The Great Torrington Collection of Portraits will be integral to the interior refurbishment of the Town Hall. When restored the portraits, which at present can be viewed in the museum, will be hung on the walls of the assembly room and gallery. They will give the room a sense of splendour, fitting for important functions and local events.
One of the first interior considerations for the Buildings Preservation Trust, was an appraisal of The Portrait Collection guided by Mrs Cilla Bangay. Sotheby’s was asked to view the pictures and give their opinion on the quality of the paintings and background knowledge of the artists and subjects. The specialist was most interested in the collection as a whole, commenting that it is rare to see such a collection in a small town. She noted the beautiful frames on several of the portraits and the representation of artists with links to the West Country. One painting in particular took her attention, the portrait of John Rolle Walter, attributed to the School of Pompeo Batoni, a well known Italian portrait artist of the 18th Century. A torch was called for and a close inspection made of the brushwork, particularly on the fur collar. There was a frisson of excitement that a discovery was being made.
Sotheby’s decided they needed authentication, but felt that this was a painting by Pompeo Batoni himself, not merely a copy. A photograph was sent to the United States for the opinion of Dr. Edgar Peters Bowron, the international Batoni expert. A few weeks later we were delighted to find that we were in the possession of an original work by Pompeo Batoni, which had hung in a dark corner of the museum for almost a century. Moreover a sketch of the head is exhibited in The Statens Museum in Copenhagen, titled ‘Portrait of a Gentleman’. This was an important discovery for Sotheby’s and Dr. Edgar Peters Bowron, not only to find a ‘lost’ Batoni but to be able to identify the unknown gentleman. We were thrilled to know we have this picture in the Torrington Collection.
The Town and Alms Lands Trustees (‘Town Trust’), who are custodians of the picture collection, have since sent the portrait to Bristol for restoration. The photograph shows work on the painting 50% complete. The portrait was afterwards displayed at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery until December 2007.
In 2007 the whole collection was reviewed and valued by experts from Christies who confirm their authenticity and importance. The ‘Town Trust’ has now agreed that 3 of the portraits can be sold to provide additional funding for the Town Hall Project. The Batoni portrait was put up for auction at Christies in London on 6.12.08 with a reserve of £300,000. However, at the very last moment it was withdrawn to allow the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM) of Exeter to raise money to purchase it by private treaty. This was achieved in October with the aid of The Art Fund, the Heritage Lottery Fund and from their own resources. The purchase price was recently paid to the ‘Town Trust’ and is now available for the Town Hall Project. A very significant boost to our funding.
The portraits of Denys Rolle (1720-1797) by Sir Thomas Hudson and his son Lord John Rolle (1750-1842) by Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA are also being offered for private sale. Recently there has been some encouraging progress on this.
All will be replaced by full scale photographic facsimiles to preserve the integrity of the collection. Arrangements are in hand to replace the Batoni fairly soon when a suitable frame can be found.
Batoni, Pompeo (1708-1787)
Italian painter, who became famous throughout Europe for his classicising portraits, especially of British travellers to Rome, a genre in which he achieved spectacular success.
Hudson, Thomas (1701-1779)
Born in Devon, Hudson’s early life remains obscure. He trained under the successful portrait painter Jonathon Richardson (1665-1745), later marrying his daughter. He was know for his style of solid portraiture in the grand-manner. he shared his time between London and his native Devon, also working in fashionable Bath.
Lawrence, Sir Thomas (1769-1830)
Born in Bristol, Thomas Lawrence was one of the foremost English portrait painters of his day. A child prodigy, he was largely self taught, although he spent some time at the Royal Academy of Arts. He succeeded Sir Joshua Reynolds as principal painter to George III, who knighted Lawrence in 1815. Lawrence was made a member of the Royal Academy in 1794 and served as president of the academy from 1820-1830. With Reynolds and Gainsborough, it is said he represents the apex of English portrait painting.
Cosway, Richard (1742-1821)
Born in Devon, Richard Cosway received his artistic training in London and was a painter of miniatures. Having gained the friendship of the Prince of Wales, later King George IV, Cosway was appointed court painter. He painted members of the Royal Family and aristocrats of both England and France.