This month’s object is a bit of a cheat. It is held by the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, but is not currently on display – nor, according to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, when he viewed it in 1833, should it ever have been.
One of the greatest works in the Museum’s collection (and that’s saying something) is Titian’s ‘Venus and Cupid with a Lute Player’, painted at some time between 1555 and 1565. In terms of provenance, it has a royal pedigree: probably acquired by the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (a strange, melancholic collector of everything who had a pet lion called Ottokar), it was in Prague in 1621, and was taken to Sweden as loot after the battle of Prague at the very end of the Thirty Years’ War. Queen Christina then carried it in her luggage to Rome when she abdicated, and after her death, and after complicated transactions, it was bought (with 122 other works) by the great French collector Philippe d’Orléans (1674–1723), nephew of Louis XIV and Regent of France before Louis XV came of age.
Philippe put a large number of his pictures on public display in his Paris seat, the Palais-Royal, and a catalogue was produced. This faintly democratic tendency was perhaps passed down to his great-grandson, ‘Philippe-Égalité’, whose own gambling debts were so huge that he was already negotiating the sale of the family collections when the French Revolution broke out. The fate of the Orléans collections is a fascinating but massively complicated story. For the present purpose, suffice it to say that the Titian was purchased in England for 1,000 guineas by Viscount Fitzwilliam: at the time it was called ‘Philip the Second and his Mistress’ (though one wonders why the picture was ever thought to portray the famously dour and pious Philip II of Spain). So it is as part of the Founder’s Collection that the picture hangs in the Italian gallery today.
The Titian itself, however, is not my object. In 1815 (a year before his death), the Viscount had the miniaturist Horace Hone make a small copy of the work in enamel, which was hung together with the original when the collection was first displayed in Cambridge, and it was at this time that Coleridge made his disobliging remark.
This was not, of course, Titian’s only version of Venus with a musician. There are two paintings in the Prado (dated to about 1548 and 1550 respectively) where (indoors, but opening upon a formal landscape) an organist, looking over his shoulder in the same pose as our lute-player, serenades the goddess. In the earlier picture, Venus’s attention is absorbed by Cupid; in the later, she is playing with a small brown hound. Another (dated 1548–9, in the Staatliches Museum, Berlin) has a mountainous landscape and an endearing, large fluffy dog.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a very similar image to that in the Fitzwilliam (believed by some to be a later, unfinished copy): the lute-player’s pose, the mountainous landscape beyond, the crowning of Venus with flowers, and the recorder in her left hand all feature, though details of the background and the lutenist’s clothes are different.
As to Fitzwilliam’s motive in commissioning the copy, I had thought he might have wanted a small (20.6 x 15.5), more portable and less easily damaged version than the (150.5 x 196.8) original, to show off to his friends or for private perusal? But the odd thing about the whole artefact is that the enamel plate is encased in a deep and very elaborate gilt frame (which I’m cursing that I failed to photograph), though it is readily accessible because the glass front is hinged and opens with a key (a bit like the dial of a grandfather clock). So it doesn’t look as though the intention was to slip it in one’s pocket for passing around to one’s dilettanti friends. Did Fitzwilliam have similar copies made of other items in his collection? Not as far as I know, but I know virtually nothing …
The choice of Horace Hone is relatively easy: Horace (1754–1825) was the son of the more famous Nathaniel Hone the Elder, and, like his father, painted miniatures, mostly on vellum or ivory, but also produced enamels. The Hones were an Irish family (though Horace was born in Frith Street, Soho), and their patrons included many of the Irish aristocracy. Horace went to Ireland in 1750: his forte appeared to be well-born ladies with wide, alluring eyes, but the Fitzwilliam also holds a striking image of the architect James Gandon, a pupil of William Kent, who designed the Four Courts and many other public and private buildings in Dublin, and indeed a miniature of Viscount Fitzwilliam himself (donated in 1825, i.e. not part of Fitzwilliam’s own collection).
The back of the frame reveals this hand-written label: This enamel, of Phillip the Second and his Mistress; / copied after Titian, and by order, with some variations._/ The original was purchased from the Orleans / Gallery, by The Right Hon. Lord Visct Fitzwilliam / for whom this Enamel was painted / by Horace Hone A.R.A. and miniature painter to His / Royal Highness The Prince Regent – and residing / at No 4 Park Place St James Street London. / In the year 1815 fifteen.
It is difficult to know what the ‘some variations’ are, because there are so many. The most obvious is Venus herself: Titian’s thoughtful, enigmatic goddess has become a Parisienne flirt, and the hand clasping the recorder looks like a squid. Even more oddly, the bass viol propped with its back to us at right front has turned into an uncertain piece of stone furniture. And there are lots of changes to the background, the pattern covering Venus’s bed, and other small details.
As for Coleridge, he had revisited Cambridge (where he had been a student at Jesus College) in June 1833 for the British Association meeting. At this time, the Founder’s Collection was housed in the great hall of the old Perse Grammar School in Free School Lane (built 1618–28 and now surviving as part of the Whipple Museum of the History of Science). At this time, the school was almost defunct, and must have seemed ideal as a temporary store for the paintings while the permanent museum was being built. Legal steps to revivify the school (which had become a sinecure for fellows of Caius College) were taken in 1837, and in 1842 the collection was moved to the University Library (then in the Old Schools) before the new (and not quite finished) museum received them in 1848. (An early picture of the paintings in the Perse hall shows the Venus quite clearly, but there is no sign of the enamel.)
According to his nephew and son-in-law Henry Nelson Coleridge, the editor of two volumes of his ‘Table-Talk’, published in 1835, S.T.C. thought ‘Gerard Douw’s “Schoolmaster” in the Fitzwilliam Museum, the finest thing of that sort I ever saw; – whether you look at it at the common distance, or examine it with a glass, the wonder is equal. And that glorious picture of the Venus – so perfectly beautiful and perfectly innocent – as if beauty and innocence could not be dissociated! The French [sic] thing below is a curious instance of the inherent grossness of the French taste. Titian’s picture is made quite bestial.’
And Henry Nelson adds a footnote: ‘I wish this criticism were enough to banish that vile miniature into a drawer or cupboard. At any rate, it might be detached from the glorious masterpiece to which it is now a libellous pendant.’ Poor Horace Hone had died in 1825: having moved back to England in pursuit of his patrons, many of whom had acquired London houses after the Acts of Union of 1800, he became mentally ill in 1807, and his last years seem to have been a slow decline. Just as well that he did not live to hear Coleridge’s scathing comment on his work.