This impressive and unusually well-preserved panel is a reworking of the Madonna and Child of one of the major commissions of Botticelli's maturity, the San Barnaba altarpiece, now in the Uffizi, Florence. The altarpiece, the Madonna and Child with Saints Catherine of Alexandria, Augustine, Barnabas, John the Baptist, Ignatius and Michael, with four Angels, was commissioned by the Arte dei Medici e Speziali (the Guild of Doctors and Pharmacists) for the high altar of the church of S. Barnaba of which they had been patrons since 1335. The spatial sophistication and compositional rhythm of the picture must have made an immediate impression when the altarpiece was installed, as Alessandro Cecchi suggests (Botticelli, Milan, 2005, p. 254), in time for the feast of S. Barnaba on 11 June 1488. Laurence Kanter considers that the Madonna and Child in the altarpiece may have been derived from a Madonna and Child at Turin (Galleria Sabauda, no. 109; Lightbown, under C14, recording attributions to Lorenzo di Credi, Botticelli's workshop and a Flemish copyist), which he regards as the finest of the related pictures. The popularity of the central element of the San Barnaba altarpiece is attested by the number of variants of the Madonna group, three of which are in American public collections: the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, no. 1943-105; the Yale University Art Gallery, no. 1871-50; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, no. 41.116.1 (respectively Lightbown, no. C14, 15 and 13: a reversed version of the last was sold at Sotheby's, 22 February 1956, lot 73). The Fogg picture is regarded by Kanter as 'a beautiful and beautifully preserved workshop replica' of the Turin Madonna. That in New York is clearly inferior to the Merton picture, while the Yale picture is generally considered to be an autograph work by Botticelli: Kanter believes that it postdates the Fogg example. A further Madonna, once in the Panciatichi-Zimenes collection and subsequently owned by Robert Benson, was considered by Horne (loc. cit.) to be probably a workshop picture executed from the cartoon for the altarpiece. No other variants are recorded, but an evidently inferior version, roughly repeating the niche of the prototype, at La Valetta (Lightbown, no. C17), originally formed part of an altarpiece with Saints James the Great and John the Baptist -- the latter also derived from the S. Barnaba altarpiece.
As Sir Timothy Clifford suggested in 2004, the inclusion of the addorsed dolphins on the parapet in the Merton picture may imply that this was painted for one of the several Florentine families, most obviously the Pandolfini, in whose arms dolphins appear. The perspective of the niche establishes that the panel was intended to be placed relatively high in relation to the spectator: in reproduction the slight bowing of the panel affects the perspective of the parapet, the importance attached to which is implied by the vigorous underdrawing. Herbert Horne considered the present picture to be inferior to the ex-Benson Madonna. Both Adolfo Venturi and Wilhelm Suida endorsed the attribution of the present Madonna to Botticelli, in certificates recorded in 1979, but Lightbown did not consider the panel to be by Botticelli himself, noting that it is closer to the S. Barnaba altarpiece than that in New York and proposing a 'shop origin' for both. More recent scholars take less restrictive positions than some of their predecessors about the attribution of works to Botticelli himself. Laurence Kanter, on inspection of the original, considers the Merton Madonna to be a 'largely if not wholly' autograph work, probably of circa 1490-5 and Everett Fahy, who has examined the picture independently, also believes this to be substantially autograph. Carl Brandon Strehlke considers the picture to be partly autograph, while -- on the basis of photographs -- Keith Christiansen regards it as a workshop production, considering the finest of the related Madonnas to be that at Yale, followed by the Fogg picture -- in which there is vigorous underdrawing - by the present panel and finally by that in the Metropolitan.
Clearly the degree of delegation within Botticelli's studio is difficult to determine. Unlike Bellini he did not allow assistants and pupils to produce panels with trademark signatures. As Laurence Kanter argues, Botticelli produced works of differing standard for differing purposes. He suggests that such Madonnas were often not specific commissions but painted for stock, although the dolphins in the present case might suggest that this was not the case here. In any case wide differences of quality reflecting financial incentives are found in the work of other renaissance artists -- a clear case is Perugino's altarpiece substantially autograph from S. Maria dei Servi at Perugia in the National Gallery which cost a fraction of what was paid for other altarpieces by him and is visibly less meticulous than these. That the internal perspective of the Merton picture implies a low viewpoint -- and thus that the picture was intended to hang at some height -- should be borne in mind when considering its attributional status. The noble solemnity of the head of the Madonna in particular seems to the compiler to be altogether worthy of Botticelli himself.
Finally the differences in detail between the Merton picture and its counterparts should be considered. As befits a picture for a medical guild, in which the angels hold the instruments of the Passion, the beautiful head of the Madonna in the Uffizi altarpiece implies a foreknowledge of her Child's subsequent fate. In the Merton panel, the character of the Madonna's face is different and her drapery is adapted to her standing pose, Christ's weight now borne on the parapet rather than her knee, as in the altarpiece. The scale of the Child's head -- almost equal to that of the Virgin in the altarpiece -- is corrected, but still implies his projection towards the sitter. His hands are altered and more of the Virgin's right hand is shown -- the thumb touches the open break of the pomegranate which she helps the Child to hold. The marble throne niche is adapted as an alcove, or, in Horne's words, pierced screen, behind which the pink roses so loved by Botticelli grow, echoes of their better-known counterparts in the Wemyss Madonna at Edinburgh or the Uffizi Birth of Venus.
