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Art review: London Fine Art Week

20 December 2019

Nicholas Cranfield meets three heavenly beings cast of St Paul’s Cathedral

trinity fine art

A composite of the three marble panels by the Piccirillis which made the journey from St Paul’s Cathedral’s high-altar reredos, dismantled after the Second World War, to Trinity Fine Art, in Mayfair

A composite of the three marble panels by the Piccirillis which made the journey from St Paul’s Cathedral’s high-altar reredos, dismantled...

LONDON FINE ART WEEK is very much established as a part of the international art scene. For dealers and collectors, it is a vital opportunity to take stock of the market along­side the main auction-house sales. To the summer event, a second week of exhibitions and events has been added in December.

It was worth going along just to obtain a copy of the jolly map by Adam Dant of an eye view of the streets of Mayfair and St James’s, running between Berkeley Square and Hay­market. It provides quirky incidental details: Rudyard Kipling wrote much of The Jungle Book at a hotel here; the indefatigable Peggy Guggenheim — the last Dogaressa of Venice, as she wanted to be known — set up her first gallery here at 30 Cork Street in 1938; and Francis Bacon fre­quented a local coffee shop.

This winter, there were plenty of surprises on show. At Benappi, I readily found the poster boy for the week: Tommaso Salini (1575-1625) portrayed a young man as Bacchus, one arm clutching the ceramic flagon to his chest and the other balancing a brimful glass of red wine. Crowned with laurel, he is surely a recent graduate from an Italian uni­versity, out celeb­rating with his mates.

The same dealer had a much more troubling portrayal of the consequences of alcohol ad­­diction. Lot and his Daughters was painted between 1649 and 1659 by the later Genoese artist Valerio Castello. The subject of Genesis 19.33 is a difficult one; whereas St Augustine exonerated Lot of incest, St Thomas Aquinas was far from certain and followed Plato in his Ethics to warn of a double sin. Both daughters are dressed to kill, courtesans, perhaps, with an old befuddled man between them.

Carlo Milano had uncovered the earliest known painting by Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) on copper, a rich scene of the Mystic Mar­­­­riage of St Catherine which the young in­­dependent artist painted before her marriage (1577) and signed with her maiden name. The assured quality of the twenty-something-year-old who was the first female artist to be neither a nun nor a no­ble­woman is evident both in the composition, where the line of the heads is echoed in the capital col­umns behind the some­what in­­congruous 16th-century palace in which the scene is set, and in its colouring.

Bartolomeo Passarotti and the Flemish-born Denys Calvaert pioneered painting on copper in the mid-1560s in papal Bologna and Calvaert established an academy there. Lavinia, whose father was a successful painter from whom she inherited a studio, seems to have learned the skill from another family of artists, the Carracci. They took Rome by storm when a Bolognese cardinal became pontiff.

I wondered whether this painting of St Catherine with the Holy Family might have been a com­­­­mission for a member of the Curia based in the heart of Emilia-Romagna rather than a work painted for a lay patron. One can see why she was the first woman painter ever to be invited to paint a church altarpiece.

In the auction houses, Sotheby’s rooms were dominated by Zurbarán’s great Crucifixion altarpiece, painted around 1635, which had been owned by the Peruvian Jesuits in Lima as late as the 1930s. It may, there­­­fore, have been commissioned for the New World. Christ’s cross stands alone in a land­scape where the city of Jerusalem is rich­ly de­­scribed at his feet. Mary and John are absent: it is we who are brought to stand at the foot of the cross.

Dating from much the same period was the Neapolitan painting by Artemisia Gentileschi which may depict St Catherine. I more re­­cently saw this in another London dealer’s show­­­room and was struck then by the saint’s seeming cas­u­alness, her hand resting on a vellum-bound book as she turns away from us. Her volumin­ous pink dress and white underdress threaten to over­come her sanctity as if she were a cour­tesan re­­gretting a night out when she should have been studying sacred scripture.

