The Alberto Giacometti chandelier discovered by chance in a London antiques shop
Commissioned by the art patron Peter Watson, the chandelier had hung in the office of Horizon, the cultural magazine he co-founded with critic Cyril Connolly. It is offered in the 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale on 28 February 2023
The artist John Craxton, R.A. (1922-2009) couldn’t believe his eyes — or his luck — as he visited Elizabeth Denton’s antiques shop in London’s Marylebone. Leaving the shop that day in the 1960s, without the bronze lion he had intended to collect, he banged his head on a low-hanging chandelier he recognised instantly.
Its maker was listed by the shop as ‘unknown’. However, Craxton knew full well that the chandelier had been made by Alberto Giacometti a couple of decades earlier, and had a fascinating history which belied its current neglect. He promptly paid £250, all of his savings, for the item and kept it for the rest of his life.
On 28 February 2023, the chandelier is being offered as part of the 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale at Christie’s.
Peter Watson: a life dedicated to the arts
The object was commissioned from Giacometti by one of the most important cultural figures in mid-20th-century Britain, Peter Watson (1908-1956). While still a young man, Watson had inherited a huge fortune upon the death of his father, the founder and chairman of the Maypole Dairy Company.
This allowed him the financial freedom to embark on a life dedicated to the arts. He was a lover of the European avant-garde — Surrealism, in particular — and spent much of the 1930s living in Paris, where he collected works by the likes of Paul Klee, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst and Giacometti.
Forced to return to London by the outbreak of the Second World War, Watson soon shifted his attention to a handful of British artists who impressed him, from Ben Nicholson and John Piper to Henry Moore. He also offered patronage to certain young painters at the start of their careers: Craxton and Lucian Freud, most famously.
In the case of that pair, patronage included funding their studies, commissioning works, giving them artistic advice and paying for their studios and lodgings. In 1942, Watson set Craxton and Freud up together in upstairs-downstairs flats in St John’s Wood.
‘Watson was a second father to me,’ Craxton told The Times late in life. ‘He wasn’t creative himself, but he had an incredibly good eye, which made him a kind of genius.’
In 1939, Watson co-founded the literary and cultural magazine Horizon with the critic Cyril Connolly. This influential monthly journal became a showcase for leading British writers, publishing short fiction, poetry, essays and book reviews by an impressive range of contributors, from W.H. Auden and George Orwell to E.M. Forster, Nancy Mitford and Dylan Thomas.
‘Objects interest me hardly any less than sculpture, and there is a point at which the two touch’ — Alberto Giacometti
Although he had initially intended to act only as the magazine’s financier, Watson soon took on the task of commissioning and editing articles too, as well as printing reproductions of work by the young artists he patronised.
As he told his close companion, the photographer Cecil Beaton: ‘What this country needs is more and more art, otherwise life is not worth the trouble. These are my war aims.’
When peace returned, Watson was a key player in the founding of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London. He also repeatedly went back to Paris, and it was on one such trip — in 1946 or 1947 — that he visited Giacometti’s studio and commissioned him to make a chandelier for Horizon’s offices on Bedford Square in Bloomsbury.
The Swiss artist is best known for his sculpture, but for many years he had a parallel career working on decorative objects such as lamps, vases and chandeliers. ‘Objects interest me hardly any less than sculpture,’ he said, ‘and there is a point at which the two touch.’
In the 1930s, Giacometti struck up a fruitful partnership with the interior designer Jean-Michel Frank — which saw his creations acquired by figures as diverse as Nelson Rockefeller in New York and Viscount Charles de Noailles in Paris. (‘Everyone… swoons over your work,’ Frank wrote to him in 1934.)
Giacometti spent the war years in his homeland, before returning to Paris at the end of 1945. He continued to work in both art and design, his output in the former coming to be characterised by sculptures of spindly, stick-thin figures — such as L’homme au doigt (1947). These are the sculptures for which he is most famous today.
Though dating from around the same time, Chandelier for Peter Watson actually harks back to the art Giacometti made during his association with the Surrealist movement before the War — perhaps a nod to Watson’s long-held fondness for Surrealism.
It consists of a multi-layered armature, with sharply pointed branches radiating out at varying angles from a central stem. Each branch has delicate organic detailing, yet there’s an almost mechanical character to the chandelier overall.
The most striking feature, hanging from the base of the stem, is a sphere punctuated at regular intervals to allow one to look through it. To some extent, the suspended ball recalls Boule suspendue (1930), one of Giacometti’s important early Surrealist sculptures.
The arrival of Giacometti’s sculpture in Bloomsbury
The writer James Lord — a Horizon contributor who would go on to become Giacometti’s biographer after being introduced to him by Watson — recorded the chandelier’s arrival in Bloomsbury thus: ‘It was an intricate, airy, imposing bronze work… I felt privileged to have a hand in helping suspend the splendid fixture from the ceiling.’
Occupying a central position in the office, the chandelier was an eye-catching element for all who visited, its dynamic sculptural quality offering a dramatic addition to the space.
Sadly, in 1950, after more than a decade as Horizon’s editor, and after some 120 issues had been published, Connolly felt his interest in the job waning. He decided to close the magazine down.
The offices were duly cleared, and Giacometti’s chandelier placed in storage. No record exists of it from then until its rediscovery by Craxton, nor is there any explanation as to how it ended up in the antiques shop.
Watson and Giacometti would collaborate on one further occasion, in 1953, when the latter invited the former to sit for a portrait in his studio. This resulted in a pair of paintings of the Englishman, which are today in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Kunstmuseum in Basel. Watson died three years later.
The chandelier’s second life — looking down on some of the 20th century’s greatest musicians
As for the chandelier, Craxton’s biographer, Ian Collins, notes that the artist ‘would first have seen it in Horizon’s offices in the late 1940s’. After purchasing the object years later, Craxton chose to hang it in his family’s longstanding London house, in Hampstead, where it remained until his death in 2009.
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It hung, to be precise, in the music room. John’s father Harold (a distinguished pianist) and his sister Janet (a distinguished oboist) were both, at different times, professors at the Royal Academy of Music, and the Craxton home hosted recitals by a plethora of acclaimed 20th-century musicians, such as Benjamin Britten, Yehudi Menuhin, Pierre Boulez, Janet Baker, Winifred Atwell and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
‘Many leading players performed below the chandelier,’ says Collins, ‘and anyone who asked was told exactly what it was: a masterpiece by Giacometti rendered priceless through association with the beloved Peter Watson.’
John Craxton: A Life of Gifts, by Ian Collins, is published this month as a Yale University Press paperback