Lot 37: Valentine Cameron Prinsep, R.A. (1838-1904)


November 24, 2004, 12:00 AM EST
London, United Kingdom
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Description: A Venetian Gaming-House in the Sixteenth Century
oil on canvas
48 x 72 1/2 in. (122 x 184.2 cm.)
Artist or Maker: Valentine Cameron Prinsep, R.A. (1838-1904)
Exhibited: London, Royal Academy, 1867, no. 573.
Literature: Athenaeum, no. 2063, 11 May 1867, p. 629.
Times, 14 May 1867, p. 6.
Art Journal, 1867, p. 140.
Provenance: with Messrs Vicars Brothers, London.
The Red Cross sale; Christie's, London, 22 May 1917, lot 373 (70 guineas to Gruyther).
Anonymous sale [Mrs A. de Gruyther]; Christie's, London, 20 November 1926, lot 141 (24 guineas to Hill).

A genial, extrovert, giant of a man, popular in artistic and social circles. Val Prinsep belonged to a leading Anglo-Indian family that had already produced several talented amateur artists. He was born in Calcutta on St Valentine's Day 1838; his father, Thoby Prinsep, was a distinguished Indian civil servant, and his mother, the redoubtable Sara, was one of the celebrated Pattle sisters, who also included Julia Margret Cameron, the photographer, and Virginia, Countess Somers, one of the great beauties of the day. The Prinseps returned to England in 1843, and in 1851 took a lease on Little Holland House in Kensington. There for nearly twenty-five years Sara presided over a salon frequented by celebrities in the worlds of art, politics, literature and science.

Val received his earliest art eduction from G.F. Watts, who lived in the house as its genius-in-residence. By 1857 he had fallen under the spell of Rossetti and Burne-Jones, two more of his mother's 'lions', and was helping them to paint murals illustrating the Morte d'Arthur in the Oxford Union. He then went on to study under Charles Gleyre in Paris, where he encountered Whistler, Poynter, George du Maurier and other members of the so-called 'Paris Gang'. He appears as Taffy in Trilby, du Maurier's romanticised account of the vie de bohème published in 1894. In the 1860s Prinsep came under the influence of Frederic Leighton, his neighbour in the colony of artists that was rapidly establishing itself to the south-west of Holland Park, and in 1879 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, of which Leighton had become President the previous year. This was probably in recognition of his labours on an enormous canvas depicting the durbar held by Lord Lytton at Delhi in 1877 to proclaim Queen Victoria Empress of India. The picture was exhibited at the R.A. in 1880 and is now in St James's Palace.

Given the varied influences to which Prinsep was exposed in early life, it is not surprising that his work is eclectic. In the late 1850s he toyed with the quaint medievalism currently in vogue in Rossetti's circle. By the early 1860s he was working in the 'Venetian' idiom that was attracting so many of the Pre-Raphaelites and their contempories. Later still he was to opt for a conventional academic mode, reflecting his training in Paris. Like that of Leighton, who also studied abroad, his work often seems more continental in spirit than English.

As the title implies, A Venetian Gaming-House in the Sixteeth Century is an outstanding example of the Venetian style, that curious buffer-zone between medievalism and classicism in mid-Victorian idealist painting. Of this style Prinsep was a gadfly exponent. He was already exploring it in Il Barbagianni of 1863 (Lloyd Webber Collection) and My Lady Betty of 1864 (Christie's, London, 3 June 1999, lot 82). It takes a more genre-like turn in La Festa di Lido of 1866 (formerly Forbes Collection; Christie's London, 20 February 2003, lots 293-4), and the following year found expression in the present picture and In a Gondola were seen together Lorenzo and his amorous Jessica, an illustration to The Merchant of Venice, which were exhibited together at the Royal Academy. By now many artists were taking to more classical forms and themes, but Prinsep had still not outgrown his Venetian references. A Venetian Lover followed in 1868, and Bacchus and Ariadne, lost but recalling by its title alone Titian's famous account of the subject in the National Gallery, in 1869. The Death of Cleopatra (1870), a picture that has been seen more than once on the London market, shows him at last embracing classicism, but in Leonora di Mantua, a work of 1873 (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), he returned once again to Venetian values, presenting them indeed at their most brassy and lush.

The Venetian style was a complex phenomenon. In addition to Prinsep, the artists involved included Watts, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Simeon Solomon, Leighton and even Whistler, not to mention Prinsep's aunt Mrs Cameron in some of her photographs. Watts, who had been a devotee of Titian since the 1830s, his enthusiasm betraying his roots in the English history-painting tradition, was a crucial influence, not only through the example of his painting but by setting the tone of life at Little Holland House, where Prinsep grew up and so many artists frequented his mother's salon. That there was something distinctly Venetian about the household's air of cultured indolence (Venetian, that is to say, when it was not Indian) was acknowledged by Watts himself when he painted a portrait of Sara Prinsep in the early 1860s and called it In the Days of Giorgione.

