Ernst Willem von Salisch (1649–1711)

Von Salisch was from a military family of Prussian descent. His own career in the Dutch Republic States’ army was very successful: in 1688, the year of the ‘Glorious Revolution’, he accompanied William of Orange, grandson of Charles I, to England to see him crowned William III after the abdication of James II, and in 1704 he rose to the rank of General. This portrait of him is a mezzotint printed on vellum (calf skin). More expensive materials, such as vellum or satinized silk, were sometimes used in place of paper for special occasions, such as to produce a presentation piece for an important person. Vellum absorbs printing ink differently to paper, and here it has had the effect of enhancing the rich, velvety quality of the mezzotint and giving it the appearance of a painted canvas. The fact that this impression has been printed in colours adds further still to its painterly quality. It was made by the innovative German printmaker Jakob Christoph Le Blon (16671741), the patent holder of the multiple-plate printing process in France. Le Blon’s colour prints were produced by engraving the same composition on multiple plates and inking each one in a different colour – blue, yellow, red and usually also black. By carefully superimposing the colours, Le Blon attempted to recreate the appearance of paintings. Some of his prints are composed of up to six colours, all printed from separate plates. He called them “printed paintings”. Some of his prints were even varnished or framed and hung like a painting. In this impression, the highlights in Von Salisch’s eyes and on his armour have been achieved by scratching ink out of the vellum’s surface.

This print is from the collection of John Charrington (1856–1939), Honorary Keeper of Prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum. The documentation and digitization of his collection of portrait prints, donated to the Museum in 1933, was the inspiration for this website feature. However, this portrait of Van Salisch was not part of his benefaction, or one of the many other prints he acquired for the collection before his death in 1939, or indeed one of the twenty-seven prints (plus three albums) which his widow gave to the Museum at the end of March 1939: it was bought for the Museum from the auction of the remainder of his print collection in June 1940. The story is worth telling at length.

The Fitzwilliam Museum's Annual Report for 1940 announced that "There was sold at Christie's on 19 June 1940 the greater part of the prints which remained in the possession of Mr Charrington... at the time of his death". The report lists in brief the most notable acquisitions and gives thanks to the contributors who enabled the purchase to take place (the Friends of the Fitzwilliam, the National Art-Collections Fund and E. Evelyn Barron, contributions amounting to a little over £250). As is typical for this type of document, the details are kept to a minimum and only a few prints are picked out for special mention. The surviving letters exchanged between Louis Clarke, then Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, and the various people involved in the purchase make for much more interesting reading.

First of all, the letter of condolence sent by Louis Clarke to Charrington’s family as well as its reply, reveal a personal side to the more formal expression of bereavement, “the loss sustained by the Museum”, as described in the Annual Report of 1939:

25 February 1939
Dear Mrs Charrington
We have just heard here with great sorrow of the passing of Mr Charrington. Staff and all feel they have lost a real friend & all join with me in expressing to you their deepest sympathy in your great loss. He will always be remembered amongst the most generous of our benefactors and quite the most hardworking of honorary keepers. Yours sincerely LCGC
(the Director customarily signed with his full initials, Louis Colville Gray)

5 March 1939
Dear Mr Clarke
Please accept my sincere thanks for your kind letter of sympathy. It has touched me very much to know how he and his work were appreciated at the Museum, for he has spent some of the happiest times of his life there, and I and my family like to think his name will be remembered there with renewed thanks. Yours sincerely, Rev G.E. Charrington

A year later the Director’s letters start to fill with concern about the impending sale of Charrington’s remaining print collection. Louis Clarke wanted to make sure that as many prints as possible were secured for the Museum, but he was running out of time: the auction was set for 19 June 1940 at Christie's in London. He was anxious most of all to obtain any early seventeenth-century mezzotints, an area of the collection he was aware needed strengthening. Clarke sought advice from Marjorie Matham, who had helped Charrington catalogue his collection. Latham sent Clarke a copy of Christie’s sale catalogue along with a letter highlighting some lot numbers she thought might be of interest. Latham ended her letter with a reflection on the current political climate:

It is a great anxiety having the sale in these times, but the Charringtons are prepared for a big drop in prices. From your point of view, I hope you may be able to get some bargains. We shall go ahead with the sale unless bombing actually starts on London.

The Director then commissioned Colnaghi’s, a London firm of art dealers, to secure particular lots on behalf of the Museum. He needed to know how much money to raise in order to acquire the prints. The reply from the dealers, written by Harold Wright, accords with Majorie Latham’s concern about the war and how it would affect auction results:

10th June
Dear Sir,
...It is, as you will readily appreciate, extremely difficult to forecast such prices, at a time like this. We think, therefore, that the best would be to indicate to you what such lots might be expected to bring in normal or approximately normal times...

The dealer’s estimates proved to be vastly inaccurate in almost every case. Although rather unfortunate for the Charrington family (Wright later called the sale “a tragedy”), the timing was hugely beneficial for the Museum as the money Louis Clarke could raise stretched much further.

