How Old Masters can work in contemporary settings

An old painting in a modern environment makes us look at it afresh, free from the preconceptions of an age gone by
‘The Celestial City and River of Bliss’ (1841), by John Martin

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For dealers like me, art fairs can sometimes be an exasperating business. As an art evangelist, I love talking about pictures to everyone, whether they are buyers or not. But occasionally patience can snap. In 2006, at a fair in Florida’s Palm Beach one couple insisted on loudly deriding everything we had on offer: “Antique portraits? Other people’s ancestors. Who wants this old stuff any more?” Clearly, my usual riposte to this attack — that the Mona Lisa was someone’s ancestor — was not going to work. So I ordered them off the stand.

Yet the maddening thing was that they were right. Not many people did want the “old stuff” any more.

As a purveyor of Old Masters paintings, I take a keen interest in how taste in art changes over the years. Fairs are a good way of telling what sort of art people want because that is where you have the most conversations. You are at the coalface of taste.

In 2006, the art market was strong and yet it was clear that the type of art people wanted was changing. The seemingly unstoppable boom in modern and contemporary was already well under way. But the type of decorative English and Continental paintings I was then trying to sell were fast going out of fashion.

Until the early 2000s, even third-rate works by second-tier artists in the 17th or 18th centuries — portraits by the likes of Thomas Hudson, for example — were relatively easy to sell. Flip through old editions of publications such as World of Interiors, and you will find that historical portraits were an accepted part of the prevailing aesthetic. But from the 2000s onwards, taste began to change dramatically. Not only did the type of art seen on domestic walls change, but often there was no art at all. The 2008 crash temporarily killed the market.

A portrait attributed to Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1769 on a wall in Lawton Mull’s design studio in New York

Such a change mirrored the already declining demand for all things antique, in particular “brown furniture” — that is, furniture made before the early part of the 20th century. Thanks to the efforts of the collector John Andrews, we have been able to plot the financial rise and fall of brown furniture since 1968, with an annually calculated index. Andrews’ index was its highest in 2002, but has been in decline ever since. It is now down 67 per cent from its peak, to levels last seen in the 1980s.

Today, much brown furniture is almost comically cheap. I recently bought a pair of French, mid-18th-century marble-topped side tables at Christie’s in London for £200. They were being sold without reserve: nobody wanted them. In the same week, I bought a pair of wardrobes from Ikea for £300, which I not only had to make myself, but which were not in fact deep enough to hang a suit in.

The question is, will the old stuff ever come back? For certain types of furniture, certainly not, since the issue has now gone beyond taste. We live different lives, in smaller houses; whose kitchen can accommodate a “dresser” these days? Not even the “Downton effect” can resurrect formal dining. But a Georgian chest of drawers can now just about hold its value.

In the art world, there have been signs for a while now that the old stuff is coming back into favour, at least in certain sectors. Happily, the question now is not whether to have either old art or new art in your home — the best option is to have a blend of both. The May cover of House and Garden showed, to my pleasant surprise, a pair of 18th and 19th-century portraits in a contemporary setting, while two of London’s biggest art fairs — Frieze Masters and Masterpiece — play on this very theme; collectors are invited to see what a Gainsborough looks like next to a Warhol print.

‘Portrait of Dr John Thomas’ (c1782), by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Why is old art making something of a comeback, even in modern settings? It could be partly because contemporary artists are helping lead the way. Artists ranging from Jeff Koons to Julian Opie, for example, collect Old Masters enthusiastically. The trend for artists to display their work in historic settings, be it modern sculpture at Chatsworth or Damien Hirst’s flower paintings at the Wallace Collection, has also been gathering momentum. The juxtaposition is appealing, with the old giving gravitas to the new. But it can easily be made to work the other way round; an old painting in a modern environment makes us look at it afresh, free from the preconceptions of an age gone by.

Affordability is another reason why many are looking again at old art. Compared with the stratospheric prices for modern and contemporary works, Old Masters are cheap. Yet names such as Sir Anthony Van Dyck and Sir Joshua Reynolds vie with the likes of Joan Miró and Lucian Freud in terms of art historical importance, even though they can be a fraction of the price. Although the auction record for Reynolds is £9.5m, you can buy still buy a significant work by him for as little as £15,000.

Another blend of the historical and contemporary at Lawton Mull’s studio

How? It depends what you are looking for. If you want to see an excellent demonstration of painting by one of the greatest British artists who ever lived, but don’t mind that it is a portrait of an old bishop swathed in red robes, then you might opt for something like Reynolds’ portrait of Dr John Thomas (which sold for $43,750 at Sotheby’s New York). Hung among other Old Masters, the picture might look rather earnest. But hang such a work on a whitewashed breeze-block wall, and suddenly you’ve got a quirky statement of cultural depth.

In my experience, the pictures that are more sought after for display in modern settings are those of the 16th and 17th centuries. Oils on panel work well — there is something about the colourful naivety and historical resonance of, say, a Tudor portrait that suits contemporary taste. The sale in April at Christie’s of a late 16th-century portrait of Richard III once owned by Lord Byron for £16,250 was a good example. Equally, oil sketches and preparatory studies can provide brilliant demonstrations of artistic genius, but without the period costume and societal strictures that can make old art feel dated.

In terms of a medium to long-term store of value that you can enjoy, you can’t go wrong with Old Master paintings. Sadly, many pictures have suffered over the years, usually from overcleaning by some well-intentioned but ham-fisted restorer. So be careful. But, above all, buy something you like, be it the depiction of a historical figure you admire, or a masterful display of long-lost artistic skills. And if anyone comes into your home wrinkling their nose at your antiquated tastes, kick ’em out.

Bendor Grosvenor is editor of arthistorynews.com

Photographs: Sotheby’s; Patrick Mull for lawtonmull.com

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