The earliest recorded owner of the picture, Alfred Montgomery (1814-1896), second son of Sir Henry Conyngham Montgomery, 1st Bt., married, in 1842, Fanny Charlotte, eldest daughter of George Wyndham, 1st Lord Leconfield. A commissioner of the Inland Revenue, he was a social figure of some importance. Wilfrid Scawen Blunt characterised him as 'quite the last of the old d'Orsay set in London'. A friend of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, he was 'a man of fashion', dining out to the end'. His elder daughter, Edith, married George Finch, of Burley on the Hill, Rutland, while her sister Sibyl was the wife of John, 9th Marquess of Queensberry. Their father's collection was sold posthumously at Robinson's in 1896.
Christopher Beckett-Denison (1825-1884), was the second son of Sir Edward Beckett, 4th Bt. and the younger brother of Edmund, 1st Baron Grimthorpe. He served in the Bengal Civil Service from 1845 until 1865 and as M.P. for the Eastern Division of the West Riding of Yorkshire (1868-1880). His collection was dispersed in these Rooms in a 22 day sale between 6 June and 15 July 1885. He was an energetic purchaser of furniture and the applied arts as well as pictures. He perhaps bought this picture privately from Alfred Montgomery. Denison, whose pace of collecting increased dramatically in the last year of his life, bought over thirty pictures at the Hamilton Palace sale, and also acquired works from the Novar, Leigh Court, Stourhead and other collections. He owned a large number of Dutch pictures. This Madonna was his earliest Italian work. At the sale two sketches by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo were bought through Agnew's by the National Gallery: the most celebrated picture was Rubens' Daniel in the Lions' Den (Washington, National Gallery of Art) which had cost 4,900 guineas at Hamilton Palace and was recovered by the Duke of Hamilton for 2,000 guineas.
Cyril Flower (1843-1907), who was M.P. successively for Brecnock and South Bedfordshire from 1880 until 1892, owed his ability to collect to his marriage to Constance, eldest daughter and coheiress of Sir Anthony de Rothschild, 1st Bt. of Tring Park, Buckinghamshire. An 'advanced liberal', he was created Lord Battersea in 1892, the authors of the Complete Peerage (II, London, 1912, p. 33, note (a)) commenting that his elevation was 'certainly not one of [Gladstone's] most successful efforts to adorn the Upper House'. Lord Battersea is indeed more interesting as a collector-cum-patron than for his political career. He also owned Madonnas attributed to Lippi, Pollaiuolo and Leonardo. Those attributed to Lippi and Pollaiuolo were sold at Christie's by Lady Battersea's niece, Mrs Denis Berry, 31 May 1935, as lots 64 and 65 respectively (we are indebted to Michael Hall for this reference); both also showed plants (the 'Lippi' had 'a background of flowering plants' while the description of the 'Pollaiuolo' concludes: 'behind a fence in the background is a flowering hedge') and may have partly appealed to the Batterseas for this reason. He acquired a number of significant early Italian pictures, including Jacopo Bellini's Saint Bernardino of Siena (private collection), and also works by contemporary English artists. He was a non-executive member of the commitee for the New Gallery exhibition of Early Italian art of 1893-4, to which he lent the Madonnas given to Pollaiuolo, Lippi and Leonardo as well as the present picture, and a number of sculptures. Selectors of the exhibition reflected the high importance already attached to the work of Botticelli by mustering nineteen pictures attributed to him, including such masterpieces as the Ionides Esmeralda Bandinelli (now London, Victoria and Albert Museum), two of the Nastagio degli Onesti spalliera panels (Madrid, Prado and private collection) and the Ashburnham Story of Lucretia (Boston, Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum).
Alessandro Filipepi, called Sandro Botticelli (Florence 1445?-1510)
Oil and tempera on panel, arched
London, New Gallery, Exhibition of Early Italian Art, from 1300-1550, 1893-4, no. 111 as by Botticelli (lent by Lord Battersea).
Old Master & British Paintings
39 3/8 x 25 5/8 in. (100 x 65.1 cm.)
H. Horne, Alessandro Filipepi, commonly called Sandro Botticelli, Painter of Florence, London, 1908, p. 118.
Y. Yashiro, Sandro Botticelli, London, 1925, p. 235.
A. Scharf, A Catalogue of the Pictures and Drawings from the Collection of Sir Thomas Merton, F.R.S. at Stubbings House, Maidenhead, London, 1950, no. IV.
R. Lightbown, Sandro Botticelli, London, 1979, II, p. 122, under no. C13.
Christopher Beckett-Denison (1825-1884), Upper Grosvenor St., London; (+) Christie's, London, 13 June 1885 [= 7th day], lot 856 (240 gns. to C. Flower).
Cyril Flower, 1st Lord Battersea (1843-1907) and presumably by inheritance through his widow, Constance, Lady Battersea (d. 1931), to her niece, the Hon. Mrs Denis Berry.
Sir Thomas Merton, F.R.S., K.B.E., and by descent.