June 19 1940
Dear Sir,
As promised, we send herewith a note of the result of our various findings on behalf of the Fitzwilliam Museum, at the Charrington sale at Christie’s today… You will see that we secured all the lots on which you commissioned us to bid … Not only so, but we secured a number of other lots, in which you were interested, and would we know, have liked to have…

Total spent for Cambridge £250.8.6 (add 5% commission…)

Only a couple of the prints reached the estimates that they would have achieved in “approximately normal”, pre-war times. This portrait of Von Salisch was among the minority that did quite well, though it still fell shy of Colnaghi's £50 estimate: its hammer price was £48/6/-.

Others were an utter steal, including some of the early mezzotints the Director had wanted at the outset. A large print by Theodor Caspar von Furstenburg (P.121-1940), which might have made £60 before the war, only achieved £19/19/- with nineteen other prints thrown in. Another early mezzotint, The little executioner by Prince Rupert ( P.129-1940), which was expected to reach £35 in the auction, did go for £37, but with four other prints included.

Some of the sale prices are even more shocking when it is revealed what Charrington paid for them twenty to thirty years before. Here are a few examples of the most incredible: a subject mezzotint by William Barnard after Gainsborough ( P.70-1940), purchased by Charrington in September 1912 for £31/10/-, sold at the auction for a mere £1/1/- in a lot containing nineteen prints; a large mezzotint portrait by James Watson after Joshua Reynolds (P.143-1940) for which Charrington paid a whopping £250, sold with one other print for only £2/2/-; lastly, two other large mezzotint portraits by James McArdell after Anthony Van Dyck ( P.127-1940 and P.124-1940), for which Charrington had shelled out £200 in February 1907 and £150 in November 1913 respectively, sold together for just £2/12/6.

Although Colnaghi's secured almost all the lots for which they were commissioned to bid and some extra, the letters dating immediately after the auction reveal how rushed the Director had been in trying to decide what to acquire. Straight away Clarke began chasing up purchasers of other lots, and making them an offer if they happened to be dealers. This was an expensive way to go about things, as they prints were being resold at hugely inflated prices (one such example – but not something that Louis Clarke wanted – was the series of prints by Durer of the Life of the Virgin, which were snapped up at the auction for just under £100. It was on the market again under five months later for $3,000, then roughly £750).

Louis Clarke had mixed success with this venture: some letters come back to him from Christie's expressing regret that the prints had been purchased outright by a private collector, or by dealers on the behalf of someone else. However, the Director was lucky with some other lines of enquiry. He contacted the dealer F. R. Meatyard (whose premises were on Museum Street by the British Museum) and purchased John Jones’ Samuel Lord Hood, which had been snapped up for £6/6/-. Meatyard sold it to Clarke for 9 guineas, pointing out that Charrington had paid 17 guineas for it just three years previously. Clarke charged to the Museum’s Marlay Fund ( P.71-1940).

The Director was also in contact with the dealers Craddock and Barnard about their purchases at the auction, particularly prints by Wenceslaus Hollar. Clarke sent for one of these straight away – an equestrian statue of King Charles I (P.61-1940). Robert Barnard had bought it in a lot containing seven other prints for £4/4/-; he sold to the Museum for £1/10/- with the postage thrown in for free. (He also excused his tardiness in replying, the cause of devoting twelve hours a day to National Defence duties: “Recently extra duty consequent upon air raid alarms has left hardly any time at all for ordinary business.”)

Reflecting on the list of other Hollar prints they had bought at the auction (the contents of the lots had not been fully described in the auction catalogue), Clarke sent for a further three on approval: a portrait of Andreas Rivetus (described by the dealers as “of the greatest rarity”) (P.57-1940); one unnamed portrait of a woman wearing a close-fitting fur cap with earflaps (P.58-1940), and another of a young woman with curled hair (P.59-1940), costing him £4/8/- (discounted price).

In November of 1940 Louis Clarke bought more of Charrington’s prints from Craddock and Barnard, now described in one of their printed catalogues, Fine prints principally from the collection of the late Mr. John Charrington. The Director sent for two French portrait engravings: Louis le Grand by Pierre Drevet ( P.1-1941), which was priced at $6 (30s) and Antoine François Bertier by Gerard Edelinck ( P.211-1940), priced at $8 (£2).

Louis Clarke remained on the lookout for Charrington’s prints. He proudly annotated the priced sale catalogue when he managed to find something. In 1944 he donated four prints by Johann Georg Wille, which he had bought from Heinrich Eisemann (a dealer who had fled Germany when Hitler came to power). The very last print Clarke acquired for the Museum from Charrington’s collection was mid-way through 1945: another mezzotint portrait after Joshua Reynolds, Mrs. Bouverie and Mrs Crewe, by the Italian printmaker Giuseppe Marchi ( P.345-1945).

Museum Number P.123-1940

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