• Email
  • Print

Berenson’s Certificate

Artful Partners: Bernard Berenson and Joseph Duveen

by Colin Simpson
Macmillan, 323 pp., $22.50

This scurrilous book—the editor of Connoisseur, with a sharper eye for scandal than for veracity, calls it “one of the most important and engrossing books ever written about the history of art dealing”—has long roots. They reach back over ninety years to the rather improbable setting of Siena, where a number of indigent enthusiasts were engaged in exploiting Sienese painting. They formed a curious group. It included Edward Hutton (the author of a series of literate books about Italian cities, and later a well-regarded small-scale art dealer in London), an Italian forger and copyist, Ilicio Federico Ioni, and an American Dresden-trained pianist, Mason Perkins, who procured many Sienese paintings—forgeries by Ioni among them—for collectors in New York. A timid, parsimonious man with a strain of suppressed violence, Perkins was, when I knew him in old age, living in self-imposed poverty at Assisi surrounded by the pictures he had failed to sell.

The most interesting member of the group was a clergyman named Langton Douglas. He was voluble, dynamic, and ambitious, and unlike Perkins (who was simply an attributor of paintings) he was an aspirant art historian, producing in 1900 a book on Fra Angelico which may not have been (as the present volume claims) a best seller, but which in due course went into a second edition. In Siena Douglas identified the work of a major painter, Sassetta, who had concurrently come to the notice of a more serious and more gifted scholar, Bernard Berenson. Ironically enough the discovery of Sassetta was due neither to Douglas nor to Berenson, but to an American, James Jackson Jarves, who had written on him forty years before. The tug of war of 1903 was, however, won by Berenson, with a brilliant interpretative essay, “A Sienese Painter of the Franciscan Legend,” that is still read by every student of Italian painting. For the remainder of his long life Douglas bore a nagging chip on his shoulder, that his contemporary Berenson had a worldwide reputation as a scholar while he had next to none. Whatever evasive action one took in conversation, this theme recurred, generally in the form of attacks on Berenson’s integrity. The gospel according to Douglas is the theme of the present book.

As an art dealer Douglas rapidly gained a reputation for ruthlessness. He made a promising start by securing some first-rate Sienese paintings for Pierpont Morgan, but when I first knew him in the 1930s he was a figure of legend. It was said (mistakenly) that he had been defrocked. It was said (also mistakenly, I hope) that he painted Bellini’s name on pictures. It was said that he exchanged new majolica for old with unsuspecting parish priests, and would faint at the lodge gates of houses with collections that were closed to members of the trade. According to Simpson, Douglas was “primarily interested in pictures of museum quality,” but on my own visits to his house all I recall, after tumbling over the perambulator in the hall, is a handful of ambiguous, secondary paintings. On the outbreak of the Second World War Douglas and his young third wife moved to New York, where he entered (more strictly, reentered, since the sporadic association was of long standing) the orbit of the dominant art dealing firm of Duveen’s. Lord Duveen had died in 1939, and in the void that ensued, Douglas, who had an outsize capacity for self-deception, made himself useful by proving that second-rate paintings were by first-rate artists.

On Duveen’s death the firm was bequeathed to three legatees, one of whom, Edward Fowles, bought out the other two and became sole owner of the business. When Douglas in turn died, his widow (by what Simpson in the present book describes as a “curious coincidence”) married Fowles, who in 1964 sold the Duveen stock and premises. Fowles had an understanding not of works of art but of how works of art were marketed, and when an amusing journalistic account of Duveen was published by S.N. Behrman,1 he felt it incumbent on him to put the record straight. He was old and not much of a writer, so in 1969 he and his wife, the former Jean Douglas, invoked the aid of a ghostwriter to help him with the book.

Their choice landed on an English investigative journalist named Colin Simpson. The volume that resulted in 1976, Memories of Duveen Brothers, was a decent, reasonably truthful book, covering the whole range of the firm’s multifarious activities. The agreement, according to Simpson, was that he would assemble Fowles’s notes in publishable form before “my own study appeared.” “My own study” (dealing ostensibly though not exclusively with the Italian paintings handled by Duveen and with Duveen’s relations with Berenson) is the present book.

