Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, il Guercino (Cento 1591-1666 Bologna)
No VAT will be charged on the hammer price, but VA… Read more Property from the Spencer Collections Sold by Order of the Trustees (Lots 7 & 16) The Spencer Collection The picture collection at Althorp is of exceptional interest for a number of reasons, and represents the cumulative achievement of a family with an unusually consistent record of both patronage and collecting. There are notable strengths in the fields of seventeenth-century portraiture, with the prodigious van Dyck double-portrait and the remarkable group of Lelys, and in the sequence of portraits by Reynolds. As the masterpieces by Rubens and Guercino catalogued below demonstrate, the collection of old master pictures was equally remarkable. Despite relatively recent sales, this will continue to retain a number of pictures of the highest distinction, preserving something of that balance between these and family portraits which was evidently a characteristic of the collection from the time of the first major collector of the family, Robert Spencer, 2nd Earl of Sunderland (1641-1702). He, unlike many of his contemporaries, seems to have concentrated his possessions at Althorp, rather than in a London residence, and Althorp is thus, with Petworth, Wilton and Burghley, one of the handful of great houses in which a major collection formed in the seventeenth century survives, at least in part, in its intended setting. Moreover, because the underlying structure of the house has not been substantially altered, successive stages in the deployment of the picture collection can be followed. The 2nd Earl, who had succeeded his father, Henry Spencer, for whom the earldom was created in 1642, attained his majority in 1662. His interest in pictures would seem to have come from the family of his mother, Lady Dorothy Sidney, daughter of Robert, 2nd Earl of Leicester and his wife Dorothy, daughter of Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland and sister of Henry, 10th Earl of Northumberland (1602-1668), who was a leading patron of Van Dyck and an outstanding collector. Lady Sunderland's brother Philip, 3rd Earl of Leicester (1619-1698) was one of the most energetic collectors of the age, and as Lord Lisle an active participant at the sale of the collection of King Charles I: Lord Leicester's taste set the pattern, for example, of that of his nephew-by-marriage, the 1st Duke of Devonshire. The 2nd Earl in his youth must thus have known both Northumberland House and Leicester House, the picture collections of both of which not only survived the Civil War, but were actually augmented as a direct result of this. His familiarity with these collections helps to explain the high standards set by Sunderland's own acquisitions. At Althorp the Earl's taste can still be sensed not only in the Picture Gallery, but elsewhere in the survivors from his collection of Old Masters. Sunderland's successor, the 3rd Earl, married Lady Anne Churchill, whose parents, John, 1st Duke of Marlborough and his formidable wife, Sarah, were both outstanding collectors of pictures. With such grandparents it is hardly surprising that two of the 3rd Earl's sons were interested in the visual arts. Charles, who succeeded his brother as 5th Earl in 1729 and became 3rd Duke of Marlborough on the death of his aunt in 1733, continued to live at Althorp until he inherited Blenheim on the death of his grandmother in 1744. During this period he commissioned what was arguably the finest series of Venetian views by Canaletto. Keenly interested in racing, he also ordered a series of portraits of his horses from John Wootton: these, like the Canalettos, were kept at Langley Park, his house in Buckinghamshire. But the 5th Earl's years at Althorp did make one significant contribution to the collection there, for it was he who enlisted Wootton to supply the series of canvasses for the Hall in about 1734. The Duke's younger brother, the Hon. John Spencer, to whom Althorp reverted in 1744, was their grandmother's chosen heir and two documents are eloquent of his attitude to the pictures he inherited. A list of 1742 records the pictures which Spencer scheduled for mortgage. Presumably both for reasons of family piety and because the great portraits were in a house still controlled by his brother, these were excluded. But the list does include many of the more important old masters that were in three of the key rooms at Althorp at the time of Spencer's death in 1746: the Eating Room, the Green Room and the Picture Closet. This suggests that many of the other rooms were little changed during Spencer's two-year residence, and thus that the hang recorded in his posthumous inventory, compiled by the painter George Knapton--whose ambitious portrait of Spencer and his son is dated 1745--may in large part have preserved the 2nd Earl's dispositions. There were 62 portraits in the Gallery, including a number by European masters, and substantial numbers of old masters both on the Great Staircase--where Knapton began his circuit--and in the Great Dining Room. Many of the pictures Spencer inherited from Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, including the Hondecoeter with its pendant by Snyders, and the Anguisciola self-portrait, remained in her house at Wimbledon. The Anguisciola had been purchased by the Duchess in 1726 at the sale of the Duke's close friend and associate, William, 1st Earl Cadogan. It has been suggested that the notable collection of old master drawings, largely sold at auction in 1811, was also inherited from the Duchess; but it seems more probable that this was formed by the Hon. John Spencer: an inventory of 1756 compiled by Knapton records his ownership. The collection was particularly strong in works by Italian Seicento masters, and the consistent calibre of the traceable components of this, identified by three variants of his collector's mark, testifies to the discipline with which this was assembled. Spencer's eponymous son, subsequently 1st Viscount Spencer (1761) and 1st Earl Spencer (1734-1783), was evidently very interested in the picture collection he inherited. The inventory of 1750 documents a pattern of subtle rearrangements and substitutions, for which the Earl's mother or trustees may prove to have been responsible. The 1st Earl will always be associated with Sir Joshua Reynolds, of whom he was a discriminating patron. The outstanding group of portraits by the artist which he commissioned will have necessitated a sequence of adjustments to the picture hang in the house. The finest of the old master pictures which the 1st Earl purchased were bought, however, not for Althorp but for Spencer House, where James 'Athenian' Stuart was employed between 1759 and 1765 to create some of the most modish and intellectually refined neo-classical