All this was delightfully distracting, but my interest in Bond Street had been piqued by see­ing advertised “Three angels from the Reredos for Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London”, elsewhere along it. I hastened to find what was what.

The history of St Paul’s is nothing if not con­­­­­­­­voluted, pock-marked with false starts and unrealised visionary plans. After the Great Fire of 1087, a completely new cathedral was built, which was extended in the 13th century. It was not until 1327 that a high mass was celebrated before the high altar. This Gothic cathedral was 585 feet long. The spire towered 489 feet high above the medieval city, but when it, too, was destroyed by fire in 1561, early in the reign of Elizabeth I, it was never replaced.

Fur­­­ther damaged in the 1666 Fire of Lon­don, soon after Christopher Wren had be­­­gun planning to add a dome in place of the lost spire and to replace the haphazard earlier res­tora­­­­­­­­­­tion work, it was not until 1673, when part of a surviving nave pier collapsed, that a de­­ci­sion was taken to rebuild the whole cathedral.

Wren’s design, smaller than the Gothic church, gives us the building largely as we know it, 555 feet in length, with the top of the dome 366 feet high. Where it once used to dom­­­inate an imperial capital, it is now dwarfed by the temples of Mammon. In such a build­ing, the issue of how best to order the sanc­tuary baffled even Christopher Wren.

Dr Mark Kirby, president of the Eccelesio­logical Society, has suggested that Wren’s design of many of the wooden screens and reredoses that he included in City church­es owed much to French architectural pattern books. Certainly, their appearance with their Com­­­mandments boards and paintings of Moses and Aaron had no English precedent. Other sources appear to have been the title-page designs of many printed works, as well as triumphal arches and gateways, much like Frederick II’s at Kronberg Castle. But such an arrangement would never have worked for Wren in a cathedral space. A sur­viving model (c.1696) suggests that he planned a marble high altar with barley-sugar “Solomonic” columns, but it was never re­­alised. By the 1880s, the Dean and Chapter had brought much of the worship to beneath the dome, necessitating a rethink about a high altar.

The project was entrusted to G. F. Bodley, whose colleague Thomas Garner designed a re­­­markable Baroque reredos that stood 75 feet high. It was executed in white Parian marble with elements designed by the French sculptor Jean Guillemin. Twelve angels surrounded the altar, dancing across a frieze.

Much of the carving was undertaken by two Italian immigrant brothers, Attilio and Furio Piccirilli, who had come to work in London from Carrara in 1887. By April 1888, they had left London with their families and moved to America, where they remain known for such mon­­umental work as the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, and the Firemen’s Memorial (1910) on Riverside Drive in upper Manhattan.

The reredos was controversial from the out­set. In 1888, the Bishop of London was peti­tioned by those who feared that it “tends to give rise to feelings of superstition”, in the hope that he would act against the Dean and Chapter. He resisted, and photos of it were mass-produced from 1890 onwards. Then came the night of 9 Octo­ber 1940.

The cathedral took a direct hit dur­ing the Blitz, and the high altar was de­­stroyed. The rere­­­dos, however, survived virtually intact, but it was later decided to take it down and put it into storage, which was done in 1951. In the early 1970s, a later Dean decided to clear out the remains of the reredos as so much debris; some elements were sold directly on to the art market, but smaller fragments were left lying outside the cathedral for anybody to claim.

Jeremy Warren’s meticulous and exhaustive catalogue research for the three angels cur­rently with Trinity Fine Art situates these astounding pieces in their historical context and reminds all church authorities of the need to be worthy trustees of their buildings, not as part of a heritage-mad industry, but as the lived expression of faith in any one period.

Eleven of the original 12 angels came up for public sale in New York in 2005; that playing a harp was not included. Three of them were recently resold (2016) and flew into London to brighten our Advent days.

Trinity Fine Art, 15 Old Bond Street, London W1. 020 7493 4916. www.trinityfineart.com

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