Investigative journalism” is a genreusually powered by indignation, and synthetic indignation is something of which Simpson has no lack. Indignation at the oblivion to which Douglas’s contribution to art history has been consigned. Indignation that Berenson should be regarded as “that rare bird of scholarship, a high priest with no contact with Mammon” (there was no secret at any time of his relations with Duveen; they were freely discussed, and I knew of them when I was at school). Indignation at the “swindles” perpetrated by Mary Berenson through a joke shop named Miss Toplady in London. Indignation at Kenneth Clark, who killed Lord Duveen by recommending against his reappointment as a trustee of the National Gallery in London on the valid ground that he had sold the National Gallery pictures from his own stock (seven excellent Sassettas) as the property of a third party. Indignation at the “almost pathological hatred of Joe [Duveen]” manifested by Berenson’s “self-appointed acolyte” John Walker, later director of the National Gallery in Washington. Indignation at the alleged venality of Berenson’s assistant Nicky Mariano, who was, Simpson assures us, on the payroll of the dealer Count Contini-Bonacossi and of a renegade collector, Lazzaroni—and once received an emerald ring from Fowles. Indignation that so many millionaire collectors were systematically duped (though Simpson’s eyes pop out of his head with admiration when some discreditable coup is made personally by Duveen). But were they duped? I have seldom met a successful businessman who did not carry over into the field of serious art collecting some of the shrewdness and discrimination that ensured success in other fields. Benjamin Altman and Jules Bache and most of the other buyers traduced in this book exercised independent judgment, and did so with remarkable success.

Since there are no footnotes in Simpson’s book, we are invited to take these slanderous charges on trust on the strength of his access to what is known as the Duveen Archive. “I have been immensely fortunate,” writes Simpson, “to have enjoyed access to these archives, when scholars such as Sir John Pope-Hennessy, Lord Clark and Mr. John Walker were refused.” This statement is fraudulent. I have myself been in charge of the Duveen Archive for the past ten years—it is stored in a disused lavatory outside my former office in the Metropolitan Museum—and I suspect I know its contents a good deal better than Simpson, who, in connection with his present book, had access to it only for a short time, when Mrs. Fowles briefly opened Pandora’s box and then, disliking the use Simpson was making of it, snapped it shut again. As a result a great part of the present book is based not on documentary material but on earlier books on Berenson.

The Duveen Archive is in two parts. The bulk of it was presented by Fowles to the Metropolitan Museum under conditions of controlled access laid down in the terms of the gift (which were determined by the scale of the sum claimed for tax exemption, not by the intrinsic interest of the material). Part of it, however, landed up with the Duveen Library in the Clark Art Institute at Williamstown, Massachusetts. The prime interest of the archive is in its information about social history. Never did a client of Duveen leave for Europe without what amounted to intelligence surveillance from the New York office. Is it a good moment to approach Mr. Morgan? No, he is resting near Southampton and does not wish to be disturbed. If some woman’s name is missing from the list of visitors to an exhibition, a hook is baited in the form of a letter drafted and redrafted till it becomes sufficiently cordial and spontaneous to haul her in. When children are born to the wife of a client, the mother is smothered in flowers, and when purchasers die, thought is at once given to the dimensions of the wreath. The picture is rather a crude one, but Duveen was an old rogue, and this was the way in which he felt that business could best be done. The nub of the archive (and the only part of it in which ethical issues as distinct from business malpractices are involved) is a section dealing with specialist advisers, one of whom was Berenson.

It is as well to look facts in the face. Works of art are commodities, and a substantial profit margin is charged when they change hands. They have no established value, since the upper limit is determined by what the purchaser can be prevailed upon to pay. At a time when art dealers were less well informed and professional than they are now, it was important that the purchaser should know what he was buying and the vendor what was being sold. Hence the need for specialist advice and the vogue of that now discredited expedient, the certificate stating the attribution of a work of art. It is easy to adopt a priggish attitude toward certification. The most voluble objections to it are liable to come from people for whom, through the terms of their employment, the practice is debarred (it has always been debarred to me, though I do not strongly censure it) or from academic scholars whose views would cut no ice with potential purchasers. But through the whole period covered by Simpson’s book certification was accepted as an ancillary form of income to which independent art historians might have legitimate recourse.