interiors of their time in Europe. The major Guercino of King David was among the works acquired specifically for Spencer House, and its discrete classicism was perfectly in key with the opulent yet restrained decoration of the house. The canvas and its pendant were acquired by the Earl through the agency of Gavin Hamilton, the Scottish-born painter based in Rome who was himself one of the major champions of academic neo-classicism and clearly had a perfect understanding of his patron's requirements. The 1st Earl's marriage to Georgiana Poyntz eventually, through the marriage of her great-niece to her grandson, brought a signal masterpiece to the collection, the whole-length portrait of her brother, William Poyntz, which is perhaps the most arresting picture of its type of the early maturity of Reynolds' most significant rival, Gainsborough. Henry Holland's thorough but structurally remarkably tactful remodelling of Althorp in 1787-9 for George John, 2nd Earl Spencer (1758-1834) would inevitably have led to significant rearrangements within the collection, even if additional portraits had not needed to be accommodated. The 1802 inventory suggests the care with which Lord Spencer redeployed his pictures. Of the old masters many of those deemed valuable enough to mortgage in 1742 were marshalled in the Eating Room and the Drawing Room. The Snyders of the Bust of Circe with animals and flowers, which had been in the former in 1746, was joined very appropriately by the Hondecoeter Farmyard and the Snyders Stag Hunt, framed as a pair, which had in 1746 been at Wimbledon. More old masters were in the Library. The more recent portraits were placed in the family rooms--Lord Spencer had the Batoni of his mother and portraits of his wife, the beautiful Lavinia Bingham, and members of her family, leavened by an Italian Bacchanal, in his Dressing Room--while the majority of the earlier eighteenth-century portraits, as well as some by Lely, were marshalled on the Great Stairs. The major seventeenth-century portraits, as before, were in the Picture Gallery, as was the Knapton of the Hon. John Spencer and his son. Previously a number of miscellaneous old master portraits had been in the room. The arrangement was now almost completely changed. Van Dyck's Apostles were brought into the Gallery, but the most significant addition was undoubtedly the remarkable Rubens of the Emperor Charles V, cautiously listed as of the painter's school, which was evidently placed as an overdoor--although the possibility that this is the portrait of 'Count Aromberg' given to the artist and listed in the room in 1746 cannot absolutely be excluded. The 1802 list also implies the personal tastes of the 2nd Earl's mother, who lived on until 1814. In her Bedroom, with the Reynolds of her daughter, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (Huntingdon Collection), a portrait of her mother, Mrs. Poyntz, and the Slaughter of her husband as a child, were fourteen old masters, mostly of religious subjects, while Read's pastels of her son and daughter were in her Dressing Room. The 2nd Earl was a prodigious collector of books. Given the number of pictures both at Althorp and Spencer House, buying more was a lesser priority. Despite the formidable number of portraits he had inherited, the earl, as his probable acquisition of Rubens's Portrait of a commander indicates, was ready to acquire more. Lord and Lady Spencer's connection with Quintin Crauford, a discriminating collector who was at the heart of the British community in Paris, led to the acquisition of a group of distinguished French portraits at his posthumous sale of 1820. Among these the remarkable canvas of Claude de Lorraine, duc de Chevreuse by the younger Pourbus was by far the most spectacular. Three years earlier the fine Philippe de Champaigne identified as Robert Arnauld d'Andilly is said to have been bought at Christie's in the sale of the duc d'Alberg, who had lost most of his German inheritance as a result of his adherence to Napoleon. The 2nd Earl's outstanding individual purchase was made in the Netherlands: the Rembrandt of the artist's son, Titus, which was to be sold in 1915 and is now in the Norton Simon Museum of Art, Pasadena. The Spencers' fourth son, Frederick, 4th Earl Spencer, added a few other French portraits to the collection. From the perspective of the picture collection at Althorp it is unfortunate that the 4th Earl was a man of his times. In 1847 he sold a masterpiece that evidently was too explicit for contemporary taste, Bronzino's Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time, now in the National Gallery, privately through Christie's: among the pictures mortgaged in 1742, this had evidently been admired by the 2nd Earl, who presented a copy of it to Admiral Duncan after his great victory at Camperdown in 1797. Neither of the 4th Earl's sons, John Poyntz or Charles Robert, respectively 5th and 6th Earls Spencer, was particularly interested in pictures. The latter married Margaret, daughter of Edward Baring, 1st Lord Revelstoke, whose family has an unmatched record as picture collectors between the late eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries. It is thus not surprising that their son, Albert Edward John, 7th Earl Spencer (1892-1975) had a deep and scholarly interest in the remarkable collections he inherited. With the 8th Earl of Ilchester, whom he followed as President of the Walpole Society, and the 28th Earl of Crawford, he was one of the outstanding patrician connoisseurs of his generation. Heavy death duties when he inherited in 1922 necessitated the sale of a handful of pictures, most notably Holbein's King Henry VIII, now in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, which in Sir Francis Watson's words was 'a cause of deep distress' to him. But Lord Spencer worthily maintained what is by any standard a consistently distinguished sequence of portraits and added no fewer than seventeen earlier family portraits from the Chichester collection at Stanmer in 1967. Lord Spencer also made possible the preparation of the late Kenneth Garlick's A Catalogue of Pictures at Althorp, published by the Walpole Society in 1976. After the death of the 7th Earl in 1975, three portraits by van Dyck were surrendered in lieu of Capital Transfer Tax, passing to the National Gallery, to the Tate, and to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Subsequent sales took a heavy toll on the holding of old master pictures which had since the 2nd Earl of Sunderland's time been a significant presence at Althorp, matching the portrait sequence for which the collection is rightly celebrated. But despite losses the collection still has a remarkable range and depth, as the present picture hang brings out so well.
Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, il Guercino (Cento 1591-1666 Bologna)

