When I joined Christie’s in 1958 I had at once to come to terms with the fact that my daily life was not to be spent in the company of great works by Titian, Raphael and Michelangelo, but with the hack productions of a thousand 19th century painters of whom I had never heard, then the bread and butter of the art market and the auction houses’ weekly sales. On first encountering a painting by Cornelius Krieghoff, who had never been the subject of any course at the Courtauld Institute (and still has not), it was with the arrogance of the ignorant tyro, that, lumping him with his trifling contemporaries in England, I included it in a very undistinguished sale. It was not quite all hell that broke loose over this picture of a trapper in deep snow confronted by a bear, but I was made to feel a fool and immediately learned that in Canada Krieghoff was regarded much in the same terms as his close contemporary, George Caleb Bingham, in the United States, an heroic national figure who documented the cultural and economic activities of the day. I also learned that there were forgers whose imitations must be detected and experts whose opinions must be sought – experts whom I was soon to find both unreliable and corrupt. Now, of course, paintings attributed to Krieghoff rarely appear on the market and the amateur experts of sixty years ago, long since in their graves, have been replaced by a generation drawn from academe.
For most of my working life I have lived within short walking distance of the Winkworths, but without knowing it until after Peter’s death in 2005; it was then that Franca invited me to the first of many delicious dinners in her kitchen. Italian by birth and education, her accent never lost, her voice growling and husky, she was tiny in stature, in dress made no concessions to her age and, remarkable for her vigour and poise, could at a careless glance be mistaken for a girl. She was passionate about her dogs, strays rescued in Sardinia and brought to London – one of which, a huge and beautiful bitch, had lost a foreleg. She was passionate too about her father, Carlo Francesco Lombardi, a daring pioneer aviator in the Great War and in Mussolini’s day, and, after the Second World War, the designer and manufacturer of Lombardi cars – high speed machines based on Fiat and Lancia engines, another enthusiasm that Franca and I shared. One of her last duties was to give his papers and records to an Italian museum. Perhaps it is best to say of her that all her interests were passionate, for if she could not be fervent for a cause, she was not interested at all. Even in her late eighties she thought nothing of flying to Milan for performances at La Scala, or spending long days on the road to see an English country house or two, and her attendance at exhibitions was indefatigable. Her prime passion was, nevertheless, the Canadiana – her way, as it were, of keeping her husband alive.
This she took months to reveal, and when she did, I felt that I had passed a test; when she showed me the first works by Krieghoff that I had seen for half a century or so, it was not only an intellectual and aesthetic shock, but an immediate opening of the wound of my humiliation in 1958, a wound that I had, for her amusement, to confess. Franca was emotionally attached to the house as it was when Peter was alive, and taken to parts of it that I had not seen before, it was at once clear that she had become the keeper, even the defender, of her husband’s collection. The first evidence of this was in her bedroom where Canadiana crowded the walls, all but obscuring the Colefax and Fowler decoration that throughout the house is now – to use the jargon of the classic car vendor – “nicely patinated.”
My reaction was awe and admiration – but if the bedroom was the showstopper, the plan chests in the billiard room were proof that Peter Winkworth had been a collector in the old-fashioned sense of one who is interested in collecting in depth and not merely for show. Had I known him I might have tried to convert him to the collection of drawings, for he clearly shared something of that quiet pursuit of perception that lends a man much greater insight when looking at finished paintings.
This billiard room (without a billiard table), flanking the garden and opening onto to it, Franca had made a comfortable place to sit and read, and it was there that, some years into our friendship, without warning, she presented me with three substantial reference books on Krieghoff – though I had never concealed the ambivalence of my interest in him. All were dedicated to her husband and I felt that in giving them to me Franca was, in some sense, relaxing her grip on the collection, on the house, even on life – as indeed she was. I last saw her on the afternoon before her death. We were both visiting a friend recovering from a stroke, Sheila Ramage, keeper of the local bookshop in Notting Hill, our common haunt, and it was clear that she was very tired, that some spirit had deserted her. She died that night. I have since thought that with her decision to disperse this remaining part of Peter’s collection, she thought her duty done.