THE PROPERTY OF A FAMILY TRUST
Abraham Wildey Robarts (fig. 1) was the eldest of the four sons of Abraham Robarts, M.P. (1745-1816), of Finsbury Square and North End, Hampstead, Middlesex, who was in turn the son of Abraham Robarts, born in 1706 in the parish of St. Dunstan, Stepney, who married Elizabeth, daughter and heiress of Samuel Wildey, also of Stepney. The family's links were thus with the city merchant community. But the father had married Sabine Tierney, sister of the gifted Whig politician, Samuel Tierney, whose views were to influence both his brother-in-law and his nephews. The second Abraham Robarts built upon the fortune that he inherited. He obtained interests in the West Indies and became a director of the East India Company. From 1792 he was a partner in the banking house of Robarts, Curtis, Were, Hornyold and Berwick. When he died in 1816, the greater part of his fortune, including farms near Wooburn and Maidenhead and an estate at Lillingstone Dayrell, passed to Abraham Wildey Robarts, but the younger sons, William Tierney, James and George James, were also provided for.
Abraham Wildey Robarts worked for the East India Company from about 1794 for some seven years, but then moved to his father's bank, with which he would be associated until his death. In 1820 this was restructured as Curtis, Robarts and Curtis, and from 1833 became Robarts, Curtis and Co. In 1808 Robarts married Charlotte Anne, daughter of Edmund Wilkinson of Potterton Lodge, Tadcaster, Yorkshire. Robarts's senior partner in the bank, Sir William Curtis, was a Tory, but when Robarts was elected as member of parliament for Maidstone in 1818 it was as a committed Whig. His second brother, William Tierney Robarts was returned at the same time for St. Albans, and their youngest brother, George James would also become a member of parliament. Abraham Wildey Robarts who rarely spoke in the House, was loyal to the party line, except over Catholic Emancipation, but eventually became an advocate of that measure. Widely respected in the city, he served on the committee 'of secrecy' that considered the renewal of the charter of the Bank of England in 1832, and was also associated with the New Zealand Company. Robarts lived from about 1820 at no. 26 Hill Street, Berkeley Square (fig. 2), and in 1837 purchased from Viscount Duncannon the villa at Roehampton built for his grandfather, the 2nd Earl of Bessborough to the design of Sir William Chambers, but there is no evidence that he chose to live in this. Nor it seems did he reside on his Buckinghamshire estate, although he clearly had a taste for country life and chose in 1844 to be portrayed on his bay hunter by the equestrian painter, Henry Barraud. Robarts outlived all his brothers, inheriting significant sums from two of these; and his wise stewardship of his fortune meant that at the time of his death he was worth roughly half a million pounds, an altogether exceptional figure at the time.
Pictures were clearly a particular interest, and the discipline expressed in Robarts's business career is implied also by the consistent calibre of his acquisitions. He collected at a time when Dutch pictures of the seventeenth century were both admired and understood by English collectors, and the collection he assembled reflected this. A number of his banker contemporaries expressed similar tastes, including Thomas Baring, his brother-in-law Humphrey St. John Mildmay and Lewis Loyd, IstLord Overstone, all of whom he would have known, while others, among them William Esdaile and Samuel Rogers, bought in other fields. Robarts in his chosen sphere had competitors from differing worlds: James Morrison, the 4th Marquess of Hertford, Sir Robert Peel and Lord Francis Egerton, later 1stEarl of Ellesmere, among others. Their ability to collect was of course facilitated by the London salerooms, but also owed much to dealers, notably John Smith, to whose ambitious and - as it must be admitted self-serving Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters issued between 1829 and 1842, Robarts was a subscriber.
Dr. Waagen did not visit Robarts on his first or second tours of English collections, but made amends for the omission in 1856 when assembling material for the supplement to his Treasures of Art in Great Britain, Galleries and Cabinets of Art in Great Britain, which was published in the following year. The third 'letter' in this offers a survey of a series of collections most of which were of relatively recent formation and had thus not been covered in the earlier volumes when Waagen had gained access to most of the great London houses for which significant collections had been assembled in the past. The 'letter' opens with Lord Overstone's pictures at 2 Carlton Gardens, continues with two aristocratic houses nearby and the future Prime Minister, W.E. Gladstone's, small clutch of pictures at 11 Carlton House Terrace, and then proceeds, by way of St. James's Square, to Mildmay's house, 46 Berkeley Square, and on to 26 Hill Street, where Waagen was evidently taken round by Mrs Robarts: 'considering the number and excellence of the collections of the Dutch school gathered together in England, it is no small compliment to the one before us to say that it occupies a distinguished place among them.'
Dr Waagen's account shows that the pictures were arranged in four rooms, and gives some sense of the care with which these were arranged. The circuit began, perhaps because the doctor was received there by his hostess, in the Drawing Room. The larger pictures included two Cuyps, one of which Robarts had lent to the British Institution in 1829, characteristic landscapes by Jacob van Ruisdael and Hobbema (the former bought from Smith who paid 500 guineas for it at the Galitzine sale in Paris in 1825, the latter from the Radstock collection), a 'somewhat agitated sea' by Backhuijsen, a Teniers bought before 1831 (when Smith valued it at 150 guineas in the third volume of his catalogue), a 'first-rate' Van der Heyden, Italianate landscapes by Both and Pynacker, and cabinet pictures by Dusart, Steen, Cocques and Slingelandt. The Back Drawing Room, evidently somewhat smaller, was of no less interest. Works by Greuze, Claude, Murillo and attributed to van Dyck leavened the display of Dutch pictures. Waagen's circuit shows that the Claude was flanked by a pair of Cuyps, under which were two small Ostades, which may have been bought as early as 1823. To the left of this cluster was the 'particularly choice' Ostade Lawyer (lot 8) perhaps below the Greuze of a girl hugging a spaniel. Between these and the limpid Van de Cappelle 'quiet piece of water' (fig. 3; sold in these Rooms, 13 December 1991, lot 16, now in the Getty Museum, Malibu) was the 'very pleasing' early Maes (lot 10), which is likely to have been acquired soon after it was sold in Rotterdam in 1824, perhaps from its purchaser there, Nieuwenhuys, Smith's major competitor. This is listed between pictures of a woman selling fish and vegetables by Van Tol and one of a vendress of vegetables and game by Willem van Mieris, purchased before 1842: this juxtaposition of pictures of congruous subjects suggests the care with which Robarts built up the collection.
Waagen only records two pictures in the Dining Room: the Van de Velde (lot 9), probably acquired in 1822 and lent by Robarts to the British Institution in 1829, of the merits of which he gave an eloquent account; and a Bol of a young man 'approaching Rembrandt in power and clearness'. He lists further pictures in 'another room'. All those he mentions were by Dutch masters, Isaac van Ostade, Everdingen, Michiel van Musscher, Wynants, de Vlieger and Backhuijzen, as well as the contemporary painter Koekkoek, three works by whom Robarts seems to have acquired, the last perhaps his final purchase from Smith, bought for a mere £250 in 1845.
By then Robarts had been collecting for well over two decades. The reader of Dr. Waagen's account of the pictures at 26 Hill Street is left in no doubt that Abraham Wildey Robarts was genuinely interested in his pictures, and while many of the finest of these may have been acquired in the mid-1820s, when he was still a member of parliament and in full control of the family bank, he continued to buy pictures when he saw things that he understood would complement his collection.
A lawyer seated at a table reading a letter