This is one of the finest and best known versions of this famous composition which, to judge from the large number of extant versions, clearly enjoyed considerable popularity in the sixteenth century and beyond. All may reflect a lost original by Jan van Eyck, seen by Marcantonio Michiel in the collection of Camillo and Niccolo Lampognano in Milan in circa 1520 and which he described as 'El quadretto a meze figure, del patron che fa conto cun el fattor fo de man de Zuan Heic, credo Memelino, Ponentino, fatto nel 1440' .1 All are equally influenced by Quinten Metsys' celebrated double-portrait of A Moneychanger and his wife of 1514, today in the Louvre,2 but the most probable original source of the present design is the famous Tax Gatherers by Marinus van Reymerswaele (c.1490-c.1567) today in the National Gallery, London.3 Of Reymerswaele himself, almost nothing is known. His known work corresponds closely to Antwerp painting of the early 16th century, and to that of Metsys in particular but he is not recorded as a Master there.4 It is quite possible, as Silver argues (see Literature), that Reymerswaele's original and its derivations may reflect a lost prototype by Metsys, in whose name this and many other examples have for so long been exhibited.
The Hagley painting is perhaps the finest of a particular group of variants of the Reymerswaele original. In it, however, Reymerswaele's original design has been much altered. The two principal figures now sit alongside each other, wearing markedly less flamboyant headgear, and with additions to the ephemera upon the table and on the ledge above them, including a sand-box, money-bag and two jewels, while a pair of scissors now hangs from the ledge. Two other paintings which repeat exactly the Hagley type and which seem to be of equal quality are those formerly in the Solly and Cailleux collections in Paris, the former of which is now in the Louvre.5 Other replicas are recorded in the Aschmann collection, Switzerland; the Museo Stibbert in Florence; and formerly in the Oppenheim collection in Cologne.6 Another closely related variant, in which only a single jewel appears on the table, again of evidently comparable quality, is in Munich, Alte Pinakothek (inv. 260). Of some interest is the fact that two copies of this type, those sold Brussels, Giroux, 8-9 February 1946, lot 48, and Brussels, Fievez, 16-17 December 1932, lot 48, are dated: 1537, while another, sold Cologne, Lempertz, 8 November 1961, lot 170, is dated: 1552, but it is far from certain whether these dates can be regarded as reliable. A further group of variants, generally of slightly larger size and in which a parrot replaces the scissors on the left of the composition, is also known, the best examples of which are those in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle and the Pushkin Museum, Moscow.7 The ledgers in the Windsor version record payments in a variety of currencies and may thus be dated to between 1548 and 1551. A mid-century dating for the present panel would also appear to be the most likely. Though none of the paintings is similar in technique to the signed works of Marinus, several of the objects such as the inkwell, coins and sand-box recur in his autograph works, which would suggest that this and other variants go back to a design or designs in his workshop.
Despite the large number of variants of this design, the exact nature of the subject matter also seems to vary across the group. The painting's traditional title of 'The Misers' seems to be only partially correct. The principal figure in the Hagley painting may be identified, for example, as that of a local tax collector, for the entries in the book in which he is writing are an account of municipal revenues from imposts (on wine, beer etc.) let out to farm. On the sixth line, reference is made to a 'visbrugge' or fish market on a bridge. Such markets were rare, but one such visbrug was to be found at Reymerswaele, the town in Zeeland from which Marinus may have come. It is most unlikely, however, that this or any other of these paintings were portraits of actual officials or merchants. A more satirical purpose would seem to lie behind them, though it may vary in intensity. In all the versions as in the original in London, the men are depicted, for example, in fanciful, archaizing costume, the more elaborate headpieces perhaps intended to represent the 'pharasaic bonnets' worn by Netherlandish rhetoricians, and which would have been understood by contemporaries to signify hypocrisy.8 The ledgers in the Cailleux version of the Hagley picture take this a stage further, for they are inscribed in French with admonitory verses: 'L'avaricieux n'est jamais rempli d'argent... N'ayez point souci des richesses injustes, car elles ne vous profiteront rien au jour de la visitation et de la vengeance' ('The avaricious never has his fill of money... do not care overmuch for unjust riches, for they will profit you nothing at the Second Coming and the Day of Wrath'). Such a text (derived from Luke 12: 15-21) would indicate that, in some cases at least, the underlying satirical message of the subject had become an explicit warning on the evils of avarice.
If such a warning was intended, then it clearly went unheeded by the earliest (and by far the most notorious) owner of this painting, Thomas, second Baron Lyttelton (1744-1779), known as "the wicked Lord Lyttelton"9. A man of fashion, a politician, a writer, and an artist, Lyttelton was a notorious rake, a wanton gambler and one of the greatest profligates of the age. Before he had reached his twenty-fourth birthday, his debts to money-lenders amounted to the sum of £100,00010. John Gray, the historian, journeyed with Thomas from Venice to Milan in the spring of 1771 and commented that he gambled 'like a madman'11.His marriage the following year to the heiress Aphia Witts, widow of the Governor General of Calcutta, failed to staunch the flow of money, and he deserted her for a barmaid with whom he absconded to Paris and proceeded to explore the more licentious parts of Europe. His reputation spread across Europe and his gambling habits were well known. Indeed, according to family tradition, the 'Misers' itself was won as a gambling debt by 'Naughty Tom'. Lyttelton, the inveterate gambler, put up Hagley Hall, the great house that his father George had devotedly rebuilt, as surety for the bet. Happily he won the picture and Hagley remained the Lyttelton family seat. The anonymous author of this sixteenth century panel would no doubt have recognised the spirit that lay behind his words:
"It is true that the love of play proceeds from the desire of gain and is therefore, said to be founded on an avaricious principle. If this be a fact, avarice is the universal passion: for I will venture to affirm that, more or less, we are all gamesters by nature" 12.
