On the 21st October 1774, William Petty, Earl of Shelburne (see fig. 1), accompanied by the Abbé Morellet, visited Vernet in his studio and commissioned a pair of grand views. One was a stormy landscape and the other "a peaceful seascape at sunset, with handsome buildings, and several gallant figures, such as Turks, Greeks, etc."1 The size was to be comparable to the Ports of France, Vernet's most important paintings, commissioned by Louis XV and executed between 1753 and 1765. The price was to be determined by Morellet, a well-known figure in society, famous for his acid tongue, and a member of the Académie Française. In the event, the cost of the pair was 15,000 livres tournois, or approximately £1,125.
This was a very significant commission for Vernet, for a number of reasons. One was the status of patron himself: Shelburne was a collector of antiquities and modern paintings and a well known figure in society and politics. His commissioning the pair of paintings would enhance Vernet's reputation in Britain and could win him further business from the aristocracy. Another was the scale of the pictures themselves, for Vernet had not attempted anything of this size since The Ports of France. A cache of five letters from Vernet to Lord Shelburne, three receipts and several sketches for frames provide us with first hand evidence of just how important this commission was to Vernet and how even a most celebrated painter was dependent on public opinion.2 In the first two letters, dated 20 May and 21 June 1775, he proposed sending the pendant to A Grand View of the Sea Shore to the forthcoming Salon in Paris, to which Lord Shelburne agreed. Then on 12 October 1775 (see figs. 2-4), Vernet recounted what transpired:
The painting, which I have the honor of sending you, was exhibited at the Salon du Louvre for more than a month. I do not dare say how pleased the knowledgeable public was, but my vanity was flattered more than I had dared hope and more than I think I deserve. However I cannot pretend that I am not susceptible to the praise and that for me it is the highest of rewards. All accounts of my work published thus far have been positive.
Because the duty on importing picture frames into Britain was extremely high, Vernet suggested that Lord Shelburne have them made locally. He was very concerned, however, that the frames do justice to his pictures and devoted large sections of his letters to what they should look like and how they should be made. He wanted them to be in the same style as those made for the king (presumably for the Ports of France) and to this end he sent descriptions and sketches for the English frame makers to follow (see fig. 5).
In the October letter he expained to Lord Shelburne how he intended to ship the unframed pendant to England, and the correct procedure for dealing with it when it arrived3 :
The painting I have the honor of sending you is safely rolled on a pole; as soon as you receive it, it should be put on a stretcher and if it has gotten dusty wash it with clean water and a sponge to remove the egg white I have put on it. Let it dry twenty-four hours and have someone who knows how, put on a coat of egg white.... I would also like the frame to be ready for the arrival of the paintng I am honored to send you, in order for it to be put on right away, because, as the Italians say "La Cornice e Ruffiana del quadro"4
Unfortunately the original frame has been lost, probably in the early twentieth century. The painting itself has come down to us in remarkable condition due, no doubt, to the fact that it changed hands so few times since it was painted and belonged to collectors who fully understood its quality and value. The beauty of the surface in concert with the scale of the work draws the viewer into this imaginary harbor. The sun is nearing the horizon and its light reflects off the clouds above and the water below. Although the pennants are waving in a breeze, there is a kind of stillness and softness in the air, a silvery pink glow, that is characteristic of Vernet at his best.
A Further Note on the Provenance
William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne, who commissioned A Grand View of the Sea Shore and kept it until his death, began collecting while he was in his early 30s. In 1771, in the wake of the death of his first wife, he left England to make a tour of the Continent, at which time he first became acquainted with the Abbé Morellet. While in Rome he met Gavin Hamilton, the painter, art dealer and amateur archaeologist, who encouraged Shelburne in his plans to remodel his house in Berkeley Square (later called Lansdowne house) as a showcase for antique sculpture and works by "the most celebrated painters now living."5 Lord Shelburne later broadened his program to include earlier artists and put together a collection that included, among others, Leonardo's Madonna of the Rocks, now in the National Gallery, London, and Rubens's Adoration of the Magi, King's College, Cambridge.
Shelburne returned to London to resume his political career, eventually rising to Prime Minister in 1782, and spent most of that summer negotiating a peace agreement with the former American colonies. However, his tenure lasted only eight months, and although he then served in the House of Lords, his political career was effectively over. He was named Marquess of Lansdowne two years later in recognition of service to his country. He died in 1805 and most of his paintings were sold the following spring to cover his financial debts.
