While attending Tuesday's press preview of Seattle Art Museum's new exhibition (Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London), curator Dr. Susan Jenkins simply stated: "Just think Downtown Abbey, and you'll have good insight into the exhibition." The comment elicited a chuckle from the assembled journalists and photographers. In addition to being the curator of the SAM exhibition, Jenkins is Senior Curator at English Heritage, which is the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England.
The newest SAM exhibition, which opens to the public on Valentine's Day and runs for three months through May 19, features about 50 masterpieces from the painting collection of Kenwood House. The neoclassical villa, located about five miles from the center of London, is set in the midst of the landscaped parkland of Hampstead Heath. It was remodeled in the 18th century by Scottish architect Robert Adam and is currently closed to the public while undergoing a major repair and conservation program. The project will be complete this summer, when Kenwood House will reopen to the public. The closure has allowed the paintings to go on tour, many of which have never traveled to the United States.
The collection at Kenwood House, known as the Iveagh Bequest, includes masterpieces by Rembrandt van Rijn, Johan Vermeer, Joseph Mallord William Turner and Thomas Gainsborough -- as well as the Suffolk collection of rare Jacobean portraits. It also includes Rembrandt's Portrait of the Artist (ca. 1665), one of the artist's last self-portraits, and one which has never left Europe.
The collection was donated to England by Edward Cecil Guinness, the first Earl of Iveagh and Heir to the Guinness Brewery. It was shaped by the tastes of the Belle Epoque, equivalent to America's Gilded Age, when Lord Iveagh shared the cultural stage and art market with fellow industry titans such as the Rothschilds, J. Pierpont Morgan and Henry Clay Frick. Lord Iveagh's purchases were mostly made between 1887-1891 and showcase portraiture, landscape and 17th-century Dutch and Flemish works that would typically be found in aristocratic collections. (Note: Downtown Abbey's first series takes place beginning with the news of the Titanic's sinking in 1912).
Running in conjunction with the exhibition at SAM is European Masters: The Treasures of Seattle. I didn't have time to see this, but it includes about 40 paintings from private collections in the Seattle area that feature European art from the 16th-19th centuries. Artists include Vittore Carpaccio, Francisco de Zurbaran, J.A.D. Ingres, Eugene Delacrois and Frans Hals. The paired exhibitions will show the contrast in collecting, the history of taste and how the market has changed since Lord Iveagh began collecting 126 years ago.