King David

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, il Guercino (Cento 1591-1666 Bologna)
King David
inscribed 'GLORIOSA DICTA SVNT DE TE CIVITAS DEI. PSALM.S 86.' (lower right, on the tablet held by David)
oil on canvas
88 x 67 in. (223.5 x 170.2 cm.)
in a George III carved and gilt-gesso frame designed by James 'Athenian' Stuart for Spencer House and possibly carved by Thomas Vardy, circa 1768, carved with lotus and acanthus buds, egg and dart and an outer palmette band, and with a cavetto moulded, foliate, beaded and egg and dart edge
101½ x 80¼ x 4¾ in. (258 x 204 x 12 cm.)
Painted for Giuseppe Locatelli, Cesena, in 1651, with The Samian Sybil, and by descent to the
Marchesi Locatelli, Cesena, from whom acquired in 1768 by
Gavin Hamilton (1723-1798), painter, archaeologist and dealer, on behalf of
John Spencer, 1st Earl Spencer (1734-1783), at Spencer House, St. James's Place, London, in the Great Room, and by descent at Spencer House and at Althorp House, Northamptonshire, in the Great Dining Room and subsequently in the Marlborough Room.
G.F. Barbieri, il Guercino, letters of 22 and 27 April and 10 May 1651, cited in Salerno, op. cit. infra, p. 353, and in Mahon, 1991, op. cit. infra, p. 348.
G.F. Barbieri, il Guercino, Libro dei conti, MS, Biblioteca Comunale dell'Archiginnasio di Bologna, inv. no. B 331, p. 41 recto, conto 442, 'Adi 16. Maggio, 1651 - Dal Ill:mo Sig:r Gioseppe Locatteli si è riceuto a bon Conto del quadro, del Proffetta Dauide, doble di Italia n:o 45- che fanno, di questa Moneta L 666- che sono duca:ni n:o 133 L 1- Scudi : n:o 166 L2-', p. 41 verso, as being a pair to The Samian Sibyl and p. 79 recto, 'per il pagamento del quadro del Dauide profeta, fatto, al Sig:re Lucatelo, per Cesena riceuto [Ducatoni] 133 L1: L666-: [Scudi] 166 L 2-'.
Count C.C. Malvasia, Felsina pittrice: Vite de' pittori bolognesi, Bologna, 1678, II, p. 378; G. Zanotti, ed., Bologna, 1841, II, pp. 269 and 332, 'Un Davide Profeta al sig. Giosefo Locatelli, e una Sibilla all'istesso'.
G. Hamilton, letters dated 4 May 1768 and subsequently, MSS, British Library (formerly Althorp, Northamptonshire), Add. 75686, Althorp Papers, vol. CCCLXXXVI.
J.A. Calvi, Notizie della vita, e delle opera del cavaliere Gioan Francesco Barbieri ditto il Guercino da Cento Bologna, 1808, p. 128; reprinted in G. Zanotti, ed., op. cit., p. 332.
G. Atti, Intorno alla vita...di Gianfrancesco Barbieri, Rome, 1861, p. 110.
E.K. Waterhouse, A short history of Althorp and the Spencer family, Northampton, 1949, under 'The Pictures'.
E.K. Waterhouse, 'The British Contribution to the Neo-Classical style in Painting', Proceedings of the British Academy, XL, 1954. p. 73.
Il seicento europeo: realismo, classicismo, barocco, exhibition catalogue, Palazzo delle esposizioni, Rome, 1956, p. 137, under no. 25.
Art treasures centenary: European old masters, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1960, pp. 151-2, under no. 386.
D. Irwin, 'Gavin Hamilton: Archaeologist, painter and dealer', The Art Bulletin, XLIV, 2, June 1962, p. 101 and 101n.113.
D. Mahon, Il Guercino: Catalogo critico dei dipinti, exhibition catalogue, Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio, Bologna, 1968, p. 196, under no. 90; anastatic reprint, Bologna, 1991, p. 348.
