Some 30 year ago, Mr. and Mrs B. were on a camping trip in the Scottish Highlands with an old tent and an even older car. One day we packed up our tent and decided to drive from Braemar via Tomintoul to Elgin. We decided to drive one of the most spectacular and dangerous roads in Scotland, the A989, which is a bendy road cutting right through the scenic Highlands. When we saw the McEwan Gallery (www.mcewangallery.com) in Bridge of Gairn (near Ballater), we had to make a stop as we did and still do like to visit art galleries.
Mr. B still says that he heard Mrs. B suddenly coming to a screeching halt and found her drooling in front of an amazing portrait of a smiling young lady with gorgeous eyes, powdered grey hair and a fabulous wide brimmed hat. Just the most excellent birthday present ever!! We were informed by Mrs. McEwan that this portrait was by the famous pastel painter Mr. John Russell and would cost GBP 20,000. Unfortunately, we had to leave the portrait behind as we could only manage 20,000 pennies. Until this day, we refer to this pastel portrait as the ‘one who got away’!
Over the following years, we learned more about art and history and had the pleasure at looking at many John Russell pastel paintings over the years. Some we loved and others, not so much. Mr. B really wanted to have a Russell painting to sell in the Black Hat Gallery, but stipulated that the subject of the painting had to be a lovely young lady. As such we just searched until we found in October 2020 what we were looking for; a very good looking young lady attributed to John Russell in an auction of the contents of Beale House in Yorkshire. Given the style of the dress and her hair style, we would date it around 1800. It was described as ‘Half length portrait of a woman’. That sounded rather boring, but we liked the photograph!
The auction description also gave the following reference: Literature: Neil Jeffares, Dictionary of pastellists before 1800, London, 2006J.64.3667 autograph Russell.
Interestingly, this prizewinning Dictionary of pastellists before 1800 can be perused free of charge on the internet under the domain name: www.pastellists.com. Select Artists in the left column, subsequently select John Russell. Do take the time to read the essay on John Russell, it gives an enormous amount of very interesting information about the artist. The 18th century art critics really did not mince words about the artists exhibiting their work at the Royal Academy. To find our young lady, select Part VI: Unindentified sitters, etc. Subsequently look up the reference number 2006J.64.3667 in the text. You can’t miss it as there is a photo of her shown under the relevant text. It also has two little Greek letters in the entry: πδ. In the list of abbreviations (see top line in the main menu on the home page), the Greek abbreviations are explained. In this case, it means that in the opinion of the author the work itself is the autograph (of the artist) and that the identity of the sitter is unknown. To know the identity of the sitter would add value to the painting, especially if she was famous.
We would not have bid for this painting if we had had any doubt that it is not by John Russell.
The auction itself was a nail biting affair. Mrs B. had registered for the auction and had put in an autobid with limit well above the auctioneer’s estimate. Russell paintings usually go for 150 to 300% above the mid estimate. The bidding flew up to the highest amount we could afford and then stopped, but we did not know if we were the highest bidder or someone else. But when we received the invoice for the hammer price and the surcharge, we knew we had been successful.
We then had to arrange transport of the painting from Edinburgh to the Netherlands. Again www.pastellists.com gave good advice (Conservation of pastels (pastellists.com)) on the subject of transport and conservation as pastel paintings are very delicate and when damaged, it cannot be reversed.
It was obvious that a pastel painting cannot be packaged like a watercolor and transported by a normal courier service. We already had very good experiences with Bradleys Antique Packing Services Ltd (www.antiquepacking.co.uk)), which is headquartered in Darlington, England. As such, we asked them if it was possible for them to handle the packing and the transport and they assured us that handling a pastel painting would not be an issue. In due time, the painting arrived in Holland well wrapped in a special lined crate delivered by Bradleys staff with their own van. The painting had been kept vertical all the way. Such specialist service comes at a price, but it is definitely worth the money!
The next day, we gave the pastel painting a close inspection and noted that the surface of the painting was too close to the glass and the frame itself was damaged. The paper on the back of the frame was torn and showed water damage. The chapter on conservation from www.pastellists.com gives very specific advice about framing. We had already done our research just in case there were issues with the frame and called in the help of the specialist framer and picture restorer Mr. André Weda (www.andreweda.nl).
It was obvious to us that the glass in the frame was modern and André determined quickly that the frame itself was about 50 years old. As such we decided to give the pastel painting a 5-star treatment to make sure she will be going strong again for the next 50 years with a new frame, special glass and an internal frame work designed to keep the painting away from the mount and absorb vibrations. André works with only FSC-certified wood, which we applaud. As the picture was taken out of the frame, we took the opportunity to take a few photographs of the back and side of the painting.
We inspected the back of the painting also with black light, but there was no signature of the artist. We then made a mock up of the new frame with the painting. It was remarkable how lively the colors are of the painting without the dirty glass, which had marred its appearance.
The re-framed painting looks wonderfully comfortable in its new special frame. André also glued material at the back of the frame to act as a shock absorber to absorb vibrations when the picture hangs against an outside wall. Again, when you engage a specialist you pay extra, but it is definitely worth it. On the back of the painting, we have glued all the old stickers from the previous auctions in order to reflect its history. Originally, there had been a note glued on the back that the painting was a John Russell and had been certified by Mr. Jeffares. It should be noted though that Mr. Jeffares only gives his personal opinion about a pastel and not an official one (as stated on the website). Nevertheless, we have stuck the note back back on the back of the painting as it belongs there as part of its history.
It goes without saying that if you are the lucky new owner of this painting; we will make arrangements for her to be shipped with the utmost care by a specialist art transport company to make sure that she will arrive in the best possible condition. In order to preserve this treasure for the future generations, please have a look at www.pastellists.com advice about hanging pastel paintings.
Thank you if you have made it to the end of this blogpost!! We hope that we have not put you off about buying a pastel painting. They are among the most lively and beautiful works of art you can buy in the market, and they will survive for hundreds of years when properly taken care of. Take care of them and they will give you pleasure for many years to come.