As more than 100 Old Master and 19th-century drawings from Jean Bonna's collection come to auction in Paris, London and New York, Lisa Johnson meets the Swiss collector in his elegant 1860s Geneva townhouse
For Jean Bonna, the special thing about drawings is that they represent the first thoughts of an artist. ‘Generally, before you paint or sculpt or print, you draw,’ explains the Swiss collector and retired banker, seated in the drawing room of his elegant 1860s Geneva townhouse, surrounded by framed works by some of the biggest names in European art.
Drawings — more than 100 of which go on sale at Christie’s over the next year — were not Bonna’s earliest passion, however. An avid reader, he bought a first edition of Rabelais at the age of 9 (‘The third volume was a dictionary of all the rude words,’ he says), and he has gone on to assemble one of the world’s most complete collections of first editions of French literature — 4,000 volumes, including a rare incunabulum by the 15th-century poet François Villon.
It was the illustrations in such incunabula that sparked Bonna’s interest in Renaissance prints, and the prints led to the drawings. ‘Prints are complicated — a good-quality work can be worth 1,000 times more than one of lousy quality,’ he says.
Bonna bought his first drawing, a Hubert Robert, in 1982, and now has 482 high-quality figurative works that cover — literally — the walls of his two Swiss homes. Most are from the Italian Renaissance and French 17th to 19th centuries, although there are also significant works by Northern artists and a few British drawings; together, says Christie’s specialist Stijn Alsteens, they constitute ‘one of the broadest, largest and most valuable collections of Old Master drawings in private hands in the world today.’
Bonna likes them all, he says, and is hard-pressed to choose which one he would save in a fire, finally plumping for one of his five drawings by Boucher, although the most valuable is undoubtedly a Raphael. He has rarely sold a drawing and is only doing so now because ‘there’s no room left’: he is giving his house on Lake Geneva to one of his sons and doesn’t like putting works in drawers.
Bonna’s drawings have been exhibited at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum in New York; more unusually, they have also been eloquently and beautifully catalogued by the curator Nathalie Strasser. They met when she was working in the print room at Geneva’s Musée d’Art et d’Histoire and he agreed to fund an exhibition catalogue of illustrations for La Fontaine’s Fables.
Bonna’s principal motivation in cataloguing his collection was to create a record for posterity, and the fact that he has always believed provenance to be extremely important; learning more about his drawings as Strasser has added her discoveries to the annals of art history has been a bonus.
Take the beautiful Head of a young woman by Raffaellino del Colle (above), a preparatory drawing for a painting that Strasser found in Sansepolcro in Tuscany. ‘We went to take a look,’ she says, ‘and found another painting in the same room that reproduces the study of the hands on the verso of Jean’s drawing. So that was rewarding — to add to what was already known about it.’
‘It’s magnificent,’ says the collector. ‘There are only three or four drawings by him. I bought it about 20 years ago from Thomas Williams in London.’
Bonna is still collecting and ‘would love a Van Dyck’. He describes collecting as ‘an incurable disease, but not an inherited one’, and his advice to novice collectors is that they should only buy what’s right for them. His own collections are two very different creatures: while the complete nature of the book collection means it has to include authors he doesn’t enjoy (‘such as Rousseau’), with the drawings, he has simply bought what he could afford and what he admired — consulting specialists, curators and dealers, who have become close friends, to help him evaluate quality.
One such example is the beautiful black chalk drawing by François Lemoyne (above), which came from a historical collection that belonged to the 18th-century collector and jeweller J.D. Lempereur. ‘I like it because, although the figure is finished, like most of my drawings, the imagination is left to complete the rest,’ explains Bonna.
‘In fact,’ adds Nathalie Strasser, ‘it’s one of nine known preparatory drawings and studies that Lemoyne did for Tancredi and Clorinda, an oil painting inspired by Tasso’s 16th-century epic poem, Jerusalem Delivered, which is now at the Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archaéologie in Besançon. Lemoyne was wildly successful: he won the Prix de Rome, painted at Versailles, and was first painter to the king under Louis XV. He would start by drawing nude figures, to get the movement right, then add the clothes.’
Jean Bonna’s personal taste, he has latterly realised, gravitates towards ‘grace and harmony’; there are more women than men, and more landscapes than battlefields. But he’s clear on what he doesn’t like (‘contemporary art, and French neoclassical art — it’s too artificial’) and on what propelled him to collect in the first place.
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‘Basically, it’s about possession,’ he says. ‘I don’t know of any collector who thinks he doesn’t need to buy something because he could see it at the Met. Especially since most museums nowadays are a nightmare. Whereas I can come home from a dinner or party and look at my drawings in my bathrobe.’
Additional works from the collection of Jean Bonna will be offered in London during Classic Week in July, and in January 2020 in New York