On June 18, Christie’s London offers the private collection of Simon Sainsbury (1930-2006), one of the most generous philanthropists Britain has ever known. The lion’s share of his outstanding picture collection, estimated to have a commercial value of £100m, has already gone to the National Gallery and Tate and the 370 or so lots of this sale will benefit the Monument Trust, the charity he set up 40 years ago as a vehicle through which he could anonymously support a range of projects; after his death it was revealed that the trust had probably distributed over £100m.
His collection of predominantly English furniture and pottery is supplemented by paintings and other works of art. The furniture, most of it carved mahogany drawn from the mid-18th century, the golden age of English cabinetmaking, is about as good at it gets. Designed by the top craftsmen and made for illustrious town and country houses, these pieces combine richly coloured timbers, ingenious details and crisp carving with understatement and restraint.
Many of these pieces have been passed down through the most distinguished connoisseurs and collectors of the 20th century. Via Percival Griffiths and JS Sykes, for instance, comes the bold George II bachelor’s chest flanked by pull-out legs (to support a baize-lined writing surface) which begin with fierce lion masks and end in hairy paw feet (estimate £150,000–£200,000). There is a strong architectural quality, too, in the George II mahogany hall chairs made for Harewood House. They were designed in the manner of William Kent by John Linnell (estimate £250,000–£400,000).
Another tour de force is the George III amarillo commode attributed to Mayhew & Ince and made for Burley-on-the-Hill in Rutland. It is a piece of the greatest subtlety whose grandeur relies on the range and exoticism of its timber and the perfection of its detail (estimate £200,000– £300,000). Just about the one concession to the serpentine line and luxurious ormolu mounts made fashionable by the French ébénistes is the wonderful George III mahogany commode of around 1760 attributed to William Vile and John Cobb, its drawers and angles almost, but not quite, extravagantly mounted with gilt-bronze ormolu foliate plaques, strapwork and masks (estimate £100,000– £150,000). It is a similar story with the early English pottery, which Christie’s is describing as one of the finest collections ever assembled. It seems that Sainsbury had no time for Meissen shepherdesses or the lavish confections of Sèvres. Instead, he responded to the directness of expression and workaday quality of the tin-glazed earthenwares known as English Delft. These 17th-century wares – chargers, tankards, vases, jugs and the like – are splashily painted with bold images of everything from kings and queens to armorials, cats and bunches of flowers.
The star turn is a London Delft blue-dash charger of around 1660 decorated with the Royal Oak (estimate £80,000– £120,000). It was in this tree at Boscobel House in Shropshire that the future Charles II hid from Cromwellian troops after the Battle of Worcester in 1651. The Boscobel Oak became a popular royalist symbol of the Jacobite cause; the tree itself fared less well, dying because so many visitors tore off its branches for souvenirs.
A sense of propriety characterises Sainsbury’s collection of paintings which embraces the likes of a decorative English School portrait of three unknown but generously bejewelled, green-gowned girls each armed with great yellow and white ostrich feather fans, probably painted by someone in the circle of Robert Peake around 1590 (estimate £150,000–£200,000) as well as 18th-century conversation pieces, sporting pictures and modern works, too, such as Stanley Spencer’s “The Last Supper” of 1922 (estimate £120,000–£180,000).
While the big lot is a dazzling pointillist Signac of sailboats, “Collioure. Les Balancelles” of 1887 (conservatively estimated at £1.8m–£2.5m at Christie’s Impressionist and Modern evening sale on June 24), the quiet gem of the collection is the haunting half-length Reynolds portrait of the young Viscount Milsington with a spaniel pup. It is Reynolds the child-painter at his best, with a near monochrome study in subfusc browns and greys highlighted with flashes of white lace and silken spaniel coat (estimate £200,000–£300,000). On the same canine note comes the romantic association of the life-size painted lead model of a bull mastiff believed to be none other than Hogarth’s beloved Trump, attributed to the sculpture John Cheere around 1760 (estimate £40,000–£60,000).