plans by Sir William Chambers.

Both earls had made the Grand Tour and been painted by Batoni. Both were in a position to make expensive purchases in or after 1779. Dorchester was incontestably the richer, building a vast house by arguably the greatest architect of the day in the shadow of the medieval church of Milton Abbey, and, notoriously, creating a model village to replace that which he had cleared from his park: like the uncle whose fortune he inherited he could be parsimonious, as is shown by his treatment of his daughter-in-law, the sculptress Anne Seymour Damer, but nonetheless spent huge sums on the building and decoration of Milton Abbey. But Portarlington, who in 1778 married Lady Anne Stuart, daughter of a great collector, John, 3rd Earl of Bute, and herself a competent amateur painter, was at least his equal as a man of taste: that he employed Chambers’s gifted pupil Gandon, who built no other major house, at Emo is itself remarkable, and there is contemporary evidence that he was recognised as a very cultivated man (see E. McParland, ‘Emo Court, Co. Leix’, Country Life, 23 May 1974, pp. 1274-6). Moreover in 1779, the year of his father’s death, he was for the first time able to spend significant sums of money, and project building works, including a notable church at Coolbanagher also designed by Gandon, begun about 1782. The difficulty of distinguishing between the acquisitions of the two earls, uncle and nephew, is compounded by the fact that their collections were effectively fused after the sale of Milton Abbey to Baron Hambro in 1852 when the third Earl of Portarlington moved pictures from Milton to Emo, as is for example known to have been the case with two celebrated whole lengths by van Dyck, the Queen Henrietta Maria with her Dwarf (Washington, National Gallery of Art) and the Portrait of Lord Newport (New Haven). These, with pictures given to Bassano, Rembrandt and Rubens, were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1878: the two were ‘exchanged’ with the 1st Earl of Northbrook in 1881. In addition to portraits of both families, the collection also included a pair of Venetian views by Canaletto.

It is not clear whether the Claude was sold by the third earl between 1882 and his death in 1889, when he was succeeded by his first cousin Lionel Dawson-Damer (whose father had assumed the name of Damer on inheriting the secondary Damer estate of Came near Dorchester on Lady Caroline’s death in 1829) as 4th Earl of Portarlington, or by the latter: it was evidently sold privately and in the light of the discrete sale to Lord Northbrook of the two van Dycks and that in 1887 of the Reynolds portrait of Anne Seymour Damer (New Haven) it may well prove that the Embarkation of Saint Paula was sold directly to William Henry Smith, M.P. (1825-1891), rather than to his son William Frederick Danvers (1868-1928), who on his mother’s death in 1913 succeeded as the 2nd Viscount Hambleden. The eponymous son of William Henry Smith, founder of the well-known bookselling firm that bears his name, Smith was a Member of Parliament from 1868 until his death: appointed Secretary to the Treasury as First Lord of the Admiralty by Disraeli, Smith was one of the outstanding Conservative statesmen of his period. At the time of his death he was First Lord of the Treasury and Leader of the House of Commons under Lord Salisbury, and most unusually his widow was elevated as Viscountess Hambleden in recognition of Smith’s public career. He began to collect pictures relatively late in his life, acquiring for example the beautiful Romney of Elizabeth Ramus at Christie’s on 22 July 1882, lot 80 (see Christie’s, London, 2 July 2013, lot 50), and given the logistics of transporting pictures to and from Ireland it is possible that he obtained the Claude after it was shown at the Royal Academy in the same year. However, another key picture from the collection, the Bellotto view of Dolo on the Brenta, is first recorded in the family’s Grosvenor Square house in 1899, and might thus have been purchased by the future 2nd Viscount Hambleden.

