One of the treasures of the Fairhaven Bequest at the Fitzwilliam Museum is the series of twelve flower paintings, one for each month of the year, by van Huysum. Until a few days ago, I had assumed that the artist was Jan van Huysum (or Huijsum; 1682–1749), whose vases of flowers, blooming together on his canvases in a way that they do not always do in real life, are found in art galleries all over the world. But then it was pointed out to me that this sequence was in fact created by Jacob or Jacobus van Huysum (1687/9–1740), a younger and lesser-known brother of Jan.
The painter Justus van Huysum the elder (1659–1716) had four sons, all of them painters: Justus the younger (1685–1707), Michiel (1704–1760), Jan, and Jacob. The family came from Amsterdam, and the family industry was flower painting, ever since Justus the elder’s father Jan moved there from a village near near Leeuwarden in Friesland around 1655.
I suppose it is possible to view Jacobus as ‘the English van Huysum’ in the same way that Johann Christian was ‘the English Bach’ – at any rate, they both appear in the ODNB, though much less is known about the former than the latter. He came to England in 1721, and lodged with an apparent patron, Mr Lockyear, who lived in South Sea House in London.
The South Sea Bubble having exploded spectacularly in the previous year, it looks as though South Sea House, at the corner of Bishopsgate and Threadneedle Street, had been rented out in whole or in part as living space – though I can’t find any evidence for this.
The South Sea Company of course continued trading after the Bubble: a famous print from 1810 shows the Dividend Hall, while in 1816, the bequest of £100,000 in South Sea annuities, for the building of ‘a Good, Substantial and Convenient Museum’, was adequate to erect our own dear Fitzwilliam.
South Sea House burned down in 1826, and its replacement acknowledges over the doorway the slave-trading origins of what turned into a giant Ponzi scheme.
Nor can I find any trace of a Mr Lockyear, or even Lockyer, but by 1730 Jacob van Huysum was producing plates for the Society of Gardeners’ Catalogus plantarum,
including these honeysuckles (there are several more pages of Lonicera):
these lilies and irises:
and this cinquefoil, where the names of the artist and the engraver (Elisha Kirkall, (1681/2–1742, himself an artist and innovative engraver) are more legible on the BHL scan of the copy of the book in the Natural History Museum, London, than on some other pages.
The original drawings can be seen in albums held at the British Museum: here are pomegranates and roses.
Jacob had also made the acquaintance of John Martyn, physician and later Professor of Botany at Cambridge University, for whom he drew many plates for his Historia plantarum rariorum (five ‘decades’, of ten plates each, between 1728 and 1737), also engraved by Kirkall. These books contain some of the earliest attempts at printing copper plates in colour, though Wilfred Blunt, in The Art of Botanical Illustration (1950), p. 133, is rather dismissive of them: ‘[The plates were] engraved by Kirkall in what is generally called “mezzotint printed in colour”. The phrase is misleading … Kirkall achieved a half-hearted imitation of true mezzotint by rather clumsily roughening the toned parts of the plate with a roulette and leaving the rest of it untouched. The so-called “colour-printing” was equally elementary: many of the figures are merely printed in a mossy green and touched with water-colour; in a few of the others, two or three different coloured inks have been used in a single printing.’
One sees what he means – the leaves especially have a rather ‘dead’ effect – but none the less, a small landmark in colour printing?
The Historia was abandoned, incomplete, in 1737 (sales had apparently fallen right off), but by that time Jacob had acquired a new patron, Sir Robert Walpole, in whose London home he lodged while producing flower paintings, but also copying the Old Master paintings in Walpole’s collection for the decoration of Houghton Hall, his country seat in Norfolk. Unfortunately, he was dismissed for drunkenness, and the rest of his life remains obscure: he is believed to have died in 1740 (though the original DNB gives his death date at 1746), and his burial place seems to be unknown. So, an undoubted talent, but perhaps not a very happy life? His more famous brother Jan was notorious for keeping his techniques and materials a secret: not even his brothers were allowed to enter his studio, and he dismissed one of his few pupils, Margaretha Haverman (1693–after 1729) after she began to become successful.
Jan van Huysum was patronised by Walpole, among many others – was Jacob’s problem that he was always outshone by his brother? The ‘Twelve Months of Flowers’ sequence, along with a separate painting of A Vase of Flowers with Fruit, came to the Fitzwilliam Museum as part of the Fairhaven Bequest in 1973. Unfortunately, they had no known previous provenance: the online catalogue says: ‘Bought from an unknown source by Lord Fairhaven, before 1952.’ Had they been commissioned by Walpole? Were they a tour de force painted in the hope of demonstrating Jacob’s equality with, if not his superiority to, his more successful brother? Speculation is hopeless: all one can really do is enjoy each image as they appear on the Museum’s Twitter page in successive months.