A Christmas Attribution

The worlds of connoisseurship, commerce and the interactions between them are recounted in a lively manner in the writings by Robert Ross (1869-1918), friend and literary executor of Oscar Wilde, successful writer on art, co-director of the Carfax Gallery with Arthur Clifton (1863–1932) and More Adey (1858-1945), and remembered by Roger Fry as a rare example of an honest dealer.

At the end of 1903 Ross published privately A Christmas Attribution, a satirical poem in fourteen quatrains based on the Riddle on the Letter H by Catherine Maria Fanshawe.[1] This is a satire of the modalities occurring between dealers and critics at the turn of the Twentieth century. It opens with a direct mention of the Burlington Magazine, and has its editors (Dell and Holmes) and its principal founders (Berenson and Fry), among its main protagonists. Ross cunningly finds a way of weaving in a mention of practically everybody in the art world, whilst recounting the adventures of a fictional painting.

This painting begins its commercial life as a minor work sold at auction by Foster’s, passes then from dealer to dealer (Christie’s, Lawries, Obach) and is commented by the main London critics (D. S. MacColl, Charles Ricketts, Claude Phillips, Bowyer Nichols, Frederick Wedmore) whilst, thanks also to a series of cunning restoration, becomes progressively more important and attributed to diverse artists, from the fictional Berensonian-styled artists “Alunno van Rubens”, “Amico di Bol” to Longhi, Etty, Baldovinetti and finally, as recognized by the Pennells, Whistler himself. After this, some critics and dealers, voice suspicions on its authenticity and subsequently nobody wishes to be involved with it anymore until, with a magisterial coup, Agnew sells it to the gold and diamond magnate Alfred Beit (1853-1906).

Eventually the work goes back where it all started, to be commented, muttered, whispered and dwelt upon by Burlington writers. Interestingly, these verses were introduced by the Latin quote Et ego in Burlington Arcadia. This could be a reference to the Burlington Arcade, a most celebrated location of Art Commerce in London. The ‘ego’, however, which stands for death in the original, may also signify commerce, a sinister character present even in the self-styled idealistic, Arcadian community of the Burlington Magazine.[2]

It is difficult to say which, if any, event had inspired Ross in writing this poem – this is likely to be a satire of a widespread practice rather than the travesty of a specific case. However, Fry at the beginning of February 1904 wrote to the poet R. C. Trevelyan (1872-1951) telling of a “scandal” of which he had unwittingly become the protagonist a few weeks before: by offering his opinion to the dealer Paterson of Bond Street, a dispute on an attribution of a work to Giovanni Bellini had ensued between him and the artist-dealer James Kerr-Lawson (1865-1939) – perhaps this event provided some inspiration for Ross’s poem.[3]

BP, December 2013
[For a full discussion of this poem, see: Barbara Pezzini (2013) ‘The Burlington Magazine, The Burlington Gazette and The Connoisseur: The Art Periodical and the Market for Old Masters Paintings in Edwardian London’, Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation, 29:3, 154-183.]

[1] This poem was first published by Margery Ross, Robert Ross Friend of Friends (London: Jonathan Cape, 1952), 193 and dated ca. 1910. However internal evidence of the poem dates it to November 1903 – early 1904, a date that is also confirmed by a letter by Roger Fry to Mary Berenson, 27 February 1904 “I send you a copy of Bobby Ross’s Christmas Attribution, which may amuse you.” Published in: Letters of Roger Fry, ed. Denys Sutton (London: Chatto & Windus, 1972), 220. An original copy of the private publication is in the MacColl Papers, Glasgow University Library, MS MacColl T 398A.

[2] It is intriguing that these verses were dedicated to two modern painters, Henry Tonks and Philip Wilson Steer, another testimony of the close relationship between modern art and old master markets in London at the time.

[3] Roger Fry to R. C. Trevelyan, 5 February 1904, Sutton, Letters, 218.


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