Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Around the galleries

I don't get to London's commercial art galleries as often as I'd like because they're not generally open at the weekends. But last week was extended opening hours and special shows to coincide with the old master auction viewings,so I went to see about a dozen dealer shows over a couple of days. 
Picture: Stephen Ongpin
I particularly liked Stephen Ongpin's show, in a small gallery in Mason's Yard. The Cecco Bravo (above) is a striking drawing by a Florentine baroque artist whose paintings I don't much care for. But this drawing of St Agatha, breasts on a platter, is a beautiful work of art that typifies a certain strain of counter-reformation high drama. It's priced at £42k. He also has a fine and well-preserved drawing by Menzel (£24k, below), another artist that I value more as draughtsman than as painter. It's a rapid study for a lost painting, but it's an effective work of art in its own right, finely worked up in the face. 
Picture: Stephen Ongpin
Menzel is not well represented in British collections. It would be a good acquisition for the National Gallery of Scotland, where it would complement a fine collection of nineteenth century European paintings that they've developed well in recent years. This unusual Interior of Ribe Cathedral, Denmark by Heinrich Hansen would be another good acquisition for them. It's £9k from Crispian Riley-Smith who had a fine display of mostly moderately priced drawings.
Heinrich Hansen Interior of Ribe Cathedral, Denmark
Picture: Crispian Riley-Smith
I was taken by this Gandolfi at Noortman (now a Sotheby's subsidiary and not formally part of Master Paintings Week). Oil sketches like this often look better than finished paintings because they weren't finished with the fine glazes that are so often damaged by repeated cleaning. There were more good drawings at Katrin Bellinger's gallery, but I was taken aback by the £20 asked for the catalogue. 
Picture: Tomasso Brothers
Tomasso Brothers had some wonderful things, maybe the most concentrated quality I saw on display. The lighting in their gallery is rather low, but they happily lent me a torch - which is anyway a more satisfactory way to examine bronzes, which can't possibly be illuminated from every angle. This superb bronze copy of the colossal Farnese Bull is probably Italian, but could be French. It's certainly excellent.
Picture: Tomasso Brothers
I'm glad to have such a concentration of art dealers on my doorstep, but I can see why they struggle against the auction houses. Big mark-ups are to be expected, and no one can reasonably object to a dealer making money from works bought well. But some of what's on offer seems awfully expensive. One dealer was asking £1.7m for a Van Dyck that was bought in at Christie's last December with a low estimate of £600k (just under £750k with premium and sales tax). I sometimes had the sense that dealers recognised I wasn't a buyer and responded to my price queries with the highest number they could think of - like Dr Evil in Austin Powers.

There's quite a range of dealers in Mayfair and I saw some extremes of quality. There were some over-restored, over-attributed and over-priced duds. One prominent dealer's stock was conspicuously dusty, another's paintings were crooked and some had typos on the wall text. A well-known dealer was asking over £80k for a picture with a label that mis-transcribed the clearly legible date. Others were excellent, and worked hard to earn their mark-ups. Philip Mould's gallery stood out as the most focused and well-displayed exhibition, centred on Peter Lely, and they had the single best painting - a Van Dyck self-portrait, which is sold. Johnny van Haeften had some fine things, particularly these by Dou and Frans van Mieris the Elder. There were enough galleries getting it right to make it worthwhile, although overall I enjoyed the drawings and sculptures more than the paintings. 

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