1. '...painting with half figures, of the master doing the accounts with his employee by Zuan Heic [Jan van Eyck], I think Memelino [Memling], Ponentino, executed in 1440'; T. Frimmel, Der Anonimo Morelliano, Vienna 1896, p. 54.
2. For which see L. Silver, The Paintings of Quinten Massys, Oxford 1984, p. 211, no. 16, reproduced plate 118.
3. Inv. no. 944; M. Davies, National Gallery Catalogues. Early Netherlandish School, London 1987, pp. 82-85, reproduced.
4. He has tentatively been identified with a Marinus de Seeu, painter of Romerswaelen, listed by Karel van Mander, and with Moryn Claessone, a native of Zeeland, who joined the Antwerp Guild of St. Luke in 1509.
5. Inv. RF 1973.34; reproduced in the exhibiton catalogue, Flemish and Belgian Art, London, Royal Academy, 1927, no. 245, and Silver, op. cit., 1984, plate 121 respectively.
6. For the most comprehensive listing of these and other related types, see L. Campbell, op. cit., 1985, pp. 115-17, nos. A-E.
7. Ibid., pp. 116-117, nos. F-H.
8. H. Vlam, 'The Calling of Saint Matthew in 16th Century Flemish Painting', in Art Bulletin, vol. LIX, 1977, p. 563.
9. The picture is not listed in the 1777 catalogue of paintings at Hagley but was certainly at the house by 1800. If it was acquired by the 2nd Lord Lyttelton it would therefore have been in the years 1777-78. The painting, in subject, date and style, was undoubtedly unique in terms of the collection.
10. T. Frost, The wicked Lord Lyttelton, Stroud 2006, p. 74;
11.L. Melville, The Life and letters of Tobias Smollett, London 1926, p. 244.
12. Frost, op. cit., p. 139.
Oil on panel
Marinus van Reymerswaele
London, Royal Academy of Arts, Winter Exhibition, 1873, no. 188;
London, Royal Academy of Arts, Winter Exhibition, 1902, no. 24;
London, Guildhall, Exhibition of Works by Early Flemish Painters, 1906, cat. no. 40, p. 45;
Birmingham, City Museum and Art Gallery, on loan, 1926;
London, Royal Academy of Arts, Exhibition of Flemish and Belgian Art 1300-1900, 1927, cat. no. 247, p. 97 (all the above as by Metsys);
Birmingham, City Museum and Art Gallery, Commemorative Exhibition of the Art Treasures of the Midlands, 1934, no. 283 (as by Reymerswaele);
Manchester, Manchester City Art Gallery, Exhibition of European Art, 9 March - 16 April 1965 (as by Reymerswaele).
86.4 by 71.2 cm.; 34 by 28 in.
A Companion to the Leasowes, Hagley and Enville, circa 1800, p. 84, as hanging at Hagley, 'Underneath, the Misers; "a moft excellent original of the celebrated blackfmith of Antwerp, Matfys";
Catalogue of the Pictures, Statues and Busts in the Best Apartments in Hagley Hall, Stourbridge 1811, p. 19, hanging in the Indian Paper Dressing Room, 'The Misers, a most admirable original by Quentin Matsyes';
Catalogue of Pictures at Hagley Hall, Stourbridge 1834, p. 14, cat. no. 97;
Dr. G.F. Waagen, Treasures of Art in Great Britain, London 1854, vol. III, p. 227 (as 'a clever old copy of the Misers, by Quentin Matsys, at Windsor');
A Catalogue of the Pictures at Hagley Hall, London 1900, pp. 5 and 14, cat. no. 31;
L. Cust, "Notes on Pictures in the Royal Collections - XXIII, The Misers at Windsor Castle attributed to Quentin Matsys", in The Burlington Magazine, vol 20, no. 107, February 1912, pp. 252, 257, and 258, reproduced plate 11, E, 'Similar paintings occur in many public galleries and private collections, one of the best being that in the possession of Viscount Cobham at Hagley, Hall';
H. Avray Tipping, English Homes Early Georgian 1714-1760, London 1921, period V, vol. I, p. 326, as by Cornelys de Lyon;
Country Life Ltd., Illustrated Souvenir of the Exhibition of Flemish and Belgian Art , 1927, p. 76, reproduced fig. 247;
Hagley Hall: near Stourbridge, Worcestershire: the historic seat of the Lyttelton family, the Worcestershire home of Viscount Cobham: official guide, English Life Publications 1959, n.p.;
L. Campbell, The Early Flemish Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty The Queen, Cambridge 1985, p. 116, listed under E, reproduced fig. 40.
Reputedly acquired by Sir Thomas Lyttelton 6th Bt., and 2nd and last Baron Lyttelton of Frankley (1744-1779), and certainly recorded as hanging at Hagley Hall, Worcestershire, by 1800;
Thence by family descent to the late owner.