Saturday, 16 January 2021

Contemporary Descriptions of Ottley's Portfolios

Samuel Rogers (1763-1855) [Source]

A little while ago I was very pleased to find a contemporary description of Ottley's portfolio of medieval illuminated manuscript cuttings, and in light of the recent posts about the sheets on which he mounted his cuttings, later bound into an album owned by Hoe and now at Harvard, it seemed worth sharing it now.

The story concerns Samuel Rogers [Wikipedia], one of the most celebrated English poets of his day (until his fame was eclipsed by Wordsworth, Coleridge and Byron), who was able to lead a life of leisure and art-collecting after inheriting a large share of his father's banking business. Of several possible portraits I have selected the one above because it gives a sense of his beady eyes, for reasons that will become apparent below.

One mention of Ottley's portfolios, by Gustav Waagen [Wikipedia], is well known and has been republished several times:

"After dinner a new pleasure was prepared for me. Mr. Ottley fetched his portfolios with ancient miniatures, of which he certainly has 1000, from the eleventh to the seventeenth century, of all the schools, among which, however, the Italian is by far the richest. With the exception of a few, they are cut out of old MSS. in parchment. By being thus detached from the documents to which they originally belonged, they are unfortunately deprived of the principal means of  ascertaining the place and time of their origin. The number of those that are interesting and beautiful is considerable. I must content myself with mentioning some monuments, which, in their kind, are of the first rank.

A series of initials, cut out of the antiphonal, which Don Silvestro, so highly extolled by Vasari, adorned with miniatures for the convent degli Angeli, about the year 1350. ... " [1]

It continues with a description of a few choice items, and includes the statement, discussed in this post, that Ottley had paid £100 for a single cutting.

The main purpose of this blogpost, however, is to republish a much less well-known reference to Ottley's collection of miniatures. The account, published in 1899 but describing an event from c.1824 [2], reads (emphasis added):

"Samuel Rogers, the poet-banker, was one of Mr. Ottley’s most frequent visitors, and from his appearance I guessed him to be about sixty. [ ... ]

There was one peculiarity about his face that drew my attention: the sockets of his eyes were rather deep-sunk, so that the edges of the cheek-bones were very definitely marked, and yet the eye in the centre was itself prominent, forming altogether a sort of cone. Under excitement the expression was peculiar, which was rare, however, because ordinarily he was mild and equable. But one day his host brought out for his delectation a portfolio of choice mediæval paintings, collected from richly illuminated missals and other similarly decorated works. They were each mounted separately on very thick card-board and were rare, splendid and valuable, and made a heavy pile in a single folio. Rogers’s fine taste was much gratified by such a treat, and he gave frequent utterance to the pleasure he experienced. All at once a vexatious surprise occurred, startling those in the gallery by its sudden noise. Owing to a thoughtless way of placing the folio, it overbalanced and fell to the floor with a resounding plunge, to the detriment of the corners of some of the mountings, and possibly to some of the miniatures. Rogers had placed the folio flat on the table, but with the empty leaf projecting beyond its edge. As he examined the pictures, one by one, he laid each precious gem with tender care on the opposite side, until the increasing weight brought about the catastrophe. The mortification seen in those curious goggle-eyes of his could not be forgotten."

Perhaps I am reading too much into the wording of these two accounts, but their implication is that in c.1823, when Rogers examined it, Ottley's collection of cuttings could be contained "in a single [port]folio", but by June 1835, when Waagen visited, it had grown to about 1,000 items and was stored in "portfolios" (plural). The increase in size of the collection was at least partly as a result of his purchases at the famous Celotti sale at Christie's in 1825.

~ ~ ~

As an aside, having given one anecdote concernings Ottley and Rogers, it may be worth repeating another, for what it tells us about Rogers's abilities as a connoisseur. In Recollections of the Table-Talk of Samuel Rogers, collected and published in 1856 by Alexander Dyce, is the following:

Ottley's knowledge of painting was astonishing.  Showing him a picture which I had just received from Italy, I said, "Whose work do you suppose it to be?" After looking at it attentively, he replied, "It is the work of Lorenzo di Credi" (by whom I already knew that it was painted). — "How," I asked, "could you discover it to be from Lorenzo's pencil? have you ever before now seen any of his pieces?" "Never," he answered; "but I am familiar with the description of his style as given by Vasari and others."




[1] G. F. Waagen, Works of Art and Artists in England (London: John Murray, 1838), II, pp. 138-39.

[2] John Sartain, The Reminiscences of a Very Old Man, 1808-1897 (New York: D. Appleton and company, 1900), pp. 98-100 (online). Sartrain (p. 98, cf. p. 93) suggests that he worked for Ottley for 20 months from mid- or late 1823.

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