Introduction I

Taste, connoisseurship and the history of the British Museum’s collection, continued

In general the attributional traffic has travelled in the same direction, away from Rembrandt, but there have been exceptions. There is the somewhat bizarre case of the two studies of pigs (here Cat. nos 2021), which entered the Museum in 1824 with Payne Knight’s bequest as the work of Titian. They remained under his name until 1910, when Rembrandt’s hand was recognised by Hind. One of the sheets presented by William Fawkener in 1769, of a Man leaning over a Table ( Cat. no. 2, was rejected at the time of the 1899 exhibition and assigned to the school in the first catalogue raisonné of Rembrandt’s drawings published in 1906 by Cornelis Hofstede de Groot. In 1915 it was also rehabilitated by Hind and Rembrandt’s authorship is still generally accepted.

Changes in taste can also be followed in the comparative fortunes of different types of drawings. For example, the Young Woman sleeping (Hendrickje Stoffels) ( Cat. no. 51), now regarded as one of Rembrandt’s supreme achievements as a draughtsman, remained unrecorded until 1873. It was then, at £9-5s-0d, by no means among the most expensive drawings at the Andrew James sale. On the same occasion the Star of the Kings ( Cat. no. 38) was bought by George Salting for more than three times as much – £31-10s-0d – and came to the Museum with Salting’s bequest in 1910. Without specifically mentioning the drawing of Hendrickje, Jacob Rosenberg suggested that a taste for Impressionism may have opened our eyes to certain qualities in Rembrandt, to his ‘grasp of form and character, his intense suggestion of space and atmosphere, the originality and expressive power of his graphic language, and last, not least, the intimacy and profundity of his human interpretation’. [26]

A much-lamented omission to the British Museum’s holdings of old master drawings was caused by its failure to buy the collection formed by the artist, Thomas Lawrence, which was dispersed at his death in 1830 after first being offered to the Museum’s Trustees. A neglected ingredient of the story is that the Museum did not at that time acquire old master drawings by purchase. The available evidence provided by the departmental Register of acquisitions suggests that it was not until the 1840s that this policy was reversed. [27]

Lawrence’s collection, which was assembled from all over Europe, contained few Dutch drawings apart from his series of more than 100 sheets attributed to Rembrandt. The latter were purchased en bloc by William Esdaile in 1835 and 14 have since entered the collection. [28]  Of these, two were attributed to Nicolaes Maes by Hind, two others that Hind had accepted were doubted by Benesch and three more have now been given to Rembrandt’s school. Thus two-thirds of the Museum’s ex-Lawrence drawings are still considered to be by Rembrandt himself, a remarkable record given the extent of the reappraisal that has taken place since Lawrence’s death. Perhaps a degree of jealousy informed the remark made by Eugène Dutuit in 1885, that of the 35 Rembrandt drawings from Lawrence’s collection that were reoffered at Samuel Woodburn’s sale of 1860, only three were by Rembrandt himself. [29]

The British Museum’s own purchases since the mid-19th century, made from a variety of sources, have in general also stood the test of time. Of chief importance was the acquisition in 1895 of the choice collection formed by John Malcolm of Poltalloch. Like Lawrence’s collection, whence some of Malcolm’s drawings came, the main bias was towards the Italian rather than Netherlandish schools, but nevertheless no fewer than 14 sheets are still accepted as autograph Rembrandts in the present catalogue. Their acquisition transformed both the quality and quantity of the Museum’s holdings, raising them to a level that was then unequalled, as Cornelis Hofstede de Groot commented in 1899. [30]  To name but a few, they included the already-mentioned Young Woman sleeping (Hendrickje Stoffels), the Four Orientals under a Tree ( Cat. no. 56), arguably the finest example of Rembrandt’s copies after Indian miniatures, along with two other drawings from the same series (Cat. nos 5960) and some of the most impressive landscape drawings in the collection (e.g., Cat. nos 6869). Malcolm acquired many of them from his adviser, J.C. Robinson, who compiled a catalogue of the collection and who sometimes acted as Malcolm’s agent in the salerooms. Many of the drawings had formerly belonged to two Dutch collectors, Gerard Leembruggen and Jacob de Vos, whose sales took place in Amsterdam in 1866 and 1883, respectively.

The bequest of George Salting in 1910 added a rich icing to the cake. Among the 11 Rembrandt drawings in the present catalogue, it contained the Star of the Kings ( Cat. no. 38) mentioned above, the Sketches of an old Man playing with a Child ( Cat. no. 28), the Christ walking on the Waves ( Cat. no. 48) as well as two of Rembrandt’s most evocative notations in red chalk, the Two Women teaching a Child to walk and the Woman teaching a Child to stand (Cat. nos 1314).

Since 1910, the decline in the availability of Rembrandt’s drawings on the art market, coupled with increasing budgetary constraints, has greatly slowed the pace of acquisition. Yet the eight further autograph sheets that have since entered the collection, either by purchase, gift or bequest, have contributed significantly to the character and range of this extraordinary group of Rembrandt’s drawings.

  • ^ [26] - Rosenberg, 1956, 123.
  • ^ [27] - With two exceptions in 1836: Dominique Vivant Denon’s drawings of Egypt, acquired for their archaeological interest, and the 812 drawings purchased as a minor part of the John Sheepshanks collection. The chief attraction of the acquisition had been the much larger quantity of prints, some 7,694, that Sheepshanks had amassed, and prints were actively collected by the Museum.
  • ^ [28] - These can now be found through searching the database under his name.
  • ^ [29] - Dutuit, IV, 1885, 105. He names them as the Presentation, at £12-1-6, the Woman standing at a Window at £5-7-6, and Woman giving Suck to a Child at 14 gns.
  • ^ [30] - Hofstede de Groot, 1899, 164. The Malcolm collection contained 32 drawings that were considered to be by Rembrandt himself and thus catalogued by Robinson, 1876, or added to the collection between 1876 and 1895. For Malcolm, see Exh. London, 1996–7.