Saturday, 25 July 2020

Master BF and the Holford Collection

In January this year, Birmingham city Art Museum put images of its illuminated cuttings and leaves online. They provide material for at least two blogposts close to my interests.

As every follower of this blog knows by now: the first auction dedicated solely to illuminated manuscript cuttings was the Celotti sale at Christie's, 26 May 1825; the catalogue was written by William Young Ottley (1771-1836), who bought extensively at the sale; and Ottley's own collection was sold about a decade later 1838.

Most of the cuttings in Birmingham's collection are by an artist, active in Milan c.1490-1545, who signed many of his illuminations "BF", which is widely believed to stand for "Binascus fecit" and indicate a documented illuminator, Francesco Binasco.

Several cuttings by the artist were in the Celotti sale, grouped together, preceded by this note:
"[...] They appear to be the work of an Artist of great powers, who had studied in the School of Lionardo da Vinci, and flourished at the close of the fifteenth century, and the commencement of the century following. His name is unknown; but we may conjecture, from the capital B, followed by F, which is found, marked in red, upon some of these Miniatures, that it commenced with the former letter. [...]"
Many of these cuttings re-appeared in Ottley sale, in a consecutive series (lots 65-122) under a similar heading:
Lots 71, 80, 81, 94, 99, and 114, in the Ottley catalogue specifically mention the initials "B. F.":

The "BF" in red, or just "B" on its own, is usually very small and discreet, and therefore easy to overlook. Here are two examples of the "BF":

And here are two examples of a "B" on its own:
The miniature shown at the top of this post is easy to identify as lot 111 in the Ottley auction catalogue:
The miniature was bought by "Tindall" (presumably a dealer, whom I am trying to identify further), and can subsequently be identified in the collection formed by Robert Holford (1808-1892) [Wikipedia], which passed at his death to his son, Sir George Holford (1860-1926) [Wikipedia]; it is reproduced in both 1927 catalogues of the collection, and was lot 30 in the auction:
30    St. Benedict in the Desert of Subiaco
The saint, about forty years of age, clad in white to the feet, is seated in a chasm of Leonardesque rocks, listening for the bell of St. Romanus who is letting down his master’s daily bread in a basket by a string. The devil dances in fury on a bridge of rocks above, seeking in vain to cut the string [ ...]
Another pair of initials now at Birmingham has the same Ottley—Tindall—Holford provenance. There can be little doubt that the initials described as follows in the Ottley catalogue:
is this pair:
The mark "B.F." is below St Michael's feet, on the slab on the ground:

We have discussed in a previous post the fact that the Holford illuminations (apart from the ones later in the Malcolm collection, discussed in this post) were mounted in an album. But when the Holford collection came to be sold in 1927, a note at the beginning of the catalogue stated that:
"All the Illuminations are mounted in frames, the majority of Italian Renaissance design, and glazed. In many cases two or more are framed together. Each frame, with all its contents, will form a single lot":
Unlike all other Holford cuttings that I have traced, the ones now in Birmingham preserve their frames, including three "of Italian Renaissance design". One is shown at the top of this post; here is another:
This was lot 34 in the 1927 Holford sale:
34    [ ... ] In the cloister on the left of the stem of a letter T [ ... ]. Two Prophets, by the same hand, and cut from the same book, are framed on either side
We can identify these cuttings as lot 71, and the second item in lot 116, in the Ottley sale (both bought by Tindall):
71      Two—Prophets, one of them with mark B. F.
116    Two— [ ... ] the Interior of a Church, with Monks and other persons
The prophet to the right has the "BF" in the extreme lower left corner:

Another group of three Birmingham cuttings in a matching frame is this:

These were lot 26 in the Holford sale:
26    Three Extremely Fine And Boldly Drawn Initial Letters, by one artist, framed together, Italian, ca. 1500. D [...],  S [...], O [...].
They were perhaps part of lot 72 in the Ottley sale (bought by Tindall):
72    Seven—A Prophet; Tobit and the Angel; and five Letters
The second item in this lot is also now at Birmingham:

Due to the fact that most libraries are still closed, I have not been able to consult the main studies of the Master BF, but I suspect that the evidence of the Holford frames, as exemplified by those now in Birmingham, have not yet been fully exploited as a means of clarifying the provenance of ex-Holford cuttings elsewhere.

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