For Berenson, however, it was more; it was a way of life. His early books, with their critical essays and lists of paintings, sold, but they were inexpensive and unprofitable, and the preparation of books like his Lorenzo Lotto and his great Drawings of the Florentine Painters could not be undertaken without substantial loss. The prospects of an academic career in art history were as sterile then as they are now, and the only workable solution, as Mary Berenson was the first to realize, lay in a responsible relation with the art market. This was the period of Berenson’s purchases for Mrs. Jack Gardner, and very fine they were (far finer than is admitted in Simpson’s book or than they appeared to a nonscholar, Philip Hendy, when he cataloged them in 1931).

Mary Berenson, with her Quaker background, took to making money like a duck to water, but initially Berenson was psychologically resistant to doing so. His relations with Duveen opened in 1906, and were a source of income and frustration for the next thirty years. He was never, as Simpson’s title suggests, a partner in Duveen’s, but was employed on a contractual basis, receiving a commission on the sale of certain paintings. It was at the selling end that difficulties arose. In Duveen’s world there was no room for doubt. An attribution that was qualified or indecisive was of no commercial use. Hence ascriptions that were tentative before pictures came onto the market tended to harden once they were for sale. Simpson, like his predecessors, cites a number of cases where this seems to have occurred. Were Berenson’s attributions honest, we are justified in asking, in the sense of representing a tenable, consistent view at the time that they were made; or were they slanted in such a way that the purchaser was likely to be taken in? The only means of establishing the truth is the laborious one of reading the certificates and then of looking seriously at the paintings. This is a matter on which Simpson, to judge from the factual misstatements in his book, is in no position to adjudicate. My own answer to the first part of the question would be an emphatic “Yes.”

Berenson’s value to Duveen was not that his attributions were invariably right, but that, of the opinions then available, they were least likely to be wrong. The reason for this was that the attributional method applied at I Tatti was a good deal stricter than that used by other scholars. Ascriptions hardly ever stand alone. If one picture is mistakenly included in an artist’s catalog, other pictures that are related to it necessarily come tumbling in, and what results is a distortion of the artist’s personality. Of this hazard Berenson was constantly aware, and there is abundant evidence that he stood firm against the pressures put on him by Fowles, the member of the Duveen staff with whom he dealt, to trim his own convictions to views more likely to promote the sale of paintings. “He is absolutely convinced,” wrote Mary Berenson to Fowles in 1927, when her husband was asked to ascribe two Ferrarese portraits to one artist rather than another, “that it would be a mistake to sacrifice his general principles to a temporary advantage.” Right or wrong, he seems to have been faithful to this criterion, and rereading his lists of paintings I cannot find a single case in which the definition of an artist’s personality is queered by a commercially motivated attribution.

I have almost a shelf of books on Berenson. The worst, because the most untruthful, is Simpson’s botched shot at character assassination, and the richest is Ernest Samuels’s biography, of which the second volume is now imminent.2 Simpson attempts to undercut it by explaining that the author has had no access to the Duveen Archive, though he must be aware that 1553 letters to and from Duveen (to which he has not himself had access) are at I Tatti. Berenson’s correspondence with Mrs. Gardner is also scheduled to appear. The puzzle is that the whole subject retains its interest. It is fifty years since I first lunched at I Tatti, not greatly liking Berenson, and met him again later in the summer at the Salzburg Festival, liking him even less. It is over thirty years since I saw Langton Douglas for the last time at Fiesole, looking like an enormous frog with Tenniel-like tears coursing down his cheeks as he described the members of his Sienese contrada beating their drums and twirling their banners on the lawn outside his room. Yet it seems yesterday, and each time I go up to the Harvard Center for Renaissance Studies at I Tatti, with its great library and its incomparable research facilities, I am convinced that the career espoused by its creator was indeed warranted.

Letters

On R. Langton Douglas July 16, 1987

  1. 1

    Duveen (Crown, 1982).

  2. 2

    Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Connoisseur (Harvard University Press, 1979); Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Legend will by published by Harvard University Press in April.

  • Email
  • Print