On his death in 1987, Harold Samuel, elevated in 1972 to Baron Samuel of Wych Cross, bequeathed the collection he had formed of 84 seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish paintings to the Corporation of the City of London. His widow waived her life interest so that the Corporation could receive them immediately. Although they were exhibited at the Barbican Art Gallery the following year, Samuel’s bequest did not guarantee regular public access. He stipulated that they were to be hung in the Mansion House, the grandiose Palladian official residence of the lord mayor of London.
The renovation of the Mansion House between 1991 and 1993 allowed the collection to go on a five venue North American tour before being shown again at the Barbican on its return. Since then, the Mansion House has been open for occasional guided group visits, but in 2013 public access increased because part of the lord mayor’s annual charity appeal was dedicated to the conservation needs of the Samuel Collection. This Guide is conceived as a companion to the collection in its specific setting in the Mansion House. The text follows the itinerary of a visit, each room being introduced before the presentation of the paintings within it on successive pages accompanied by color illustrations of each work.
In an introductory chapter, Clare Gifford gives a succinct and engaging account of Harold Samuel, not demurring to discuss at least some aspects of his career as a property developer. Samuel was a man of discretion. He acquired his paintings between the mid-1950s and the early 1980s from one London dealer, Edward Speelman, also a man of discretion who handled some of the finest seventeenth-century Dutch paintings to come on the market during his long career.
Notwithstanding that Samuel was guided by Speelman, his taste was his own. Although in one sense easy to characterize, we should beware of lapsing into stereotype. His selection of mostly Dutch paintings conforms to the longstanding view of seventeenth-century Dutch art as centrally concerned with unproblematic views of everyday life, landscape, still life, and the sea. His interest in city views may have resonated with his professional assessment of property, as Gifford suggests, while his avoidance of portraiture (except for one Portrait of a Man in his Study by Gerard ter Borch) may have reflected his preference for avoiding publicity. Yet Samuel aggrandized these ostensibly modest yet mostly high quality works with eighteenth-century gilt frames, as many have before him, so that they would not look out of place with eighteenth-century English gilded furniture in Wych Cross Place, his country house south of London. This elevation of the seemingly modest as a realization of mercantile ambition propelled the Samuel Collection into the halls of Mansion House where the paintings, designed for far smaller scale domestic interiors, can only look incongruous. For all the boldness of this move, one might detect a certain anxiety to achieve impeccability of taste behind it. Anxiety regarding taste also colors Michael Hall’s Guide entries, as when he describes a scene of possibly mercenary amorous dalliance by Jacob Ochtervelt, The Oyster Meal, as “a scene that is a trifle naughty but not enough to be vulgar.” In the light of his evident fastidiousness, one might suspect that Samuel would have avoided the term “vulgar” as itself an instance of that quality.
Hall’s entries do not supersede the excellent full-dress catalogue by Peter Sutton published in 1992 to accompany the American tour. Although a fair amount of new scholarship has appeared in the twenty years between the two publications, we should not expect major revisions to Sutton’s opinions in the new Guide. Yet there are a few, including changes of attribution. I point these out because – welcome or not – attribution is an inevasible responsibility of any cataloguer. When the author of a publication less thorough than a full catalogue makes changes to attributions, there should be good reasons. Thus a small lozenge-shaped panel of a Lute Player, described by Sutton, following Seymour Slive, as by a follower of Frans Hals, “is now,” Hall writes cryptically, “ascribed to the master himself.” Hall gives to Willem van de Velde the Younger alone a scene of vessels at anchor rejected as the sole work of Van de Velde by Michael Robinson, whom Sutton followed in describing it as by Van de Velde and studio. Where Robinson saw the hand of an assistant in errors in the depiction of rigging, Hall sees clumsy restoration.
A third case of a change of attribution concerns Cattle by a River, one of a group of paintings representing similar scenes by or attributed to Aelbert Cuyp. Sharing the reservations of a number of specialist scholars, Sutton qualified the work as “attributed to.” Hall abandons this caution on the grounds that “as recently as the major exhibition on Cuyp in 2001, it has been accepted as fully authentic.” The painting was not included in that exhibition, but in the catalogue entry on a related work in the National Gallery, London, Axel Rüger mentions “a painting in the collection of Lord Samuel, England” as part of the group, citing a note in the 1987 Masters of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Landscapeexhibition catalogue as his source. Rüger, then the recently appointed curator of Dutch paintings at the National Gallery, London, apparently did not recognize the Samuel painting as the work in the Mansion House. No one should construe Rüger’s mention of the work as an informed judgment on its authenticity. Doubt expressed by the qualification “attributed to” might be the more prudent course.
Hall for the most part follows Sutton in interpretation, though he is at times somewhat heavy-handed. The Sleeping Couple is an intimate top-rate exterior scene by Jan Steen depicting a man (a self-portrait) and a woman dozing beside a stone table, a brick wall, and balustrade with woodland beyond. Their careless but demure slumber may be wine induced: an inverted wine glass stands on the table between them. While Sutton claims no more than that “the admonishment to rich idlers could be implicit,” Hall states that “[t]he contemporary viewer would have been scandalized by the indulgence,” a somewhat overconfident assessment.
Occasionally Hall diverges decidedly from Sutton’s lead. Sutton suggests that the smaller and darker of two stacked cheeses in a still life by Floris van Schooten is “presumably a mature Edam.” Hall, though, accounts for it differently, falling for the old canard, reported in his 1673 travel account by the naturalist and divine, John Ray, concerning a “Green Cheese, said to be so coloured with the juice of Sheeps Dung.”
While Peter Sutton’s 1992 catalogue remains the resource of first resort for those with a scholarly interest in the Samuel Collection paintings, for those lucky enough to be able to visit the Mansion House, whether as a guest of the lord mayor of London or on an occasional tour, Michael Hall’s Guide will be a stimulating and informative companion.
Bard Graduate Center