Robert Grosvenor, 2nd Earl Grosvenor, purchased A Grand View of the Sea Shore at that auction, along with Rubens's Adoration of the Magi.6 He had inherited a substantial picture collection at the death of his father in 1802 and then acquired the entire Welbore Agar Ellis collection for 30,000 guineas. The latter included Velazquez's Riding School, still in the family's collection, and a remarkable group of landscapes by Claude Lorrain. The Grosvenor family seat was in Cheshire, but they also owned substantial property in London, including most of what is now Belgravia, Mayfair and Pimlico. Their London house was in Millbank, but in 1805 Lord Grosvenor bought a house in Upper Grosvenor Street that had a sufficiently large gallery to hold his rapidly growing collection. He renovated the gallery in 1807-08, but in 1818 he purchased Rubens's tapestry designs for The Triumph of the Eucharist, now in the Ringling Museum, Sarasota, Florida, the scale of which necessitated the enlargement of the gallery. In 1820, when John Young published a catalogue of the collection, noting the present work as hanging in the dining room, the collection was among the greatest London collections of the period, and a paradigm of aristocratic taste.
The painting remained in the family until 1959, when it was sold by Sotheby's London. It was purchased by Thomas Agnew & Sons, from whom it was acquired by Lord Beaverbrook in 1962. Sir Maxwell Aitken, 1st Baron Beaverbrook, was famous as a politician, newspaper magnate and supporter of the arts. He was born in Maple, Ontario, in 1879 and after having made a fortune from the cement industry in Canada, moved to England and was elected to the House of Commons in 1910. He became leader of the Conservative Party the following year, and was subsequently one of only three people to serve in the Cabinet during both World War I and World War II. Concurrent with his political triumphs was his transformation of the British newspaper industry. Having previously acquired the London Evening Standard, in 1916 he bought a controlling interest in the floundering Daily Express. In 1918 he founded the Sunday Express and acquired the Glasgow Evening Citizen. Through a combination of remarkable business acumen and innovative though sometimes controversial journalism, he built a newspaper empire and transformed the lowly Daily Express into the newspaper with the widest circulation in the world.
Beaverbrook brought the same energy to his activities in the art world as he did to the political and newspaper arenas. He was a friend and patron of Graham Sutherland and supported many lesser known artists through his newspapers. He was also a great benefactor of the National Gallery of Canada, and helped build their collection of historical paintings. In 1959 he opened the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick, thus realizing another of his great ambitions: to establish a museum in the province where he grew up.
Emilie Beck Saiello has confirmed the attribution of the present lot on the basis of photographs and will publish it in the catalogue raisonné she is completing for the late Philip Conisbee.
1. L. Lagrange, pp. 351-52, "l'autre une mer tranquille au coucher du soleil, avec des beaux édifices; quelques figures nobles comme Turcs, Grecques, etc."
2. The documents and sketches are preserved in the Shelburne archive, which has generously allowed us to read them and reproduce selections here.
3. There is no discussion of how the present work was sent, but presumably it was also rolled.
4. The Italian can be understood to mean "the frame makes the picture" but Vernet's phrase is rather more earthy and can literally be translated as "the frame pimps for the picture."
5. J. Ingamells, compiler, A Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy, 1701-1800, New Haven and London 1997, p. 852.
6. The buyer of the pendant is not recorded, though Ingersoll-Smouse (see Literature, p. 27) suggests it might have been in the collection of the King of Naples. She reproduces it in her catalogue as being in the collection of Marc Promis, a Bordeaux wine merchant who bought Chateau Giscours in 1825. He sold the property some 22 years later and we have found no record of where the painting is now.
Oil on canvas
Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, The Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Exhibition of Art Treasures, Art in Dispute, 1 July 2005-5 March 2006.
64 by 102 3/4 in.; 162.6 by 261 cm.
J. Young, A Catalogue of the Pictures at Grosvenor House, London 1820, p. 42;
L. Lagrange, Joseph Vernet et la peinture au XVIIIe siecle, Paris 1864, pp. 351-52, no. 263 and p. 369, nos. 183, 185 and 190;
F. Ingersoll-Smouse, Joseph Vernet, Peintre de Marine, Paris 1926, vol. II, pp. 26-7, cat. no. 990-1;
I. G. Lumsden, C. J. Collins, L. Glenn, The Beaverbrook Art Gallery Collection: Selected Works, Fredericton 2000, p. 38, reproduced in color, p. 57;
S. Donovan, ed., The Nashwaak Review, vol. 16/17, 2006, no. 1, reproduced in color on back cover.
Commissioned from the artist by William (Fitzmaurice) Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne, later 1st Marquess of Lansdowne (1737-1805), on 21 October 1774;
His deceased sale, Lansdowne House, Berkeley Square, London, 19-20 March 1806, lot 40, to Robert, Earl Grosvenor, for 185 guineas;
Robert, 2nd Earl Grosvenor, later 1st Marquess of Westminster (1767-1845);
Thence by family descent to Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, 3rd Marquess of Westminster, later 1st Duke of Westminster (1825-1899);
Thence by family descent to William Grosvenor, 3rd Duke of Westminster (1894-1963);
By whom sold, London, Sotheby's, 24 June 1959, lot 18 (as A View of the Port of Genoa, with figures on the quay and shipping in the harbour), to Agnew, for £4,000;
With Thomas Agnew & Sons, London;
Acquired by Max Aitken, 1st Lord Beaverbrook (1879-1964) in 1962, and thence to the present ownership.