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A taste for portraits

19 December 2014

Nicholas Cranfield sees a legal firm's collection


The poet: Dante's Inferno: Dante in his study (1982) by Tom Phillips

The poet: Dante's Inferno: Dante in his study (1982) by Tom Phillips

ALTHOUGH portraiture is an almost universal art form, it seems as if white Anglo-Saxon Protestants have a particular aptitude for collecting and displaying portraits. Apart from the great collection in the Vasari Corridor linking the Uffizi and Pitti Palace in Florence, the only national collections dedicated to portraiture are in the capitals of the United States, England, Scotland, and Ireland.

The international law firm of Clifford Chance, like many other such commercial and professional institutions, started to collect art in the early 1990s, building on a senior partner's connoisseur taste for Hockney and Hodgkin.

This was in part by way of investment, and partly to enhance the workplace. The company also sponsors museums and galleries, and supports emerging artists. Indeed, this year's print award will be judged by Dr Jerzy Kierkuć-Bieliński, who is the Exhibitions Curator at Sir John Soane's Museum.

From a collection of some 1500 prints and works on paper he has selected 40 to show there, broadly ranging from the realistic to the abstract.

As a timely reminder of how diverse the art of print-making is, this show includes works acquired this year, such as Hogarth's 1743 Characters and Caricatures,Celia Paul's wonderfully forlorn and loving portrait of her mother, My Mother Seated (1997), as she gradually slips off the page, and John Bellany's El Greco-like hint of an etched face in Harry Thubron OBE - Artist 1982.

David Hockney is represented at his best with the settled portrait of the American curator Henry Geldzahler (1976), and then by a very weak study of Celia Birtwell when he was experimenting with the use of the greasy oil tusche. Not all prints work out, as Hockney readily recalled.

I particularly enjoyed the 1982 screenprints from Tom Phillips's illustrations for Dante's Inferno, in which the artist used 27 colours to rework celebrated Renaissance images. The portrait heads of Dante and of Virgil derive from the medallions of both authors which Luca Signorelli included on the walls of the chapel of San Brizio in Orvieto Cathedral, surrounded by scenes of purgatory. Virgil sits penning Book VI of his Aeneid, looking to the heavens for inspiration to send his hero to Hades, while Dante toys with an anagram of Roma.

I had not realised that Patrick Caulfield ever essayed portraits among his 100 or so screenprints, but here we get to see the only one that he did. His 1971 Portrait of a Frenchman was a print that the founder-partner evidently once owned.

It shares something of the poster-paint nature that gave post-war advertising such a boost. William Scott (1913-89) was one of 16 artists who produced posters for Lyons Corner Houses. The Birdcage, developed in 1947 from a painting, brings domestic family life into the world of Nippy respectability and comfort.

Alessandro Raho (b. 1971), whose portrait of Dame Judi Dench (2004) is one of the National Portrait Gallery's most assured recent commissions, has only ever undertaken six lithographs, four of which portray his friend Simon Popper. The one exhibited here offers a richly realistic image of a quietly confident 30-year-old. As telling, perhaps, is the way in which Peter Howson has captured the vulnerable and grizzled face of a stranger on the tube, Arsenal (1998).

Sir John Soane (1753-1837) himself encouraged the modern British artists of his own day and had little time for the Old Masters; a Ruysdael and a Fra Bartolomeo are about all that you get to see here, whereas he sat to Lawrence (a portrait that in 1828 he paid Charles Turner the princely sum of £154 15s. 0d. to copy as a mezzotint) and in 1831 acquired Turner's Admiral van Tromp's Barge Entering the Texel, 1645.

Besides owning a presentation volume of Hogarth's first state engravings covering the period 1732 to 1764, which is being displayed for the first time, Soane built up the largest British collection by the Italian virtuoso print-maker Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-78). I imagine that he would have profoundly approved of this excellent little show.

"Face to Face: British Portrait Prints from the Clifford Chance Art Collection" is at Sir John Soane's Museum, 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London WC2, until 24 January 2015. (Closed every Sunday, Monday, Bank Holiday, and Christmas Eve.) Phone 020 7405 2107.

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