G. and A. Neerman, eds., Disegni bolognesi del XVI al XVIII secolo, exhibition catalogue, Bologna and London, 1968, p. 25, under no. 35.
D. Mahon, Il Guercino, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri: Catalogo critico dei disegni, exhibition catalogue, Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio, Bologna, 1969, p. 225, under no. 256.
Thomas Agnew & Sons Ltd., England and the Seicento: a loan exhibition of Bolognese paintings from British collections, exhibition catalogue, London, 1973, under no. 37 (text by C. Whitfield).
O. Pieraccini in La Piè, 1975, no. 4 (July-August), pp. 151-4.
K.J. Garlick, 'A catalogue of the pictures at Althorp', The Walpole Society, LXV, 1976, pp. xiv and 34, no. 251 and under no. 250, pl. 26.
D. Mahon in Nell'età di Correggio e dei Carracci: pittura in Emilia dei secoli XVI e XVII, exhibition catalogue, Pinacoteca nazionale e Academia di Belle arti, Museo civico archeologico, Bologna, 1986, pp. 475-6 and 476n.1, under no. 167.
D. Mahon in The Age of Correggio and the Carracci: Emilian painting of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1986, (translated by R.E. Wolf et al.), pp. 475-6 and 476n.1, under no. 167.
L. Salerno and D. Mahon, I dipinti del Guercino, Rome, 1988, no. 283, pp. 352-3, illustrated.
M. Helston and T. Henry, Guercino in Britain: Paintings from British collections, London, 1991, no. 29, pp. 58 and 60-1.
F. Russell, 'Guercino and England', in M. Helston and T. Henry, op. cit., pp. 5-6.
D. Mahon, ed., Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, il Guercino, 1591-1666, exhibition catalogue, Museo Civico Archeologico, Bologna; Pinacoteca Civica e Chiesa del Rosario, Cento; Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt am Main; and National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Bologna, 1991, pp. 348-350, under no. 134.
D. Stone, Guercino: Catalogo complete dei dipinti, Florence, 1991, p. 27, no. 270.
J. Friedman, Spencer House: Chronicle of a great London mansion, London, 1993, pp. 41, 41n.57, 154 and 254-5, fig. 227, illustrated in situ in the Great Room, Spencer House.
J. Stourton, '(2) John Spencer', in J. Turner, ed., The Dictionary of Art, London, XXIX, 1996, p. 351.
G. Finaldi and M. Kitson, eds., Discovering the Italian baroque: The Denis Mahon Collection, exhibition catalogue, London, 1997, p. 110, fig. 34.
B. Ghelfi, ed., with D. Mahon, Il libro dei conti del Guercino, 1629-1666, Venice, 1997, pp. 153-4, 225 and 255n.8, nos. 442 and 447.
J. Ingamells, A dictionary of British and Irish travellers in Italy, 1701-1800, compiled from the Brinsley Ford Archive, New Haven and London, 1997, pp. 883 and 884n.21.
Earl Spencer, Althorp: The story of an English house, New York, 1999, pp. 83 and 107, illustrated in situ in the Great Dining Room and the Marlborough Room at Althorp.
Earl Spencer, The Spencers: A personal history of an English family, New York, 2000, pp. 115-6.
A. Ziefer, 'Guercino', in A. Norbert and M. Steppes, eds., Saur Allgemeines Künstler-Lexikon: Die Bildenden Künstler aller Zeiten und Völker, Leipzig, LXIV, 2009, p. 438.
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Lot Essay

