Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Last Supper in Ponders End

There is, of course, no reason that the altarpiece from the high altar of Santa Croce in Florence, or at least significant  bits of it shouldn't end up in Ponders End.

The altarpiece, painted by the Sienese artist Ugolino da Nerio at sometime in the 1320s was brought to England by William Young Ottley. He's generally described  basically as a "collector" though he made a large amount of money out of dealing in art; he sold a collection of old master drawings to his friend Thomas Lawrence,  President of the Royal Academy and enthusiastic spender of money he didn't have, for £8,000.  Ottley had spent some years in Italy and taken advantage of the chaos caused by the Napoleonic wars to  gather a considerable art collection. The altarpiece was removed from the high altar in the 1560s to make way for a ciborium designed by Giorgio Vasari. In 1785 it is recorded in the friars' dormitory at Santa Croce, but by 1810, when the monastery was suppressed it had already gone, most of the parts sold to Ottley. 

Following his return to England, Ottley he sold all the later paintings he'd acquired in Italy, but hung on to the early ones, including the Santa Croce panels, including the central image of the madonna and child, which is now lost.

In 1847, following Ottley's death, his collection was offered at auction. Most of the Santa Croce panels were unsold, but were auctioned again in 1850. Six  of the seven panels of the predella - the strip of scenes from along the  bottom of the altarpiece, and four other panels from a higher level, each showing two saints  were bought by a clergyman called John  Fuller.Russell. The incumbent (even more technically the "perpetual curate) of the church of St James Enfield Highway, just up the road from Ponders End, Russell was a member of the high church Ecclesiological Society, which he'd joined  as an undergraduate at Cambridge (where he read law), when it was still called  the Cambridge Camden Society. His high church tendencies seem to be a reaction against his background; his father was a Congregationalist minister, who went by the name of Thomas Russell, although his surname was originally Clout, and  John Fuller Russell was only baptised into the Church of England while he was a student. The Ecclesiological Society, was  a group of Anglicans dedicated to the revival of ancient - that is pre-Reformation -  styles of art, architecture, ritual and music in the church of England. Pugin, or at least his rhetoric was an important early influence on their aesthetic outlook, but they were disappointed with the  buildings he actually put up, which they severely criticised in their spendidly outspoken  magazine "Ecclesiologist". There were, in any case, always equivocal about Roman Catholicism.

There isn't actually a great deal about painting in the "Ecclesiologist", but early Renaissance art was one of Russell's great enthusiasms. When the German art historian Gustav Waagen visited Russell in Ponders End, he found the walls of Eagle House "so richly adorned with specimens of the 14th century, that the spectator feels as if transported to a chapel at Siena or Florence." Eagle House was near the corner of South Street and the High Street, just opposite where Tesco's is now.

In 1856 Russell became the rector of Greenhithe in Kent, and had increased his collection significantly by the time Waagen visited him there a few years later, new acquisitions including the "Diptych of Jeanne de France" then believed to be by Hans Memling (now in the Musée Condé in Chantilly). He was rector of Greenhithe for the rest of his life, but also had a London house, in Ormonde Terace, Regent's Park, where he died. I don't know how he afforded his collection; there's no indication of family wealth, and its hard to imagine his salary from the church was that great. Perhaps, if you were careful and had a good eye, collecting the kind of things he liked actually wasn't that expensive.

Russell's collection of paintings was auctioned in April 1885. The Santa Croce paintings went their various ways. Several of the predella panels are in the National Gallery in London: The Arrest of Christ, "The Way to Calvary" and the "Depostion". The gallery also owns the "Resurection", which was not in Russell's collection. The "Last Supper" is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the "Flagellation" and "Entombment" are in Berlin. 

[Sources: DNB entries for Ottley and Russell; Familysearch; Waagen;"The Ecclesiologist"; John Pope Hennessey "Italian Paintings from the Robert Lehman Collection"; Stuff I made up.]

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