Thursday, 18 April 2013

Robert and Evelyn Benson Collection

Picture: Metropolitan Museum of Art
This painting by Ghirlandaio was part of the Robert and Evelyn Benson collection of Italian old masters, which the great dealer Joseph Duveen bought en bloc in 1927 for £500,000.  Last week I came across Benson's own copy of the catalogue of his collection, which he wrote with assistance from Tancred Borenius.  Benson is less well known than collectors like Frick and Mellon, because his pictures were sold and dispersed whereas theirs were donated to museums.  But his superb collection is a fascinating episode of cultural history that deserves to be better known.

The collection included four panels from Duccio's Maesta (now in the Thyssen, the NGA Washington, the Frick and the Kimbell), Giorgione's Holy Family (Washington NGA), and Giovanni Bellini's St Jerome Reading (also NGA).  It's a survey of Italian art from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century - very much Berenson's taste, but largely formed before his time. The catalogue was published in 1914 in two privately-printed editions - an illustrated version limited to 125 copies, and a text-only version.  Benson's own copies of both are in the London Library.
Picture: National Gallery of Art

The consistent quality is remarkable given that he was buying before the growth of professional connoisseurship, when collectors had to rely on their judgment rather than looking at Berenson's lists, or calling an established expert.  This Filippino Lippi, now in Washington, was apparently bought at Bologna Railway Station by Charles Fairfax Murray.  I thought I was lucky when I found a cheap copy of Lightbown's Mantegna catalogue at Bologna Railway Station a few years ago!

Looking through the illustrations, the attributions have generally held up quite well, and are now the highlights of some of the best American museums.  Some of the attributions have been upgraded since 1914; the Fra Bartolommeo St Jerome sold recently by Sotheby's was listed as an Albertinelli, and the Madonna and Child now generally accepted as an early Titian (in poor condition) was tentatively listed as 'Attributed to Titian'.  A Crucifixion and an Entombment (now called Lamentation) attributed to Ambrogio Lorenzetti are now in the Met as the Master of the Codex of St George.

The catalogue in the London Library is annotated by Benson, and is bound with a letter from Benson to the librarian, Hagbert Wright.  The preface notes that the collectors Charles Butler and Graham Holford "knew what they liked, and needed no expert to form their collections", to which is added the pencil note "like the Jews, who never could bear to lose compound interest; or the new American collectors (after 1896) who took warning by the number of false Corots etc, & Italian school pieces [situated?] in America, & led by Mrs J. S. Gardiner & J Pierpont Morgan employed their own experts" (p. vii).  It's a bizarre comment, and I have no idea why he introduces the anti-Semitic comment about compound interest.

The published text is discreet and anonymous: "There was a famous character in the latter half of the nineteenth century who had a passion for cleaning, and would reply to anyone who remonstrated, 'But I can put it back!'"  Benson's pencil annotation identifies the nameless vandal as the famous dealer Martin Colnaghi.

A letter bound into the catalogue advises the librarian that the negatives of photos of his collection were destroyed in World War I, but notes that "Brain's photos are pieces of consummate craftsmanship next door to works of art themselves: & good photos are necessary for students who are interested in the Science of Attribution, in which new discoveries, or conjectures, are continually being made."  He goes on to mention some recent changed attributions, and suggests contacting Duveen for photos, so the undated letter must have been written after he'd sold the collection.

The letter indicates a close ongoing interest in art, and he was also a Trustee of the National Gallery.  There doesn't appear to have been any great financial crisis, so the sale to Duveen seems very odd.  Benson was involved in the National Art Collections fund in its early days, so selling the whole collection without making any donations to public collections is surprising.  Duveen donated a Correggio from the collection to the National Gallery.

Published information about Benson is limited, so I'm going to do so more research, including the Duveen archives if I can get access.  I'd be very grateful if anyone can suggest other sources.


  1. There is a fair bit in the history of Kleinwort Benson by Jehanne Wake (OUP 1997). Delighted you're enjoying the LL, if you would mention it was me who pushed you into it (card 13647) they might reduce my next annual fee by fifty quid.

  2. Thanks - yes, I have that one on the list for tomorrow, together with a few other catalogues written by Benson, and the Fairfax Murray biography. I didn't have your details at the time I signed up, but will happily mention it to them now.