Guercino's King David, one of the most important of the artist's late works, is a superlative example both of the technical excellence that made him one of the leading exponents of the Bolognese school, and of the inventive powers that imbue so many of his paintings with a rich and nuanced set of associations, ideas and symbolism. In an exceptional state of preservation, its paint layer retaining all of its original subtlety of touch and structure, King David occupies a special place in the history of collecting, inextricably linked to the story of Spencer House, one of the key monuments of the Greek Revival in eighteenth-century Britain.

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, il Guercino

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, nicknamed 'il Guercino', was born in 1591. His birthplace of Cento, near Bologna, was a small town with no significant prior artistic tradition, and Guercino was largely self-taught. His natural gifts soon came to the notice of the earlier generation of Bolognese artists, including the aged Ludovico Carracci, who extolled the rising young artist in a letter of 1617. Over the next decades Guercino was to become celebrated as one of the greatest painters of his day. His works were highly sought-after, and he is known to have turned down offers from King Charles I of England, King Louis XIII of France and possibly King Philip IV of Spain (who may have sent Velázquez as his agent), to leave Italy and become a court painter in their respective capitals. Instead, it seems that Guercino was always perfectly happy where he was. Apart from an important, formative trip to Rome early in his career (in the years 1621-1623), he spent his whole life in his native Cento or in nearby Bologna, to which he moved in 1642. He painted prolifically, producing sophisticated, beautiful works combining the contemplative naturalism of Bolognese classicism with dramatic effects at times akin to those introduced into Roman painting by Caravaggio. Guercino's early works are distinguished by bold, saturated colouring, large-scale figures and dynamic compositions. In his late works, the compositional tension becomes more subdued, and his attention turns towards an understated elegance of forms and harmony of palette; in his output of the 1650s, including the present King David, Ellis K. Waterhouse saw the attainment of 'a mastery of tender and tranquil colour' (Italian Baroque Painting, London, 1962, p. 115).

