Explore the Frank Simpson Archive with Martin Postle

by Martin Postle

  • 26 May 2022

Quite simply, the Frank Simpson archive contains a hitherto hidden treasure trove of archival material relating to the machinations of the international art trade in the earlier decades of the twentieth century. Among the most fruitful avenues for research in terms of art objects are the Artists Files which contain file cards, scribbled notes, correspondence, presentation brochures and photographs on works of art, handled by and of interest to Knoedler & Co. In total there are over five hundred files relating to British and European artists, from Lemuel Francis Abbott to Francisco de Zubarán. British art is particularly well represented, not least because during the period spanning the heyday of the archive, British eighteenth-century Old Masters of the so-called Golden Age were greatly sought after and reached top-dollar prices. At that time portraiture was the dominant genre in terms of the art market, reflected here in the extensive files relating to Reynolds, Gainsborough, Hoppner, Lawrence and Raeburn. In order to “test drive” the contents of the archive, which was known to me hitherto in name only, I decided to dip into holdings relating to Joshua Reynolds, an artist in which I have maintained a research interest for some forty years and know quite well. Even in the little time I was able to devote to browsing the material it became clear that there was still much to learn and many new potential voyages of discovery, relating not only to the buying and selling of particular art works, or gaps in provenance, but time-honoured practices and attitudes.

Here, for example, is an extract from a letter of August 1924 (FHS/3/1/365) from the then respected art critic, William Roberts (1869–1940), offering an opinion on a putative portrait by Reynolds, which was, he opined, “one of the most attractive examples I have seen of Sir Joshua of this period”, going on to observe that the “coating of dust and dirt which had obscured its beauty has undoubtedly preserved it through all these years”: the classic definition of a picture in so-called “country-house condition”. Roberts, however, was a dubious character, proffering in exchange for payment certificates of authenticity which were invariably not worth the paper on which they were written. And in this instance, as far as I can see, the picture in question, of a certain “Miss Montgomerie”, does not appear to have been by Sir Joshua. Another revealing piece of correspondence comes in a letter of 1923 concerning the sale of Reynolds’s portrait of Lady St Asaph and her son (FHS/3/1/360), then being sold via Knoedler to an American collector, and now in the Baltimore Museum of Art. In addition to the offer of £20,000, the vendors wanted the purchaser to provide a “replica together with the old [original] frame”. As Knoedler noted: “Our own practice – & Agnews too – is to give the owner a replica & leave him with the old frame”, which explains why so many works of art parted company with their frames at that time, and how frames, often exquisite pieces of craftsmanship in their own right, were downgraded or, to put it more diplomatically, regarded as fixtures and fittings.

Finally, among the Reynolds files in the Simpson archive, as well as minutiae relating to pictures, are items of correspondence from the late 1930s between Knoedler’s Librarian, Miss Letitia Simpson, (Frank Simpson’s aunt) and the Reynolds scholar, Ellis Waterhouse, who at that time was assembling photographs for his impending monograph on Reynolds, published a few years later, in 1941. As he explained: “The book is to have about 300 pages of illustrations and is intended as a sort of first attempt at a ‘Klassiker der Kunst’ of Reynolds, but it is, of course, to be in English”. The letters, which deal with the minutiae of access and ownership rights, are courteous and businesslike. However, in a letter of 19 December 1938, the young Waterhouse, as he then was, ventured to express his gratitude to Miss Simpson for her assistance, in a short poem:

Dear Miss Simpson,
Angel faces o’er thee bending
Guard the portals of thy Soul!
Thank you very much for sending
Photographs so beautiful.

As Waterhouse commented wryly: “This is how this dreadful time of year seems to be affecting me”. Mercifully, he did not give up the day job.

About the author

  • Martin Postle - Senior Research Fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre