Works with pen, needle and scissors. Finely drawn maps, detailed tapestries and hand-cut-out paper collages in the Polish folk art tradition spice up the winter.
This year’s 20/21 Art Fair at the Royal College of Art February 17-20 justifies the ‘International’ now included in the title by having assembled art from at least 10 countries, as well as ‘Britain’. Unlike the same organisers’ Works on Paper fair in the autumn, this event is not limited by medium, and offers modern and contemporary photographs, ceramics and sculpture beside oil paintings, drawings, watercolours and prints.
One of the pleasures of this fair is that it mixes the familiar with the previously unknown, and the range of prices from a few hundred pounds upwards reflects this. The range in date is represented by my two illustrations here. Jean Marchand’s 13in by 18in painting (not pencil, as in the fair’s leaflet) ‘Nature Morte ora Verre’ (Fig 4) with the Court Gallery at £8,500, comes from 1910 to 1912, the years that saw the birth of Cubism. Then, fresh from the easel, table, or whatever is the suitable surface, is a Polish offering, but one well-tailored to the venue. Kasia Kmita’s 39 1/2in diameter unique hand-cut-out paper collage (Fig 5) is inspired by Polish folk craft and influenced by Pop Art. It is with Vernissage at £3,000.
Until last summer, Daniel Crouch had worked as a map specialist with Bernard J. Shapero Rare Books, but has now set up on his own in Oxford. He has certainly got off to a flying start. His first catalogue came out in January, and it is a very handsome production indeed. Then he was the buyer of a considerable rarity that came up at Lawrences of Crewkerne on January 17. The Somerset auctioneers are ranging widely in search of business: the 2ft 1in by 2ft 7in manuscript map on vellum of the North American coast from Hudson’s Bay to New York (Fig 3) was found in an Aberdeenshire attic during a valuation. Dated 1699, it is one of 10 or 11 maps drawn by John Thornton (1641-1708) for the Hudson’s Bay Company between 1680 and 1702.
The company archives do not contain an example of Thornton’s work, although there are two maps of Hudson’s Bay by his son Samuel. However, this 1699 map appears to have been the template for those used in the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, and, more astonishingly, during a 1927 boundary dispute between Quebec and Labrador. It was estimated at up to £80,000, but in recognition of its importance, Mr Crouch paid £203,150. In his catalogue, he already has a rare copy of Thornton’s English Pilot, Oriental Navigation, 1716, priced at £135,000.
A couple of days later, l learned that he had also made a seven-figure sale, not from the catalogue, during the month. This was paid by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for one of 13 known examples of a first edition (second state) of what has been described as “one of the most spectacular achievements of Renaissance printmaking”, Jacopo de Barbari’s 1500 birds-eye map of Venice (Fig 1). Made from six blocks, with the original prints measuring 51 3/4 in by 111 in,it is the largest woodcut map ever created.
This year’s visit to BRAFA, the principal Belgian fair, was as enjoyable as ever, although the focus seemed to have changed somewhat. There seemed to be fewer stands exhibiting furniture, oriental porcelain and even medieval and Northern Renaissance works of art and objects. This despite the fact that the fair had expanded, by eight stands, I think. There were several more dealers in tribal arts, which is a natural development in Belgium, a major centre of the market, but further expansion here could upset the balance of disciplines. Both furniture and paintings seemed less well represented, and I felt that one or two of the galleries showing contemporary art did not really deserve their places.
That said, there were many excellent things, and at the previews business was being done. I was particularly impressed by a small bronze mask (Fig 2) that had been excavated in Mali, and all the more so when I learned that it dated from the 8th to 10th centuries AD. There is nothing else quite like it, unless it be still underground in West Africa. This one is cast in four pieces, and is about 8in long. It was made by the Soninke people, founders of the ancient empire of Ghana, and, as the dealer Pierre Dartevelle says, it can only be compared to bronzes by the Chinese masters. When I saw it, it was already sold, and of the price M Dartevelle would only say happily that it had been “tres chere”.
Another pleasure of BRAFA is the stand of De Wit Fine Tapestries, Royal Manufacturers, as well as dealers. Highlights were a splendid Brussels tapestry from the workshop of Jean II Raes (1530-1543) with a well-stocked woodland scene and another, which I liked still more, an early Renaissance Brussels wool and silk tapestry of 1525-1550, showing a courtly love subject (Fig 6). The work basket on the left could be found in markets today.