A prophet and two sibyls: The story of the commission

The genesis of King David lies in an important commission from the nobleman Giuseppe Locatelli of Cesena, the story of which is recorded by Guercino's early biographers and is one of the most interesting anecdotes about the artist's interaction with his patrons. In early 1651, Giuseppe Locatelli commissioned a pair of pictures from Guercino: the King David and a pendant work, which was to show one of the sibyls, legendary prophetesses of the classical tradition. King David was finished by late April or early May 1651, as recorded in letters from Guercino to Locatelli's agent (dated 22 and 27 April and 10 May, loc. cit.). which note that he would be sending the prophet as soon as the varnish had dried, but that he was still at work on the sibyl, somewhat delayed by the arrival of a prestigious commission from the Duke of Modena (the Madonna and Child with the Patron Saints of Modena, now in the Louvre, Paris). We can assume that King David had reached Cesena by 16 May 1651, the date on which Guercino's Libro dei conti, or account book, records a payment of 166 scudi (loc. cit.; fig. 1). Clearly, Locatelli was satisfied with the first of his pictures. While its pair, the sibyl, was nearing completion in Guercino's Bolognese studio, the artist received a visit from Prince Mattias de' Medici (1613-1667), brother of Grand Duke Ferdinando II of Tuscany, who was so smitten with the sibyl intended for Locatelli that he soon offered to buy it. No record survives of the negotiations that must have taken place as Guercino was faced with the prospect of being unable to deliver the second half of Locatelli's commission, having already made note of his progress on the sibyl in letters to Locatelli's agent, but the entry for 26 May in the Libro dei conti records that Prince Mattias eventually paid 237 scudi for the privilege of commandeering the second painting from the unsuspecting Locatelli. This original pendant to King David was identified as The Cumaean Sibyl by Guercino's addition of an inscription similar to that in King David, and is thought to have spent the better part of the next two centuries in Florence. It is now in the collection of Sir Denis Mahon, on loan to the National Gallery, London (fig. 2).

Having split the pairing between King David and its first companion, Guercino now had the task of honouring the original commission: he still had to provide Locatelli with the promised sibyl. As Helston and Henry aptly put it in 1991, 'It is a testament to Guercino's originality and honesty that he did not in these circumstances merely produce two identical versions of the same composition' (loc. cit.). Instead, Guercino painted an entirely new sibyl, of a colour scheme, dimensions and scale to match King David and the original sibyl, but of an entirely different composition (fig. 3; The Samian Sibyl, Althorp, Northamptonshire). This sibyl was delivered to Locatelli by 7 October 1651, the date on which payment is recorded in the Libro dei conti, almost five full months after Locatelli had received the prophet. The pair remained in the possession of the Marchesi Locatelli until 1768, when Gavin Hamilton successfully negotiated their sale to the 1st Earl Spencer under further eventful circumstances, as described below.

The Symbolism of King David

King David is a recurrent protagonist in Guercino's work. Most often he appears in depictions of the exploits of his youth, for example in the dramatic Saul attempting the murder of David (Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica). The depiction of David in the present picture, however, departs from these precedents, in which he is almost invariably shown as a beardless young man. Instead, it deploys a specific set of attributes to emphasise that this is the sage David of his later years - no longer merely a heroic shepherd, he is David the King and Prophet. The bearded figure, wearing a turban, crown and ermine-lined mantle and holding a sceptre, sits on a carved throne by a draped table, a single column in the background, echoing a standard formula for royal and princely portraits of the Baroque era. The stone slab which David seems to support with effortless ease is carved with an inscription in Roman lettering, like an epigraph unearthed in the ruins of an ancient monument: 'GLORIOSA DICTA SVNT DE TE CIVITAS DEI. PSALM.S 86.' This line is the third line of one of the Psalms, the series of poetic prayers traditionally attributed to David, and interpreted as foretelling the coming of the Messiah:

The foundations thereof are the holy mountains:
The Lord loves the gates of Sion above all the tabernacles of Jacob.
Glorious things are said of you, O city of God!

Numbered 86 in Greek and Latin translations of the Old Testament (87 in the Hebrew Torah and Protestant Bibles), this psalm would have been immediately familiar to Guercino's audience. By his inclusion of this line in the picture, Guercino underscores the prophetic theme of this image of King David. The richly-attired king looks down toward the inscribed tablet he holds, musing on the words of his own prophecy; despite his monumental physical presence, David himself is withdrawn, contemplating the truths of his divinely-inspired utterance with a calm, stoic understanding of its inevitability, and a humble knowledge of his role as an intermediary between the realms of the divine and the mortal.

