Albums of Curiosities: Playing Art Detective

Dealing in antique works on paper, a lot of the pictures we come across have originated from albums. And for us it is these albums which provide some of the most interesting research opportunities and the potential to build a unique picture of the past – the stories, people and places around artworks infinitely broadening and deepening their aesthetic value.

India Album cover  Harriet Sneyd album cover  1821 Album cover

Most simply, the albums fall into two categories – compilations by the artist themselves, bringing together works created in a particular period or place, and compilations by collectors, often more eclectic, but equally revelatory.

In both instances we benefit from the pictures having been pre-curated in some respect. The very act of having been grouped together gives them added significance or meaning, and this in turn tells us something about the compiler.

1820s Harriet Sneyd Album

Our Harriet Sneyd album is a recent example of the first kind, a collection of watercolour paintings by this early 19th-century upper class lady. The paintings tell a fascinating story about their creator and her European travels towards the end of the age of the Grand Tour. Remarkably, the collection survived with an ambrotype of Mrs Sneyd herself, bringing to life the hand from which the paintings and drawings were penned.

Harriet Sneyd ambrotype        

A small fragment of paper accompanying the collection tied together the artist’s story – her maiden name and identity as wife of Thomas Sneyd-Kynnersley, and hence her means and opportunity to travel and pursue painting as gentile recreation.

Sneyd fragment

Fortuitously, nearly all the paintings were inscribed with place names and dates, revealing a wonderfully detailed record of when and where Harriet Sneyd had travelled in the period 1818 to 1845. Less fortuitously the handwriting was spidery, worn, indistinct, and in a few cases downright – frustratingly - illegible!

Harriet Sneyd, Continental Chapel - Original 19th-century watercolour painting  Sneyd Inscription       

Harriet Sneyd, Continental Chapel  Any suggestions on what this inscription might say?

The time taken to decipher the legible inscriptions paid dividends, and we built up a account of European travel around predominantly Austria and Switzerland, with additional excursions into Germany, Italy, France and Croatia.

She was evidently attracted to the sublime landscape of these Alpine regions, painting dramatic views at Prebischer Thor and Saxon Switzerland, Mondsee and Liezen in Austria and the Dolomites in Italy. Some scenes include historic monuments, such as at Kulm in Austria, and the monument to General Moreau outside Dresden.

Harriet Sneyd, Prebischer Thor, Switzerland - Original 1830 watercolour painting    

Harriet Sneyd, Prebischer Thor             Harriet Sneyd, Mountain, Liezen, Austria

These subjects align Harriet Sneyd with the interests of another British early 19th-century touring artist, J.M.W. Turner, working in the same locations in the 1830s and 1840s. Having drawn inferences about our artist from the body of work in our hands, it was very pleasing to make a connection with a “great” – Turner drawing Dresden: The Monument to General Moreau at Räcknitz, with the City in the Background in 1835 (in a sketchbook now in the Tate) and painting Bozen and the Dolomites in 1840.

Harriet Sneyd, Dresden from Moreau Monument - Original 1830 watercolour painting    Dresden: The Monument to General Moreau

H. Sneyd, Dresden from Moreau Monument  J.M.W. Turner, Monument to General Moreau

Harriet Sneyd, Church, Botzen, Tyrol, Italy - Original 1830 watercolour painting   J.M.W. Turner Bozen and the Dolomites

H. Sneyd, Church, Botzen, Tyrol         J.M.W. Turner, Bozen and the Dolomites

1840s Indian Album

Our 1840s Indian album lacks the immediate coherence of the Sneyd album, but the story it tells is no less rewarding. The album is inscribed M.V. Hunter, whilst most of the pictures are signed A. Hunter, leading us to infer that the owner of the album was a family member of the artist. This itself gives a coherence to the provenance of the pictures, and suggests a certain intimacy in the collection as a whole in contrast to if the works were collected by a stranger.    

1840s Indian Album - M.V. Hunter

Although predominantly by A. Hunter, the album includes additional works of quality by different artists, indicating that the individuals in this family operated in artistic circles and had access to pictures of quality. There is a watercolour of Greenwich hospital by C.M. Hodgson, the subject and artist of which were satisfyingly revealed by partial removal of a backing:

C.M. Hodgson, View of Greenwich Hospital, Kent - Original 1840 watercolour

C.M. Hodgson, View of Greenwich Hospital, Kent - Original 1840 watercolour

C.M. Hodgson, View of Greenwich Hospital, Kent , 1840 - Somerset & Wood Fine Art

There are other pictures, by H. Marshall and C.J.J. But the significance of these names is a mystery – signatures and initials tantalising in the connections they intimate but ultimately won’t yield.

Clothing in the paintings help authenticate the era, such as the “Four Characterful Gentlemen”, fabulously of their time and clad in brown-topped “top” boots, colourful patterned waistcoats and tail-coats typical of the Regency period. Viewed today it is hard not to see these as representations of historic costumes, rather than depictions of the prevailing dress of the day.

Four Characterful Gentleman - Original early 19th-century watercolour painting

Four Characterful Gentleman, early 19th-century - Somerset & Wood Fine Art

These pictures root the album in a British identity, but the pictures by A. Hunter, however, are of unusual Indian scenes. The inclusion of an Indian “Company painting” in the collection potantially associates Hunter with the East India Company, then at the height of its involvement in colonial rule in India. The paintings pre-date the Indian Rebellion of 1857, which ended in the dissolution of the East India Company in 1858 and led to the British reorganisation of the army, the financial system and the administration in India to be directly governed by the crown as the new British Raj.

Whilst the artist likely had connections with governing powers of the early British Empire in India, the subjects of Hunter’s own artworks are notable in their everyday, albeit somewhat stylised, subjects. Etchings depict village life with women carrying pots and a village barber, with the appearance of being observed first-hand. They have the appearance of one-off artist proofs, more intimate in character than prints intended for multiple impressions.

A. Hunter, Indian Lady Carrying a Pot -Original early 19th-century etching print   A. Hunter, Indian Barber under tree - Original early 19th-century etching print

A. Hunter, Indian Lady Carrying a Pot and Indian Barber Under Tree

A. Hunter, Indian Elders under Tree - Original early 19th-century etching print   A. Hunter, Indian Horseback Rider - Original early 19th-century etching print

A. Hunter, Indian Elders under Tree and Indian Horseback Rider

As a picture of the album’s history and significance emerges and the pieces of the jigsaw become clearer, we are left wondering was this Dr Alexander Hunter, a Scottish surgeon and artist who set up India’s first arts institution, the Madras School of Industrial Art, in 1850? The dates and subjects fit; and it is documented that to help finance the Art School at Madras Hunter sold his own etchings, drawings and paintings, to the value of many hundreds of pounds. We cannot know for sure, but the prospect is tantalising and we relish the opportunity to feed into a body of knowledge about the past which enriches the present.

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