Ashmolean shows Renaissance bronzes with Daniel Katz

Centenary of collector, C.D.E. Fortnum, celebrated with exhibition and lectures at Society of Antiquaries



Charles Drury Edward Fortnum, the centenary of whose death falls this year, was one of the most discerning and original collectors of the entire nineteenth century. Although a member of the family that gave its name to Fortnum & Mason, his beginnings were distinctly modest, and he went to Australia as a young man to seek his fortune. He found it, however, by marrying a wealthy cousin who was some twelve years his senior, and after her death he took the wise precaution of marrying a second wealthy cousin.

Funds were not lacking for the purchase of works of art, and Fortnum was able to build up an outstanding collection, above all in areas of Italian Renaissance and small bronzes, in both of which his knowledge of metallurgy appears to have stood him in good stead. The exhibition at the Daniel Katz Gallery this summer, which runs from 7 June to 16 July (roughly from the Grosvenor House Antiques Fair to the Old Masters sales), concentrates on his bronzes, which is hardly surprising considering the reputation of the host gallery, and is likely to prove something of a revelation.

The forty or more bronzes on show, almost all of which belonged to Fortnum, are usually on display at the Ashmolean Museum, which received Fortnum’s bounty as a consequence of a terminal rift with the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum), in spite of the fact that he had written pioneering catalogues of the latter institution’s collection to bronzes and maiolica. It might therefore be asked what value such an exhibition can have, except to spare idle metropolitans and visitors from abroad the short journey to Oxford. The truth, however, is that bronzes benefit incomparably from exceptional presentation—and above all lighting—of a sort that is hard to manage for the whole of a large collection.

In an ideal world, bronzes are best held in the hand so that one can study them from every aspect, if necessary with a magnifying glass; to feel their weight; to look up their insides to see how they were cast.

In spite of their undeniable sensuous appeal, they also require intelligent advocacy for all but the converted, and the catalogue of the show eloquently provides it. The work of Jeremy Warren, it is in one sense an anticipation of the catalogue he is writing of the Ashmolean’s earlier bronzes and other sculptures, but it also contains entries on works of a later date already featured in Nicholas Penny’s remarkable three-volume sculpture catalogue for the Ashmolean (1992), and which will therefore not feature in Dr Warren’s magnum opus.

Dr Warren is not afraid to speak his mind, and the result is an education. Lack of signed or documented pieces makes the study of Renaissance small bronzes one of the most perilous of all art-historical minefields, not least when it is borne in mind that models invented by one artist—whether ancient or modern—were routinely copied by others. Fortnum’s first purchase, which Dr Warren describes as beginner’s luck, was of a magnificent bronze representing “Pan listening to Echo”, whose base still describes it as by Andrea Riccio. It is indeed closely related to an autograph Riccio bronze in Baltimore, but authorities such as Anthony Radcliffe have already expressed doubts about the attribution. Dr Warren puts forward the intriguing suggestion that it is by Desiderio da Firenze, but is well aware of the fact that, in this field, separating the hands by no means invariably gives you the names. Another bold suggestion is that a splendid Venus is by the Bolognese artist, Francesco Francia, best known to posterity for his paintings, but who almost always designated himself as a goldsmith when signing them. It certainly betrays compelling similarities to his paintings and drawings, and, what is more, does not appear to be the work of a minor master.

Fortnum was exceptionally fond of bronzes which served a practical purpose, or at least could do so. The Pan is an inkwell, as are two masterpieces by the German Visscher family, while what is now considered Fortnum’s only genuine Riccio bronze is an oil-lamp based on classical prototypes.

All these pieces date from before the middle of the sixteenth century, and it seems clear that Fortnum was less interested in its second half, which witnessed the rise of the statuette as a work of art or a collector’s item, above all through the agency and influence of Giambologna. The show may include exquisite later pieces by, or associated with, Pierino da Vinci and the French sculptor Barthélemy Prieur, but its heart is elsewhere.

Organised in conjunction with the exhibition, six lectures at the Society of Antiquaries by an inspiringly un-grey team of eminences should be well worth the detour.

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