Further symbolism becomes apparent by virtue of King David's pairing with a sibyl, as opposed to another Old Testament prophet. The second pendant to King David, that which was finally delivered to Locatelli, bears an inscription identifying it as The Samian Sibyl. It is unclear whether this reflects Locatelli's original specifications - Michael Kitson and Gabrieli Finaldi argue that it may have made 'little difference to Locatelli whether the King David was paired with a Cumaean or a Samian Sibyl', but note 'that it is also possible that Locatelli may have wanted a Samian Sibyl from the beginning' (loc. cit.). The pairing between an Old Testament prophet and a sibyl was an unusual choice in the Seicento, but finds precedents in Cinquecento painting and in an earlier typological tradition dating from the Middle Ages. The Sibyls were semi-historical figures mentioned in classical texts as prophetesses of the pre-Christian, pagan tradition, often associated with a specific sacred site such as the oracle at Delphi or the cave at Cumae, near Naples. Later tradition specified that there were either twelve or seven chief sibyls, including the Samian, the Cumaean, the Delphic, the Libyan, the Cimmerian, the Persian and others scattered across the known world. According to tradition, the Sibyls recorded their prophecies in books, most of which had been lost; but some of their specific prophecies were alluded to in classical texts, and the early Christian Fathers, especially Saint Augustine of Hippo, interpreted their maxims as foretelling the coming of Christ. The Samian Sibyl was believed to have foretold that Christ would be born in Bethlehem - the 'City of David' in which the future king had lived as a shepherd. The pairing can thus also be read as an allusion to the Nativity - the birth of Christ in the house of David, in Bethlehem as prophesied by the Samian Sibyl.

During the decades immediately before the High Renaissance, the notion that the Sibyls had foreseen the coming of Christ became an argument in favour of the validity of pagan classical learning as a whole. As worthy counterparts of the Hebrew prophets, the Sibyls formed a feminine cohort of seers to complement the patriarchal Old Testament lineage. At the dawn of the Cinquecento, they were depicted by some of the most celebrated painters of the High Renaissance, including Perugino, Raphael, and, above all, Michelangelo, whose frescoes for the Sistine Chapel ceiling are famously decorated with alternating prophets and sibyls. Guercino would have seen the Sistine Chapel ceiling during his Roman sojourn in 1621-1623, and Michelangelo's towering example could not have failed to be in his mind as he worked on Locatelli's pair. Like Michelangelo's prophets and sibyls, Guercino's possess a sculptural monumentality, each set into a large, spare space which they dominate with their presence, their well-proportioned bodies arranged with a dynamic sense of stilled movement, though Guercino's pair speak with a tranquillity and a detachment all their own.

Pentiments and Drawings

The excellent condition in which King David has survived allows for a full appreciation of Guercino's painting technique. One or two pentimenti indicate changes that he made during the execution of the picture: there is an adjustment to the lower edge of the stone tablet, and the entirety of the strip of golden cloth across David's shoulders and chest would seem to have been added by the artist at a later stage in the picture's development. The small number of changes at the painting stage suggests that the pose and composition must have been carefully worked out in preliminary drawings, although none that can be specifically linked to this picture have been traced. The structure of David's head, gently inclined towards the stone tablet, recalls that which Guercino used for God the Father in numerous paintings and related drawings (for example, see D. Mahon and N. Turner, The Drawings of Guercino in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen at Windsor Castle, Cambridge, 1989, no. 189).

Worthy of special notice is a red chalk drawing by Guercino depicting a middle-aged, bearded man looking down and to the right, buried in his thoughts (see fig. 4; Christie's, New York, 11 January 1994, lot 203). Usually linked to Guercino's bust-length The Prophet Isaiah (see Salerno, no. 255; Christie's, New York, 31 May 1989, lot 80), the drawing may actually be closer to King David. Although it is like Isaiah in that the figure is shown bare-headed, lacking David's elaborate turban and crown, the angled shoulders, the tilt of the head and its locks of flowing hair, distinctly separate from the hair of the beard, resemble the arrangement of David's head more closely than that in Isaiah.

The Spencers: Love and Art

By some accounts, John, 1st Earl Spencer was the richest man in Britain (fig. 5). The son of the Hon. 'Jack' Spencer, a notorious bon vivant, John Spencer inherited his fortune at the age of twelve, and already before attaining the majority required to direct it he showed precocious signs of knowing exactly how he wanted to spend his money, often in very imaginative ways. With such a vast fortune in the wings, Spencer had no need to forge a marital alliance for financial gain. Instead, he married for love, taking the young Georgiana Poyntz as his bride (fig. 6). After a thrilling courtship which is documented by Georgiana's surviving letters, the two were wed in a secret marriage on John Spencer's 21st birthday. Once the wedding was revealed to the world at large, the Spencers travelled to London in style, where they were received by the dowager Princess of Wales and King George II, and where they themselves received, by some counts, 600 well-wishers in the first week. As the most fashionable couple in town, the newlyweds could expect to do a considerable amount of entertaining, and it was partly with this in mind that John Spencer set about building a lavish new townhouse. Spencer House (fig. 7) was conceived both as an expression of the 21-year-old Spencer's newly attained independence and, perhaps more importantly, as a tribute to his new wife. The house also became an exercise of Spencer's passion for antiquity and its neo-classical resurrection. The 1750s, when work on the site began, belong to the height of the Greek Revival period; Spencer's architects and architectural advisors were all connected to the influential Society of Dilettanti, an elite club of patrons and artists who sought to promote and disseminate the classical culture they had encountered on the Grand Tour. One of these was the painter, archaeologist, architect and designer James 'Athenian' Stuart, who would also play in important part in the story of King David.

