John Arthur James (1853–1917) and Mary Venetia James (1861–1948)

Jean-Baptiste Le Prince, The Necromancer (NG 5848)

Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, a nephew, and one of the executors of the estate of John Arthur James’s widow, Mary Venetia, wrote to the Gallery in 1949 that he had heard from his late aunt’s secretary that all the pictures in the James bequest ‘were in the late Mr. Arthur James’ possession in 1909 and that he has never seen any details of their purchase etc., which took place before he entered my Aunt’s employment in 1908’.1

John Arthur James was one of the three sons of a wealthy American Liverpool merchant, Daniel James of Woolton, Lancashire, by his second wife, née Sofia Hall Hitchcock, who was also American. His younger brother, William, acquired West Dean (now West Dean College), West Sussex, and had Lutyens build the nearby Monkton House, which was later transformed internally by his son Edward James, the great patron and collector of Surrealist art. The main interest of John Arthur was racehorses, both as a breeder and owner. He was also a JP and deputy-lieutenant of Warwickshire. In 1909 he was created a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order by King Edward VII, whom he entertained that year at his country home, Coton House, near Rugby.2

In 1885 he married Mary Venetia Cavendish-Bentinck, daughter of a critic of the National Gallery, the Hon. George Augustus Frederick Cavendish-Bentinck, MP, PC (1821–1891), owner of Brownsea Island, Dorset, and of Prudence Penelope Leslie (1830–1896), and a great-granddaughter of the 3rd Duke of Portland.3 George Augustus Frederick’s posthumous sale was held by Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 8–13 July 1891. John Arthur James bought a number of pictures there which had belonged to his late father-in-law, but NG 5848 was not in the auction. The date and place of its acquisition (presumably by James) remains uncertain, but it was in or after 1883. According to the auction catalogue, George Augustus Frederick’s London address was 3 Grafton Street, a property which John Arthur James and/or Venetia evidently inherited. George Augustus Frederick had sold a few paintings at Phillips & Neale, London, 18 March 1884, but they were all Italian School.

The death in 1948 of Venetia James prompted acquaintances to write obituaries in which she was described as ‘a brilliant conversationalist, and equally brilliant and kind hostess’, and as having a ‘well-known stud farm … and considerable success on the Turf [and being] a good gardener, well read, a perfect French and Italian scholar [who] not only made large donations [to charity], but unsparingly gave her own personal service’.4 She was godmother to Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, to whom she gave a jewelled brooch as a christening present,5 and to whom she bequeathed some jewellery.6 Venetia James was also a friend of Alice Keppel, who after a liaison with the 2nd Baron Grimthorpe became the long-term mistress of King Edward VII, and it was at the James’s Grafton Street home that Keppel stayed immediately after the king’s death.7 A portrait of Venetia James painted in 1895 by Luke Fildes was recently on the art market.8

In addition to making a bequest of silver, furniture and objets d’art to the Victoria and Albert Museum,9 Mary Venetia James bequeathed a total of 35 pictures to the National Gallery with the stipulations that any not accepted within six months of her death (which occurred on 2 May 1948) should fall into her residuary estate, and that those that were retained should be called ‘The Arthur James collection bequeathed by his wife’. There exists a list of the pictures then sent to the National Gallery for inspection.

The Gallery accepted 12, of which six British pictures, all eighteenth-century, were soon transferred to the Tate Gallery (as it was then called).10 These were by Richard Wilson (NO 5842), manner of Sir Joshua Reynolds (NO 5843), Gainsborough (NO 5844 and 5845), George Morland (NO 5849) and George Romney (NO 5850). In addition to Le Prince’s The Necromancer, the paintings retained by the National Gallery were two pictures by Pietro Longhi (NG 5841 and 5852), a Salomon van Ruysdael (NG 5846), a Gerard ter Borch (NG 5847) and a David Teniers the Younger (NG 5851). All the paintings ultimately kept by the Gallery had hung at the Grafton Street address. The wording of the part of the bequest relevant to NG 5848 read ‘Picture by le Prince’, but there were two pictures attributed to Le Prince at Grafton Street, so the Gallery chose NG 5848, the other being described as ‘Two ladies and a Gentleman taking coffee’.11


1 A copy of this letter dated 20 January 1949 to Neil MacLaren is in the picture dossier for NG 5848.

2The Times, 2 May 1917, p. 5, and Who Was Who,, accessed 20 October 2014.

3 Hammond 1998, p. 530; for a reference to Cavendish-Bentinck’s criticisms of the Gallery in Parliament, see The Times, 7 July 1891, p. 11.

4The Times, 14 May 1948, p. 7, and 19 May 1948, p. 7.

5 Sold, Christie’s, London, 13 June 2006, lot 78.

6Manchester Guardian, 30 June 1948, p. 3.

7 Ridley 2012, p. 461.

8 Bonham’s, London, 25 June 2014, lot 21, sold for £11,875 including premium.

9The Times, 30 June 1948, p. 6.

10 I am grateful to Susannah Avery-Quash and Richard Wragg for their assistance on this point.

11 The information in this paragraph is, except where another source is acknowledged, derived from (copy) letters and other papers in the NG Archive, 14/135/1.