Even by the time of the Conti sale in 1779, the subject of Claude’s painting was already obscure enough to go unrecognised. Saint Paula (d. 404 AD) was a Roman matron descended from the Scipio and the Gracchi, rich and illustrious senatorial families. According to Saint Jerome (347-420 AD), whose correspondence and ‘Life of Saint Paula’ (Letter 108) are the only contemporary sources of her biography, Paula had led a luxurious existence, dressing in opulent silks and being transported about the city by eunuch slaves. The sudden death of her husband in 379, when she was 32 years old, followed soon thereafter by the death of her eldest daughter, Blessila, plunged Paula into deep despair, resulting at length in a religious conversion that took the form of penance expressed through generous gifts to the poor, and an austere regime that included the renunciation of all pleasures and social life. ‘From that time, she never sat at table with any man, not even with any of the holy bishops and saints whom she entertained. She abstained from all flesh-meat, fish, eggs, honey and wine; used oil only on holidays; lay on a stone floor covered with sack-cloth; renounced all visits and worldly amusements, laid aside all costly garments, and gave everything to the poor which it was in her power to dispose of... Her occupation was prayer, pious reading, and fasting’ (Rev. Alvin Butler, The Lives of the Saints, written in the mid-18th century; published 1866).

She met Saint Jerome in 382, and decided under his influence to leave the bustle and distractions of Rome. ‘She sighed after the deserts, longed to be disencumbered of attendants and live in a hermitage, where her heart would have no other occupation than on God. The thirst after so great a happiness made her ready to forget her house, family, riches, and friends’. Leaving three of her four surviving children behind, and accompanied only by her daughter Eustochium, Paula set sail in 385 for the Holy Land: ‘Being therefore fixed in her resolution, and having settled her affairs, she went to the water side, attended by her brother, relations, friends, and children, who all strove by their tears to overcome her constancy. Even when the vessel was ready to sail, her little son Toxotius, with uplifted hands on the shore, and bitterly weeping, begged her not to leave him. The rest, who were not able to speak with gushing tears, prayed her to defer at least her voluntary banishment. But Paula, raising her dry eyes to heaven, turned her face from the shore, lest she should discover what she could not behold without feeling the most sensible pangs of sorrow’. Sailing first to Cyprus, Syria, and Jerusalem, Paula settled in 386 in Bethlehem - where she lived in a poor house - building a hospital, as well as three convents for women and a monastery for Saint Jerome and his monks. She died in Bethlehem at age 56 on 26 January 404, the date on which her feast day has ever since been celebrated.

Claude sought a certain sense of archeological accuracy in his rendering of the scene, setting the picture in a Roman harbour - the Buen Retiro version of the subject from 10 years earlier is actually inscribed: ‘IMBARCO Sta PAVLA ROMANA PER TERRA Sta/PORTUS OSTIENSIS A[VGUSTI] ET TRA[IANI]’ (‘Saint Paula Romana Embarking for the Holy Land/ The Port of Ostia of Augustus and Trajan’). Of course, the real Port of Ostia is fancifully recreated, but it suggests Claude’s desire to represent a convincing simulacrum of authenticity. In the Hambleden painting motifs are repurposed from others of Claude’s classical harbour scenes of the 1640s, notably the Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, from which the Corinthian colonnade is closely adapted. Moreover, the artist sought to tell the self-sacrificing tale of Paula with a pathos and drama that exceeded in intensity and restrained emotion that found in his earlier depictions of the subject. With great fidelity to the ancient accounts, Claude renders the dignified, but almost somnambulant Paula being walked by Eustochium into the open arms of the boatman who is about to take her away, forever, from everything and everyone she has ever known and loved. Her friends and family wring their hands imploringly, and her young son, Toxotius raises his arms in a desperate plea to keep his mother from leaving him, held back by a servant woman who tries to comfort him. Paula’s resignation is almost superhuman, and she may be strengthened in her resolve by remembering Jerome’s words to her that ‘God is our master, that we are bound to rejoice in his will, always just and holy, to thank and praise him for all things.It is only the continuation of our banishment [from living at Christ’s side] which we ought to lament’.

It is Claude Lorrain’s unexcelled mastery that imbues the Hambleden Embarkation of Saint Paula with its rare genius: in the strange and cruel journey about to begin beneath the forgiving rays of God’s sunshine, we can feel both the searing pain and rapturous joy that accompanies a great renunciation made in response to a higher calling. Might Cardinal Domenico Cecchini, an honourable man who devoted his life to his pope and Church but suffered a crippling public humiliation the year before he acquired Claude’s painting, followed by the loss of his powerful position in the Vatican, have found in Paula a kindred spirit whose suffering and redemption offered him some measure of solace?

