Issue 29, Winter 2011

Editor's letter

One of the most exciting moments in an auction house is when a painting, hitherto disregarded by its owners, has something about it that demands more research into its history, provenance – and attribution. Bonhams' specialists see thousands of works a year and, during their careers, they have built up a mental image library, which is why, when works come in, they are perfectly placed to evaluate each and every one.

At Bonhams, the process begins with the porters who initially receive the works. When one of the team in the Oxford salerooms alerted the Old Masters Department to a small portrait of an unknown man that had arrived with a collection belonging to a 19th-century painter, Caroline Oliphant, the Head of Pictures, immediately looked at the image. She decided there might well be a more illustrious hand that was responsible for the painting rather than 'studio of'. To find out what happened next, turn to page 32 and read Andrew McKenzie's account of the investigation into this intriguing picture.

It's not the first time that one has wished that a painting could talk. Because objects are often more reliable witnesses to history than people. This season, Bonhams is selling a number of works that tell a story more eloquently about the fate of the owners than the owners themselves. Take the jewellery albums of Grand Duchess Xenia, to be offered in The Russian Sale. Xenia, the sister of the last tsar, Nicholas II, escaped with her life, but little else to remind her of her glittering past – apart from two jewellery albums that detailed her former riches. It is a reminder of the importance – and power – of objects that can bear witness.

Lucinda Bredin

  1. Page 20

    With only her jewels

    In April 1919, Grand Duchess Xenia, sister of the last tsar, was among the surviving Romanovs to escape from Russia on board the British battleship, HMS Marlborough. 
Within the previous nine months, 17 members of the imperial family had been murdered by revolutionaries. 
The tsar, tsarina and their five children had been shot in the Urals; the following day, six ...

  2. Page 24

    God's own country

    The news was already the talk of the London art world; then on 17 May 1816, as they were filing into a banquet at the Mansion House, the veteran painter Joseph Farington came alongside Turner to check the details for himself, which he duly noted in his diary: "Turner told me that he had made an engagement to make 120 ...

  3. Page 28

    Fleurs du mal

    Robert Mapplethorpe is well known as the bad boy of the New York art world in the 1970s and 1980s, famous mainly for his studies of male nudes, his celebrity portraits and a long-time collaboration with the singer and poet Patti Smith. His frank accounts of homoerotic sexuality – in the wild days before HIV/AIDS – are well known. Some authorities ...

  4. Page 32

    Lost Treasure

    Among a consignment of works by the 19th-century British artist, Matthew Shepperson, that arrived at Bonhams Oxford salerooms in August 2010, there was a striking portrait of a gentleman in a black tunic and white collar. Shepperson was a painter who is hardly remembered today, but who worked as a jobbing artist at Buckingham Palace. The portrait was originally consigned ...

  5. Page 38

    A time of gifts

    In December, Bonhams will auction a set of five Meissen vases once owned by the legendary Saxon statesman and collector, Count Heinrich von Brühl (1700-63) and which were in the possession of his descendants until 1926. Brühl was a cabinet minister when he was named director of the Meissen porcelain manufactory in 1732 and, as a perk, was able to ...

  6. Page 42

    Model painters

    Shortly after I first got to know him, I asked Lucian Freud whether he collected pictures by Frank Auerbach (he owned a number of splendid examples). Lucian was mildly put out at the idea of being a collector, because – as the most individualistic of men – he never liked the thought that he belonged to a group of any kind. He ...

  7. Page 46

    In his dreams

    In 2006, less than a year before Paddy Bedford's death, he was given a retrospective exhibition at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia's leading venue for cutting-edge contemporary art, where he had the opportunity to see most of his work assembled. During the same year Bedford was commissioned to provide a work for the exterior of the ...

  8. Page 54

    Blue is the colour

    Nothing more encapsulates the western concept of Chinese porcelain than the notion of 'blue and white'. For more than six centuries, both Chinese and overseas owners have enjoyed the astonishing, revolutionary, high-fired, translucent, resonant ware that became widely available in the 14th century.

    Traditionally associated with China's porcelain-producing capital city, Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, 'blue and white' became a ...

  9. Page 56

    Russian icon

    The Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev was something of a connoisseur of visual art but tended to be damning of his compatriots' work. In his novella Smoke, he has a character dismiss the very idea of Russian painting: "Russian art, indeed! Russian impudence and conceit, I know, and Russian feebleness, too, but Russian art, begging your pardon, I've never come ...

  10. Page 63

    Wine: Cultural revolution

    A number of wine speculators have been looking anxious in recent months and it is all to do with what is happening in Asia rather than the current woes in Europe. Most of the large wine dealers in London will admit that for the past few years, the vast majority of their sales have been to Chinese buyers, whether they ...

  11. Page 64

    Travel: Polish renaissance

    My family always think of The Lady with an Ermine as 'our' Leonardo because it comes from the Czartoryski Museum in Kraków, my father's home city. Yet the painting's temporary absence abroad – as star of the National Gallery exhibition – has not drastically diminished the attractions of the old Polish capital. I have been visiting Kraków since I was ...

  12. Page 80

    My favourite room: Gerald Scarfe

    I love Paris and I love the Musée d'Orsay – a fascinating building that used to be a railway station, and still has the station clock and huge station windows. Within the museum is my favourite room, Salle 4, which contains the work of one of my heroes, the caricaturist Honoré Daumier.

    This room in the museum contains Daumier's ...

  1. Lucinda Bredin
    101 New Bond Street
    London, United Kingdom W1S 1SR
    Work +44 20 7468 8363

Related auctions