Catalogue entry

John Brett 1831–1902

T01560 Florence from Bellosguardo 1863

Inscribed ‘John Brett 1863’ b.l.
Canvas 23¿ x 39 13/16 (60 x 101).
Presented by Thomas Stainton in memory of Charles and Lavinia Handley-Read 1972.
Coll: Bought from the artist by Lord Overstone;...; London art market 1950’s; Morris Redstone; …; Christie’s 18 June 1965 (13, repr.). Frank; Charles Handley-Read; his brother-in-law Thomas Stainton.
Exh: The Victorian Vision of Italy, Leicester, 1968 (99); Victorian and Edwardian Decorative Art (Handley-Read Collection), R.A.1972 (B120, repr.); The Handley-Read Collection, Fine Art Society Ltd, 1974 (15, repr.).
Lit: D. Du Maurier, ed. The Young George Du Maurier: A Selection of his Letters 186o-1867, 1951, p.204; Catalogue of Nineteenth Century and Modern First Editions, Presentation Copies, Autograph Letters and Literary Manuscripts, Sotheby & Co,14–15 December 1970, lot 905 (letter from Coventry Patmore to Holman Hunt); Allen Staley, ‘Some Watercolours by John Brett’ in Burlington Magazine, cxv, February 1973, p.86; Allen Staley, The Pre-Raphaelite Landscape, 1973, pp. 134–5, 159, pl.71a.

Brett, who spent the winters of 1861–62 and 1862–63 in Florence, sent this and another painting to the R.A. in 1863, but both were rejected. This was the only year between 1856 and 1901 when Brett failed to exhibit at the R.A. and there were suspicions of intrigue (see Sotheby’s, 1970, Coventry Patmore’s letter to Hunt protesting about the rejection, considering that the paintings embody ‘a principle of great interest in the history of painting... there is some foul play going on with respect to him.’).

According to a letter from Du Maurier to Thomas Armstrong quoted in Staley’s Pre-Raphaelite Landscape, however, Brett appears to have found a buyer very soon in Lord Overstone, a trustee of the National Gallery.

The view shows the city from the south-west, looking towards Fiesole and the Appenines, and may have been painted from the terrace of the Villa Brichieri at Bellosguardo, which belonged to Isa Blagden and which was a focal point of the English community in Florence.

The work is a brilliant example of adherence to the Pre-Raphaelite principle of ‘truth to nature’, requiring the delineation of every detail regardless of distance and compositional considerations. Applied here uncharacteristically to an urban subject, the result is a unique instance of a Pre-Raphaelite townscape. The laboriousness of such an enterprise, however, must have been excessive, and thereafter Brett confined himself to landscapes and seascapes where he could display a similar crystalline objectivity without having to enumerate the wealth of detail contained in this painting.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1972–1974, London 1975.