Then there were the current obsessions of John Ruskin, another habitué of Little Holland House and a close ally of Watts in attempting to shape the artistic development both of Prinsep and Burne-Jones. In the late 1850s Ruskin was undergoing that common Victorian experience, conversion to a 'religion of humanity'. This caused him to make a deep study of Titian and Veronese, who emerged as the heroes of the last volume of Modern Painters (1860). When Val Prinsep and Burne-Jones visited Venice together in the autumn of 1859, they went with Ruskin's blessing and were very conscious of the critic's opinions. 'Ruskin in hand', Prinsep later recalled, 'we sought out every cornice, design, or monument praised by him. We bowed before Tintoret and scoffed at Sansovino. A broken pediment was a thing of horror!' (Magazine of Art, 1904, p.417).

Ironically enough, Venetian influence often played a crucial part in creating a type of picture that was inimical to everything that Ruskin stood for, namely early expressions of Aesthetisicm, in which the emphasis was firmly on decorative values and meaning played little part. Rossetti was the leading exponant of this type of picture. His very first essay in the genre, the Bocca Baciata of 1859 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), had, he believed, 'a rather Venetian aspect', while a magnificent later example, the Monna Vanna of 1866 (Tate Gallery), by his own admission 'probably the most effective (picture) as a room decoration that I have ever painted', was conceived as a 'Venus Veneta'.

Prinsep, too, tackled this type of picture. Il Barbagianni, My Lady Betty and Leonora di Mantua all develop the idiom in one form or another. But, as the above list shows, he was never one to shun versatility. He could also give a Venetian twist to literary subjects and modern genre, while inA Venetian Gaming-House Venice is the setting for a piece of costume drama of a type more associated with international academicism than with Watts or Prinsep's Pre-Raphaelite peers.

Press comment on the picture was generally favourable when it appeared at the R.A. in 1867. That it was Venetian not only in theme but in style was widely recognised. It might suffer from defective drawing and a certain coarseness of handling, faults of which Prinsep was never entirely free, but everyone liked its 'manly' approach, a reflection of the artist's bluff and virile personality and (by implication) a welcome antidote to the effeminate hypersensitivity of the Burne-Jones school. Few doubted that, all in all, it was Prinsep's most impressive work to date.

'"A Venetian Gaming-house in the Sixteenth Century",' observed the Art Journal, is in colour, as in subject, Venetian. The deep tones and the prevelence of golden hues show the influence of Giorgione. But the painting, as painting, obtains power at the cost of delicacy. The drawing is far from careful, and the details will not bear inspection. This picture gains additional interest as a distinct representative of a school, that school which idolises colour at the expense of form, and which seeks its colour, not so much in daylight and the face of nature, as in the dark tones of old Italian canvases.

Tom Taylor in the Times wrote as follows:
V. Prinsep's 'Venetian Gambling-house [sic] in the Sixteenth Century', though not the largest picture the artist has exhibited, is in advance of anything he has yet produced for cleverness of composition, variety and vigour of drawing, and power both of colour and expression. The canvas is so filled with figures that, but for the clear space kept by the gambling table round which they are gathered as actors or spectators, it might be called overcrowded. The lurid light of unseen lamps shines hotly on the gorgeously attired gamblers, whose central point of interest is a fierce quarrel between two players in the foreground, in which the women interpose. There is great vivacity and dramatic spirit in the action and expression of the principal group. The gorgeous yet never garish colours of Venetian costume have given the painter the opportunity which his strong bent as a colourist impels him to seek. But while the picture exemplifies, both in action and colour, the manly vigour of its young painter, it shows that he has still to master the defects of imperfect drawing and over-charged employment of pigments... Clumsiness in some parts and weakness in others... mar the generally harmonious and powerful colouring of this picture.

The prolixity of mid-Victorian critics never ceases to astonish. Even this edited excerpt shows Taylor repeating himself and habitually using two or more words when one would do. F.G. Stephens, writing in the Anthenaeum, was only slightly more succinct:
A Venetian Gaming-House in the Sixteenth Century gives us the scene its title suggests, - men and women, young and old, gathered about a gaming-table; a hot quarrel goes on between a youth, of questionable drawing in his legs and back, and a seated man of greater age. The actions here are expressed with vigour, even to coarseness...; the effect is boldly given, the colouring broad and rich; the handling heavy and slovenly to a fault. This is, nevertheless, the picture of an accompished painter, who has a notion of Art, and power to render it, far above the scope so common on these walls. This is far more complete than any of Mr Prinsep's pictures of other years.

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Important British Art

November 24, 2004, 12:00 AM EST

London, United Kingdom