In order to acquire masterpieces to decorate the walls of Spencer House, Lord Spencer cultivated a network of trusted agents and advisors spread across Europe, acting on his behalf in the acquisition of works from some of the richest collections formed over the preceding centuries. One of these advisors was the Scottish painter, archaeologist and dealer Gavin Hamilton, who had been established in Rome in 1748, where he was well-placed to advise British Grand Tourists on what to see on their travels in Italy - and what to take home. The Spencers met Hamilton on their tour to Italy in 1763-1764, possibly on the recommendation of 'Athenian' Stuart, an old friend of Hamilton's, now back in London completing the decoration to Spencer House. Hamilton acted as a guide to the Spencers, conducting Lady Spencer, for example, through the collections at the Palazzo Barberini, where she was greatly taken by the antique statuary. In 1765, not long after their return to England, the Spencers commissioned a painting from Hamilton, the subject of which was to be Agrippina with the ashes of Germanicus (Althorp, Northamptonshire). It has been argued that part of the motivation for the commission was as 'a sort of douceur to secure Hamilton's services' on the more important matter of acquiring capital Old Masters fit to grace the walls of the Great Room at Spencer House (Waterhouse, 1954, loc. cit.). This became Hamilton's mission over the next several years, as he travelled across Italy seeking out one after another potential acquisition. His letters to Lady Spencer document a number of attempts to secure big pictures serving all of the criteria of 'our purpose[:] size subject & preservation' (21 May 1766), attempts often plagued with difficulties - intrigues on the part of locals anxious not to lose their altarpieces, disagreements over prices, even delays due to export license applications. Hamilton travelled with an Italian artist, Ricciolini, who was at the ready to paint a copy of any picture that Hamilton bought for the Spencers, should this smooth the way for its acquisition with the prior owners. More than a year later, Hamilton had yet to secure a large picture by a major artist for Spencer House, writing 'something must be done now that I have engaged to serve my Lord, or I am resolved never to see England more, your Ladyship can non [sic] imagine the anxiety of mind I have, least I should appear careless in executing my Lord's commission' (11 April 1767). Finally, after nearly another year of frustration, Hamilton triumphed - and it had been well worth his patience and the wait. On 4 May 1768 he wrote of having 'at last found at Cesena two pictures of Guercino in every respect agreeable to my Lord Spencer's commission'. These works were 'painted in his last & most pleasing manner, viz. in the style of the Circumcision at Bologna or the Sibyl at the Capitol; one represents a King David, the other a Sibyl'. Hamilton lost no time in securing the pictures and shipping them to London:

As the pictures are in perfect preservation I have ordered a large roller to be made with a case in which they will remain suspended, after they are well secured with wax-cloth, canvass, etc. I propose to send them to Pesaro upon a stacino made with a network of cords to prevent any damage by jolting; from Pesaro I shall see them set out in the same manner for Civita Vecchia by the Furlo, so that by avoiding Rome, we shall save time, trouble and expense.

Knowing that the Spencers were also very anxious about having their pictures framed well - Lady Spencer had earlier written to stress 'My Lord would not have a frame made at Rome as it must be framed in the same Manner as the Pictures among which it will be placed here' (28 June 1766) - Hamilton sent the Spencers the precise dimensions of the two canvasses, 'so that no time may be lost in ordering the frame'--'When they are strained upon the stretching frame I would advise nailing a very thick slip of wood around the picture that nothing may be lost in the rabbit [rebate] of the frame, this ought to be mentioned to the framemaker' (4 May 1768). Indeed, the way the pictures were to be framed was of key importance. Stuart had designed the Great Room, which also served as the ballroom at Spencer House, specifically for the display of Spencer's Old Masters, hanging the walls with red damask, and the frame of the present picture was specially designed by Stuart to match the mouldings of the doorcases and window surrounds he had also designed for the room.

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