Chinoiserie and orange trees: what was hot at Christie’s 200 years ago
To mark the 200th edition of our weekly email showcasing the best stories on Christies.com, we asked Head Librarian Lynda McLeod to trawl the archives and find out which ‘illustrious personages’ were buying what, and why, in 1819
In 1819, Francisco Goya began covering the walls of his Madrid apartment with what became known as the ‘Black Paintings’. In Paris, Théodore Géricault locked himself away to begin work on his defining masterpiece The Raft of Medusa. Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson was founding the University of Virginia, and on Long Island on 31 May, Louisa Whitman would give birth to her second child, Walter, later known as ‘Walt.’
In London, J.M.W. Turner painted England: Richmond Hill on the Prince Regent’s Birthday. According to Tate, in whose collection it now resides, Turner’s painting was a failed attempt by the artist to attract the Prince’s patronage.
Regency London was in full swing. George, the Prince Regent (1762-1830), had taken advantage of the illness of his father, King George III (1738-1820), to usher in an era of refinement, elegance and extravagance. A leading patron of the arts and architecture, he had spent huge sums refurbishing both his London home, Carlton House, and extending his seaside residence, the Brighton Pavilion.
London’s beau monde flocked to the newly opened Burlington Arcade to parade in their fashionable finery, or visited the ‘Great Rooms’ at 83-84 Pall Mall. In the latter, James Christie Jnr (1773-1831) could be found auctioning works of art and household items, having followed in the footsteps of his father, James Christie Snr (1730-1803), who had established the house in the 1760s.
In his book Artists and their Friends in England 1700-1799, William T. Whitely wrote that the ‘West End auction rooms were among the most favoured resorts of people of social importance’ throughout the 18th century. He added that ‘the interesting personality of Christie helped to draw to his house in Pall Mall the connoisseurs, the artists, and the rich idlers of both sexes.’
Christie’s saleroom was a place to see and be seen. A Peep at Christie’s (below), a James Gillray caricature dated to 1796, depicts Lord Derby and Miss Farren (his future wife) perusing the paintings on view. In the background, a lady can be seen wearing the Prince of Wales’ feathers, considered the height of fashion at the time.
Viewing days would see the grandly lit rooms at 83-84 Pall Mall thick with clients, their friends and the curious. In 1819, collectors such as Sir Robert MacFarlane (1770-1843), the Antiquarian Sir Henry Englefield (1752-1822), and the banker William Esdaile (1758-1837) would have been familiar figures among the throng.
Other regulars included art dealers such as the 3rd Marquess of Hertford, who as Lord Yarmouth (1777-1842) bought pictures for the Prince Regent, the dealer brothers William and John Lewis Woodburn, Paul Colnaghi, William Sequier, Meyer Solomon and George Morant.
If the late 1790s had witnessed a high volume of French paintings, furniture and works of art coming to market in London, the arrival of the Parthenon (Elgin) marbles from Greece in the early 1800s encouraged a new taste for owning classical sculpture and marbles. The Prince Regent’s passion for ‘chinoiserie’ and ‘japanned’ lacquer furniture, meanwhile, meant they were sought after by the leading collectors of the day.
By 1819, though, the hunger inside Christie’s auction rooms was for Italian, French, Flemish and Dutch paintings acquired on the ‘Grand Tour’.
James Christie Jnr. had first climbed into the auctioneer’s rostrum in the spring of 1794 at the tender age of 21. According to the Gentleman's Magazine, he ‘raised’ the business of auctioneering ‘to the dignity of a profession’.
In her 1998 essay The English Auction: Narratives of Dismantlings, Cynthia Wall argues that ‘part of the intrinsic fascination with the auction lies in its rhythms as well as its spectacle’, stating that the successful auctioneer ‘woos his market’. Wall goes on to reflect that ‘the auction… is as much a theatrical performance, a spectacle, as it is a commercial event, and that bidders are not simply purchasers but simultaneously part of both performance and audience.’ As the main character in the drama, James Christie’s performance in the rostrum was vital.
Christie was busy during 1819, with 37 sales taking place across the year. The lots he auctioned ranged from continental pictures and marbles to bed linen and hot-house plants.
Among his first assignments were sales of the property of Sir Robert Strange (1721-1792), R.A., the Scottish engraver, and Mrs Wheeler’s 200 ounces of silver plate, which included candlesticks, silver-salts and spoons and a cruet set. The latter saw Christie conducting the auction at Wheeler’s house in Kensington Square.
On Friday 26 March, at ‘1 o’clock precisely’, a sale of Italian, French, Flemish and Dutch Pictures from the collection of the late Philippe Panné took place. The paintings, which had lined the walls of Panné’s house in Great George Street in London, included a Nicolas Poussin that was catalogued as A Grand Landscape with a Gigantic Figure of Orion, Diana and other Mythological Figures. The huge canvas sold for £116-11s to [Mr] ‘Bonnemaison’ and can today be enjoyed in Gallery 634 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The following month saw another important auction — the library of Queen Charlotte (1744-1818). |The Queen Consort to King George III had died the previous year, and her vast library included titles in French, German, English and Italian, together with prints and drawings. Initially based at the ‘Queen’s House’ — better known as Buckingham Palace, it was later moved to Frogmore House, her private retreat near Windsor in Berkshire.
The ‘Genuine Library, Prints and Books of Prints of an Illustrious Personage, lately deceased’, as it was listed, was sold to pay off household debt. The auction included no less than 4,415 lots and the catalogue ran to 158 pages. It was enough to keep Christie in the rostrum for many days.
According to Christie’s own copy of the catalogue, which is preserved in the Christie’s Archives, every lot sold, fetching nearly £5,000. Unusually for the time, numerous items were bid on ands bought by women, such as Mrs Coutts, Lady Harcourt, Mrs Ansty and the Duchess of Portland.
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Less grand in scale and provenance was a sale that took place in July. The Property of Miss Hotham included ‘neat household furniture… and  large orange trees and green-house plants’ from her home at Herring Court, near Richmond Bridge. James Christie held the sale at Mr Robertson’s auction rooms in Richmond where the 16 trees, which had been on view in the garden of the nearby Castle Inn, fetched £20-13s-6d.
A far cry indeed from the multi-million-dollar — not to mention pound, euro and yuan — auctions that Christie’s stages across the world 200 years later.