Our gratitude to Professor Marcel Rothlisberger and Dr. Jon Whiteley for examining the present painting in person and endorsing its attribution to Claude; and to Professor Rothlisberger for his generous assistance with the preparation of this entry.

Aerial lights, aerial colour’: Claude’s influence on J.M.W. Turner - by Andrew Wilton

One of the most touching moments in Turner’s life is a scene recounted by his friend, the painter George Jones. The twenty-four-year-old Turner went to look at pictures in the collection of the banker John Julius Angerstein:

‘Angerstein came into the room while the young painter was looking at the Sea Port by Claude, and spoke to him. Turner was awkward, agitated, and burst into tears. Mr Angerstein enquired the cause and pressed for an answer, when Turner said passionately, ‘Because I shall never be able to paint any thing like that picture’.

We tend to think of Turner – and he rather encouraged this view of himself – as an omnicapable genius, striding like a colossus among the masters of European painting, rising to the challenge of a Poussin here, a Cuyp there, a Titian, a Rembrandt or a Canaletto. And when he came to make his Will he envisaged his hundred finished oil paintings hung in changing displays as an addition, a climax perhaps, to the National Gallery’s European schools: a summing up of their achievement in the work of a single British artist. Yet here was the ambitious young man in 1799, already an Associate of the Royal Academy, reduced to tears by a Claude Seaport.

That Turner took all this in is clear from what he did immediately after seeing the picture. He went to the sketchbooks he had used on a tour to Wales the previous year, and reimagined his studies of Caernarvon Castle in terms of a Claude seaport at sunset (W 254). The impressive composition that he produced is the more remarkable in that it is executed in watercolour. In one heroic gesture he recast British topography in the grand manner of an ideal classical subject, and at the same time asserted his ability to endow watercolour with the same power as oil paint.

Angerstein’s own Claudes, with the rest of his collection, were to become the foundation of the National Gallery in London, and the picture that moved Turner so much was probably his Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba (fig. 2), which although somewhat larger than The Embarkation of St Paula has much in common with it: the central sun reflected in a rippling sea, with ships and a crenellated tower against it, the fluted column of a Roman building at the left with crowded ships beyond, and a foreground quay with many figures. Above all, the ravishing diffusion of light from its source at the centre of the canvas into every part of the design: the great miracle of Claude’s art that had given him a unique place in the history of landscape painting.

A decade later, when he came to lecture to the students of the Royal Academy in his capacity as Professor of Perspective, he had an opportunity to give full expression to his sense of Claude’s importance to landscape painting:

‘Pure as Italian air, calm, beautiful and serene, spring forward the works and with them the name of Claude Lorrain. The golden orient or the amber-coloured ether, the mid-day ethereal vault and fleecy skies, resplendent valleys, campagnas rich with all the cheerful blush of fertilisation, trees possessing every hue and tone of summer’s evident heat, rich, harmonious, true and clear, replete with all the aerial qualities of distance, aerial lights, aerial colour...’

Turner’s admiration for Angerstein’s Seaport achieves its consummation in two canvases of 1815 and 1817, Dido building Carthage, or the rise of the Carthaginian Empire (B 131) (fig. 6) and The decline of the Carthaginian Empire (B 135). Dido building Carthage is explicitly and unashamedly his bid to out-Claude Claude, and he clearly considered he had done this, for in his Will he stipulated that it should always hang next to The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba in the National Gallery. But he had not finished his lifetime’s dialogue with his hero: in Rome in 1828 he reimagined Claude’s seaport yet again, this time as an episode from Carthaginian history. Regulus, saturated with vivid colour, embodies the ultimate experience of brilliant sunlight.

And in 1850, the year before he died, he sent for exhibition four scenes from the tragic tale of Aeneas’ desertion of Dido (B & J 429-432; fig. 7), no longer even residually classical but hectically Romantic – they could almost be illustrations to Berlioz’s great opera Les Troyens – in vivid colour and fractured paint. They are still, unmistakably, variations on the sunset harbour, transmuted into a new and more urgent mood. Even at this late point in his career, Turner still had something vital to say about his love of Claude.

More from Old Master & British Paintings Evening Sale

View All
View All