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Poussin in Britain

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Poussin’s growing popularity in Britain throughout the 18th century can be explained in part by the increasing number of Grand Tourists who were able to view his paintings in collections in Italy and France. Numerous examples of his works were imported into the UK by agents, dealers and collectors abroad, and appeared regularly in public auctions and private sales. By the end of the century, nearly half of Poussin’s paintings were to be found in British collections, adorning the country house interiors of the wealthy elite. At some point in the late 18th century, Lord Fitzwilliam, the founder of the museum in Cambridge that bears his name, believed he had acquired a painting by Poussin, although subsequent scholarship has proved it to be a copy by an unknown artist of Poussin’s Rebecca and Eliezir of 1648, in the Louvre, Paris. Poussin’s works were also known through painted and engraved copies, which were acquired by members of the gentry and middle classes, who shared the aristocracy’s appreciation of his paintings but lacked the means to acquire them.

Following Dal Pozzo’s death in 1657, the series of seven Sacraments passed by inheritance to various family members, eventually entering the ownership of Maria Laura dal Pozzo around 1739, who had recently married into the Boccapaduli family. In 1729, the paintings were offered to Louis XIV, King of France, but it is believed he turned down the opportunity to acquire them due to the decline in Poussin’s reputation in France at the time and the growing enthusiasm amongst collectors for works by Rubens. During the mid-1740s, the esteemed British collector, Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745), former Prime Minister, purchased all seven paintings, but their export license from Italy was denied by the Pope and the sale annulled. It was not until 1785 that a further attempt was made to bring the paintings to England. In 1785, a letter was sent from James Byres, an agent and guide to British visitors in Rome, to Sir Charles Manners, 4th Duke of Rutland, divulging his scheme to replace this original series with convincing replicas, thus enabling them to come surreptitiously into his possession. Before accepting his offer of two thousand pounds for the set, the Duke consulted the President of the Royal Academy of Arts, Sir Joshua Reynolds, who was to play an important role in orchestrating the initial reception of the paintings in Britain. Shortly after they arrived, they were placed on public display at the Royal Academy; Reynolds escorted King George III around the gallery in celebration of the newly acquired national treasures. In one of his many letters to the Duke, Reynolds declared, ‘Poussin certainly ranks amongst the […] first rank of Painters, and to have such a set of Pictures of such an Artist will really & truly enrich the nation.’ In another he rightly refers to Italy’s economic decline as contributing to the increase in foreign works that were appearing in British collections. Their correspondence reveals that the paintings had been highly sought after by British collectors before they came into the Duke of Rutland’s possession: Welbore Ellis Agar (1732-1802), the Commissioner of Customs, declined an earlier offer to purchase the works on the grounds that they had been damaged, and was subsequently mortified to discover that they had merely been dirty.

Sadly, the series is no longer complete, in 2012 Extreme Unction was acquired by the Fitzwilliam Museum; Marriage, Eucharist and Confirmation have been generously placed on long-term loan to the Fitzwilliam by The Trustees of the 11th Duke of Rutland’s 2000 Settlement. Penance, as mentioned, was destroyed by fire, Baptism was bought by Samuel Kress in 1939 and later bequeathed to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and Ordination was sold in 2011 to the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas. The second set of Sacraments were brought to England by Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater in 1798, as part of a group of sixty-four paintings formerly in the collection of Louis XVI; this series is currently on long-term loan to the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh.

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