The guide at the National Gallery in London wasn’t entirely sure where I might find Rubens. She furrowed her brow and scratched her chin.
“Oh they have been messing about again,” she said. “They keep moving him. Last thing I knew he was in two rooms. Margaret?”
She summoned over her colleague who had been enjoying what can only be described as a quiet moment in her chair by the door of the neighbouring room where I had just moments before gazed on Titien’s Noli Me Tangere. To be fair it was a Sunday and the gallery was closing in the next 30 minutes.
Margaret sprang into action and bustled over to join us.
“Rubens? Oh what do you want him for, Judy? Can’t bear Rubens.”
“Can’t bear Rubens? Crikey. I love Rubens.”
“No,” said Margaret. “Very overrated. I wouldn’t want one on my wall, thank you very much.”
Fascinating though their debate was, I was feeling the feathery tickle of time. I also needed to find Domenichino’s Saint George Slaying the Dragon over in Room 37.
“Is he in 18 or 31? They split him up didn’t they,” said Judy, my original guide, wanting to emphasise her disgust at the gallery authorities.
“Oh no. That’s changed,” came back Margaret, brushing her fringe from her eyes. “He’s back in one room.”
“Is he? When did they do that?” Judy lowered her voice, tucked her chin into her neck like a courting pigeon and murmured in a conspiratorial manner worthy of Catesby and Fawkes.
“They do this. They get these nonsense ideas, move everything around and no one ever tells us anything. So we end up sending people to the wrong rooms. They never tell us anything.”
I nodded understandingly and was about to say “It was the same with the moon landings” when Margaret chimed in again.
“Which one is it you’re after?”
“It is called A Roman Triumph. It is a procession…”
“…with the elephants? And the lions and stuff?”
“Yes that sounds right.”
“Well why didn’t you say so. Room 18. Through this door here, down to the end, turn left and keep going.”
I thanked them both and began to move off.
“Why do you want to see that one in particular?” asked Judy who had been a touch sidelined by Margaret’s instant and efficient placement of the Rubens.
I stopped and wondered about how I should reply.
Pride or Humility?
“Oh erm family reasons I suppose….We used to own it.”
THE CHAMPERNOWNES OF DEEPEST DEVON
When I say my family used to own the Rubens, or Titian or Domenichino for that matter, I don’t mean the Spenders. They never had the wherewithal to scour the palaces and galleries of Europe and nor, I suspect, did they have the inclination to lay out the family capital on works of art.
The Spenders were about business; from tavern owners in Bradford-on-Avon to doctors and newspapermen. My great grandfather Edward Spender set up the Western Morning News in Plymouth; his nephew JA became a highly influential editor of the Westminster Gazette. JA’s brother Harold was a less distinguished journalist although his son Stephen would go on to establish the Spender name in the literary sphere.
But no. We are not talking about Spenders here; we are talking about the Champernowne family and that is because on April 26, 1906, Arthur Edmund Spender, who was also a newspaperman, married Helen Frances Champernowne. My grandparents.
According to my great aunt Bessie, who wrote a mighty tome on the family history, Burke (as in Burke’s Peerage) “introduced, the pedigree of Champernowne with the fanfare; “The family of Champernowne which, in splendour of descent, yields to few in the West of England…”
She continues: “And yet it is remarkable that in spite of their erstwhile vast possessions, they never seem to have aspired to any higher title than that of Knight, and we do not find them standing out in the pageantry of English History but continually identified with local interests and activities and thus forming part of the background “behind the scenes” of English history and local government, on which our country has been built up.”
Coming from Normandy – Thomas de Cambernon had lined up against Harold at the Battle of Hastings – they only established themselves in England after 1120 when Jordan de Cambernon of UmberIeigh married Mabira, the illegitimate daughter of Robert FitzRoy, the 1st Earl of Gloucester, himself the illegitimate son of Henry I.
The Champernownes were not all bastards though.
They set up shop in Devon; in 1554 Sir Arthur Champernowne acquired Dartington Hall, where they proceeded to live the landed life quite happily. They married into all of the local nobility so the likes of Sir Walter Ralegh, Sir Humphrey Gilbert and, later, Sir Redvers Buller all pop up in the family tree.
So, fast forward to the late 18th century when a snot-nosed seven-year old called Arthur took over as lord of the manor.
This involved a little legal sleight of hand as his predecessor Rawlin had died without leaving an heir. Young Arthur was actually the son of the Reverend Richard Harington, the rector of Powderham Castle, but as his mother was Rawlin’s sister Jane, there was nothing that deed poll couldn’t fix.
