The Gilded Age at Waddesdon

Joanna Leigh, Mrs Richard Bennett Lloyd, inscribing a tree, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1775-6, at Waddesdon Manor. ©National Trust, image provided by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Joanna Leigh, Mrs Richard Bennett Lloyd, inscribing a tree, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1775-6, at Waddesdon Manor. ©National Trust, image provided by the Public Catalogue Foundation

I attended a fascinating conference at Waddesdon Manor last week about the ‘Gilded Age’,  the period towards the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century when a group of American industrialists and entrepreneurs became incredibly wealthy and started to buy European art.

Lady Anne Luttrell, Duchess of Cumberland, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1772-3, at Waddesdon Manor. ©National Trust, image provided by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Lady Anne Luttrell, Duchess of Cumberland, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1772-3, at Waddesdon Manor. ©National Trust, image provided by the Public Catalogue Foundation

The booming of the Amercian economy during the second half of the nineteenth century, coupled with a light taxation and legislation regime, allowed a select group of ‘robber barons’ to build up unprecedented fortunes. These men included John Jacob Astor (fur, real estate), Henry Clay Frick (steel), Collis Potter Huntington (railways), J.P. Morgan (finance), Andrew Mellon (finance, oil) and John D. Rockefeller (oil).

Emma Hart, Lady Hamilton, as Circe, by George Romney, 1782, at Waddesdon Manor. ©National Trust, image provided by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Emma Hart, Lady Hamilton, as Circe, by George Romney, 1782, at Waddesdon Manor. ©National Trust, image provided by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Some of them used some of their wealth to build palatial ‘cottages’ in Newport and elsewhere and to collect art. This ‘demand’ coincided with the opening up of ‘supply’ in Europe, where aristocratic families were hit by the agricultural depression of the 1870s. In addition, in Britain the Settled Land Acts of the 1880s allowed families to sell land and chattels that had hitherto been designated as heirlooms.

Frances Browne, Mrs John Douglas, by Thomas Gainsborough, 1783-4, at Waddesdon Manor. ©National Trust, image provided by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Frances Browne, Mrs John Douglas, by Thomas Gainsborough, 1783-4, at Waddesdon Manor. ©National Trust, image provided by the Public Catalogue Foundation

A number of art dealers stepped in to service both sides of this particularly frothy market, including Agnew’s, Colnagi’s (whose archive has recently been deposited on loan to Waddesdon), Goupil’s, Knoedler’s and Wertheimer’s.

Lady Jane Tollemache, Lady John Halliday, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1778-9, at Waddesdon Manor. ©National Trust, image provided by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Lady Jane Tollemache, Lady John Halliday, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1778-9, at Waddesdon Manor. ©National Trust, image provided by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Sometimes the dealers formed syndicates to acquire and redistribute large collections, while at other times they competed with climactic tenacity for the opportunities to buy and sell important and fashionable works of art.

Sophia Charlotte Digby, Lady Sheffield, by Thomas Gainsborough, 1785-6, at Waddesdon Manor. ©National Trust, image provided by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Sophia Charlotte Digby, Lady Sheffield, by Thomas Gainsborough, 1785-6, at Waddesdon Manor. ©National Trust, image provided by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Some of the types of paintings that were particularly popular in this period were Dutch seventeenth-century landscapes and interiors and English eighteenth-century portraits.

Mrs Abington as the comic muse, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1764-8 and 1772-3, at Waddesdon Manor. ©National Trust, image provided by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Mrs Abington as the comic muse, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1764-8 and 1772-3, at Waddesdon Manor. ©National Trust, image provided by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Visiting Waddesdon, it struck me that this house and collection, built and assembled by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (1839-98) has strong Gilded Age overtones. Indeed it could be said that the goût Rothschild and Gilded Age taste were partially overlapping and mutually influential.

Thaïs, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1781, at Waddesdon Manor. ©National Trust, image provided by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Thaïs, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1781, at Waddesdon Manor. ©National Trust, image provided by the Public Catalogue Foundation

The ‘grand manner’ English portraits collected by Baron Ferdinand would have been equally desirable, and occasionally hotly contested, by the robber barons across the pond.

8 Responses to “The Gilded Age at Waddesdon”

  1. artandarchitecturemainly Says:

    Exactly so! The booming of the Amercian economy during the late C19th, coupled with NO federal taxation, allowed a select group of robber barons to build up unprecedented fortunes. But more than that, I think. If a family built up its fortune from coal, steel, oil or railways, and if they exploited the workers appallingly, the only way they could buy respectability was through architecture, art and hefty donations to good causes.

  2. Andrew Says:

    I suspect that many of the “robber barons” just wanted to show off their wealth and buy “taste” according to the advice they received from experts. It seems strange how some periods or styles go in and out of fashion: they could have bought Impressionist works for a song!

    Perhaps the most remarkable sale – if somewhat late given that anti-trust legislation was passed in the US in 1890 – was that of works from the Hermitage in the early 1930s,

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Helen and Andrew, yes it seems personal interest, collecting mania, cultural and social kudos and public-spiritedness all played a part, in varying degrees.

    And it is fascinating how collectors, dealers and art historians created this ecosytem which determined what was considered ‘good’ art at that time – of course the same things is still happening today.

    And yes the Hermitage sales were mentioned at the conference too, as a kind of epilogue to the Gilded Age.

  4. Andrew Says:

    Ecosystem is an interesting word, given the feedback mechanisms: collectors want works authenticated and given high valuations by dealers; dealers want to sell expensive paintings to collectors.

    Perhaps also interesting that Goupil closed in the 1880s and its successor Boussod a few years later. Did Wertheimer’s close after the death of Asher in 1918?

    Knoedler also came out of Goupil, and survived until a scandal in 2011. There were reports that Agnew’s was to close in 2013, but it still seems to be operating. Colnagi still seems to be going strong too.

    The individual dealers are interesting too – Otto Gutekunst, the Duveens, Bernard Berenson…

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes and, as we were being told at the conference, art historical expertise was very much for sale in the Gilded Age. Berenson, for instance, was taking fees for his authentications, and was helping Isabella Stewart Gardner build up her collection.

    I don’t know much about Asher Wertheimer, but something about him and his family can be found here:
    http://jssgallery.org/Essay/Wertheimer_Family/JM_Intro.htm

    John Singer Sargent painted portraits of them, and in this context it is interesting how Sargent was clearly working in the ‘grand manner’ tradition, when many of his patrons were collecting the original ‘grand manner’ portraits.

  6. Andrew Says:

    There seems to be relatively little about Wertheimer and his family around. He is not in the ODNB, for example.

    More about him and Sargent here – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/4719570/Codes-of-the-Sargents-mess.html – and (in German) here – http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wertheimer-Portr%C3%A4ts_(Sargent)

  7. Andrew Says:

    Ah, and this – http://theesotericcuriosa.blogspot.co.uk/2009/12/meet-wertheimers-portraits-of-family.html#!/2009/12/meet-wertheimers-portraits-of-family.html

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thank you Andrew, how interesting. I think Richard Dorment slightly overstates the anti-semitism in Sargent’s portrayals of the Wertheimers – there may be a bit of it, but some of the in-your-face-ness of the portraits is simply part of Sargent’s racy style, which he also applied to gentile sitters. For instance, I have always thought of the double portrait of the two Wertheimer daughters as casually chic and engaging – as Van Dyck with a sense of humour – rather than brash. But as Dorment says these are fascinating ‘documents’ of the Jewish emancipation in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: