The Bridgewater Collection: Its Impact on Collecting and Display in Britain

English royalty and aristocracy

On the subject of the association of Titian’s Diana and Actaeon with European royalty it is appropriate to note the picture’s association with the English royal family.7  Charles I, when Prince of Wales, saw the pictures in Madrid in 1623, during his quest to obtain a Spanish bride.

The art-historian Carducho, writing only a few years later, in 1630, in his eighth 'Dialogue on Art' recorded how the King of Spain, seeing Charles’ appetite for pictures, made preparations to give him a number of the Titian mythologies. In the Dialogue, the Pupil asks his Master how it was that Charles did not in the event carry them off and receives the reply: ‘I saw them at that time put in cases to be sent to England. There were the two baths of Diana, the Europa, the Danae, and the rest. But, with the change of circumstances, they stayed here'.8  The ‘change of circumstances’ was Charles’s refusal to comply with the Spanish demand that he convert to Roman Catholicism and remain in Spain for a year after the wedding to ensure England’s compliance with the terms of the marriage treaty.

In the event, the closest Charles came to owning these masterpieces were the full-scale copies Rubens made when he visited the Spanish court six years later. The copy of 'Diana and Actaeon' has not been traced, but a sheet survives of sketches after figures in the picture by Rubens, presumably made at the same time (Getty Museum, California).9

In the case of 'Diana and Acteon', the picture had to wait a while longer to enter an English collection. It remained in Paris with its pair and other paintings by Titian for over 70 years at the Palais Royal in Paris (where they were seen by many people) until the Orléans Collection was broken up and sold in the 1790s, during the French Revolution by the Regent’s great-grandson, Philippe II, duc d’Orleans. The Orléans Collection was sold to raise money for this hugely financially embarrassed Prince, among other reasons because he hoped to ride the political storm. It was at this point that the picture was destined to cross the Channel and enter what became one of the most spectacular collections of the English aristocracy – that of the Duke of Bridgewater and his heirs. Much work has been done on the fascinating topic of the dispersal of the Orléans collection, notably by Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny;10  here it is sufficient to rehearse the most salient details. The Italian and French pictures – 305 of them - were sold off first and ended up in England. The other batch of Flemish, Dutch, and German pictures also ended up in this country, having been bought by Thomas Moore Slade, Esq., a rich speculator and financier (for 350,000 francs), who in 1791 had in fact attempted to purchase the entire Orléans Collection.11 

As far as the group of Italian pictures was concerned, its entry into the Bridgwater Collection was not ‘a given’ and had things turned out differently, the Diana pictures et al. might have been bought by the English government far earlier than in fact occurred or they might have remained in France. The artist Benjamin West and politician Charles Long had had ambitions to purchase the finest 150 pictures from the Orléans Collection (for £44,000) to serve as the basis of a national collection.

Their proposed scheme was said to have had the blessing of the Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and George III, but for whatever reason it foundered. Instead what occurred was that the Italian and French pictures from the Orléans Collection were bought by a Brussels banker, Edouard Walckiers, who then sold them to his cousin, François-Louis-Joseph de Laborde-Méréville, who began to build a gallery in the Rue d’Artois, Paris, to accommodate them. Méréville’s decision to cross the Channel with his collection once the Revolution began was deemed a temporary solution, with the collector hoping to return to France one day12

Given that the pictures were mortgaged when he fled to England and that selling the collection to a fellow countryman was no longer an option, he ultimately had to cede ownership of it to Jeremiah Harman, a director of the Bank of England and an important collector of paintings. Harman chose to sell on the pictures almost immediately, in the early summer of 1798, for £43,000, to Michael Bryan, a gentleman dealer,13  who was acting on behalf of a syndicate of noblemen, including the Duke of Bridgewater. 

The three noblemen involved chose to retain (after some changes of mind by all three) many of the most splendid pictures – the Duke of Bridgewater, for instance, keeping the Titian Dianas for his own collection. The 94 pictures selected were divided by the consortium in such a way that Bridgewater retained some 47 pictures, valued at £23,130, while his nephew Lord Gower (1758-1833; George Granville Leveson-Gower, in 1803 created 2nd Marquis of Stafford and later still, in 1833, 1st Earl of Sutherland) took a fourth part and Lord Carlisle14 (Gower’s cousin-by-marriage)15 took an eighth share.

Despite their smaller portions of the pictures, it is likely to have been the two younger nobles, rather than Bridgewater himself, who brokered the deal. For one thing Lord Gower had been British ambassador in Paris in the early 1790s, so he would have been in an ideal position to keep abreast of developments concerning the Orléans Collection. And one can assume that it was Carlisle who approached Michael Bryan (or was approached by him) since he had been buying pictures from Bryan (and selling to him) since the 1790s.

Having made their selection the noblemen arranged for the remainder of the Orléans Collection pictures to be sold; to this end – and with great novelty - they put all the Italian and French paintings on show for seven months, including those they had already selected for themselves, owning all the pictures in common until the end of the sale. Due to the sheer number of pictures they were split between two locations; 138 of them were shown at Bryan’s own commercial gallery in Pall Mall,16  while the remaining group of 158, including the larger pictures, was displayed in a rented hall at the Lyceum in the Strand.

This double-venue exhibition opened on Boxing Day 1798, admission cost half a crown and hand-lists of the pictures were available. Interestingly, the artist and diarist, Joseph Farington, made rough sketches of the layout of the rooms at both venues on the very last day of the exhibition, 31 July 1799, so a record has been preserved of how the pictures were hung.17  From Farington’s drawing it is clear that Titian’s 'Diana and Actaeon' and 'Diana and Callisto' were displayed on the principal right-hand wall of the Lyceum among other unframed pictures, in a symmetrical, closely-packed hang; more precisely, they were placed to either side of Sebastiano del Piombo’s Raising of Lazarus and they had a horizontal Tintoretto, the 'Last Judgement' above them.18 

The artistic community seems to have agreed that the Titians were the best pictures, although a more discussed work (because of its contested authorship) was the Sebastiano, which was purchased on the opening day by John Julius Angerstein; a little later, in 1824, the work was included within the governmental purchase of the Angerstein Collection to form the basis of the National Gallery (NG1). At 3,500 guineas, the Sebastiano was among the most expensive purchases, although Bridgewater paid out high prices too, especially for his Titian Dianas and for the famous Bridgewater Raphael. Most expensive of all was Annibale Carracci’s Dead Christ Mourned, bought by Lord Carlisle (4,000 guineas).19  Certainly our triumvirate’s pickings were among the most stunning.

The Earl of Carlisle’s pictures stayed in his family (on show in the ‘Orléans Room’ at Castle Howard), although Annibale Carracci’s 'Dead Christ Mourned' was presented by Rosalind, Countess of Carlisle, to the NG in 1913. In the Duke of Bridgewater’s case, when he died unmarried in 1803, he left the whole of his collection (the Orléans collection – including the Titian Dianas - plus the rest of his collection) for life to his nephew, the Marquis of Stafford/1st Duke of Sutherland (part of the triumvirate). When the 1st Duke of Sutherland died, the portion of the paintings inherited from the Duke of Bridgewater passed to his second son, Francis Leveson-Gower (1800-57). Presumably in acknowledgement of this great inheritance Francis, on his father’s death in 1833, changed his surname to Egerton - that of his great-uncle; some 13 years later that he was created 1st Earl of Ellesmere.20  The 'Diana and Actaeon' and its pair have stayed with that branch of the family – the Egerton Sutherlands - ever since21.

Next: Bridgewater and his relatives

Viewing page 2 (6)
  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6