In accordance with the will of his grandfather, he took the name and arms of Champernowne on May 3, 1774.
As Arthur grew up he became a sympathetic landlord and for a while represented the area in Parliament as the MP for Saltash. But his passion was art. He had a big estate in Devon and he wanted to use it to build one of the finest collections in Europe.
And he did.
I defer once again to my great aunt Bessie, known more formally as Elizabeth.
“Arthur Champernowne’s great interest lay in pictures and prints, his travels abroad, his drawings and sketch books, and also in his collection of minerals.
When seventeen years old he went on a tour with a companion whose name is not given; and in his diary he describes his visits to Stourhead, Fonthill, Wardour Castle, Wilton House and Longford Castle.
He mentions the Chinese or Roman temples in the gardens, describes the rooms with their dimensions, and lists all the splendid pictures. Then on to Cambridge and South Wales; after which they crossed to Calais, and passing through Arras, Cambrai, Lille, Rheims, Strasburg and many other places which he describes, they came to Heidelberg and Frankfurt.
At Karlsruhe they introduced themselves at Court and dined with the Margrave, his Princess and the Princes. The Margrave spoke English like an Englishman, “was very affable and quoted lines from Pope”.
He spent considerable sums over a period of years on pictures, of which he bought a good many at the Orleans sale in 1798. Although he notes in the diary in 1795 that he would bind himself to twenty-five pictures that he might not lay out so much money in forming a capital collection, he probably spent more than his income would justify.”
Arthur didn’t stint himself. The records show a long list of great works spinning their way to Devon.
The Memoirs of Painting by the art dealer William Buchanan, published in 1824, gives a catalogue of the collection, the names of purchasers and the prices realised, and mentions several bought by Champernowne including Titian’s Noli me Tangere and the Repose in Egypt and two by Rubens, A Roman Triumph and Rainbow Landscape, which he had from Buchanan in exchange for Guido’s Lot and his Daughters.
He also imported Agostino Carracci’s Baptism of Christ in Jordan and several of the finest pictures by Andrea del Sarto.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. One look at the catalogue of paintings in the Christie’s sale of June 30, 1820 which came almost a year after Arthur died, shows a Celebrity Who’s Who of Old Masters.
Alongside Titian, Domenichino and Rubens, sit Rafael, Rembrandt and Reynolds; Guido and Gainsborough; Caravaggio, Correggio and Carracci; Poussin, Murillo, Bassano and Van Dyke.
There is even a Leonardo de Vinci. The painting is described in the catalogue as “Virgin and child, painted with much sweetness of expression”. It sold to the Piazetta for 52 pounds and 10 shillings.
As it was, collecting art was a costly business and when Arthur died in 1819, he left his widow and eight children, one of whom was born after his death, with debts of almost 25,000 pounds. Hence the auction.
The sale, though, was not a great success as a lot of the paintings went for less than expected. The sale raised just over 6,187 pounds; the remainder of the debt was raised by selling the family estates in Cornwall and the London townhouse in Montague Square. It was the start of the inexorable decline of Dartington Hall which would be sold off just over a century later.
At the top end of the sale came Domenichino’s St George slaying the Dragon, the one to be found today in the National Gallery, which fetched 431 pounds and ten shillings. Murillo’s Adoration of the Shepherds, currently in the Wallace Collection, and Andrea del Sarto’s A Holy Family (“an elegant and finely coloured chef d’oevre” according to the catalogue) both sold for a pound less that St George.
The poet Samuel Rogers bought two Rubens, paying 341 pounds for The Roman Triumph (which would sell for 1102 pounds in 1856 after his death) and The Horrors of War for 162 pounds. Another of Champernowne’s old Rubens, the Rainbow Landscape also ended up with Rogers. It would fetch 4,550 pounds in 1856.
Today they would fetch millions.
BACK IN THE GALLERY
I know, I know. Pride won over Humility. Not attractive but it remained as I gazed on each of the three paintings.
I am not sure I was looking at them properly though, not as works of Titian, Domenichino and Rubens but rather as paintings that had once graced the walls of the family. These were paintings picked out and cherished by my great great great great grandfather, Arthur Champernowne.
I wondered about this man and his family whose blood I share. Would we also share the same values?
Had he looked deeply, as I did, into the luscious red folds of Mary Magdelene’s cloak? Or run his fingers, as I most definitely didn’t, down the frames? I wondered what had stopped his eye, what had raised a smile.
Hell, what is six generations and 200 years? For a few minutes the two of us had shared a moment.
And that, strangely, is quite humbling.
©Barney Spender 2018