Hugh Blaker 1873-1936 “ART CONNOISSEUR AND COLLECTOR” was the heading of his obituary notice in The Times of October 7, 1936, though this description did not do him justice. “His power of discerning the hand of the great masters was born not only of vast knowledge and experience but even more of a deep and unfailing passion for the great and fine in art. While others based their conclusions on a microscopic study of the painted surface, Blaker responded at once to the spirit breathing through the picture. He trusted to an inborn instinct which rarely led him astray.”
That quotation about him could well define the true connoisseur.
To understand the way in which many great artworks were acquired in the first half of the 20th Century, it is important to have a sense of that historical era, and the processes through which the experts of the time concluded their opinions. Today, however, authentication seems to be moving more towards a reliance on Science as scientific method itself becomes a more comprehensive and objective guide. Why is this relevant in the case of Mona Lisa? In the early years of the 20th Century, and even up to the post-Second World War period, many important collections, particularly in the United States and the British Isles, were created through the encouragement and tenacity of people like Blaker, who were, in effect, not just connoisseurs in the true sense, but gallery and museum curators, dealers, collectors, critics and authors.
Blaker belonged to, and dealt within, the illustrious circle of people, whose names recur frequently in researching the establishment of some of the great public and private collections: Bernard Berenson, Kenneth Clark, Joseph Duveen, Paul Konody, Robert Langton Douglas, Dr. Wilhelm Bode (arguably the most famous museum director in pre-First World War Europe), Walter Friedlaender, and many others. It was undoubtedly Blaker’s reputation, his keen eye and varied experience, that led to his professional connections with the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath, Somerset, and also as Curator of the Holburne Museum in that city.
Hugh Blaker, like all the others at the time, was constantly on the lookout for unusual high-quality pieces. When he first saw the ‘Earlier Mona Lisa’ he realized the importance of its potential, and when he subsequently examined it properly, he recognised it as the missing work that matched Vasari’s description. But Hugh Blaker brought another talent to the table that others in the world of art dealing and consulting did not have: he was a well respected artist in his own right, having been trained in Antwerp and Paris. He therefore had a painter’s feeling for works that many of his commercial colleagues and experts from the world of academia would never have; and a subsequent facility for honest explanation.
Hugh Blaker’s ability to discover masterpieces dismissed by his contemporaries received further international recognition in May 1914, when the Washington Post reported on a London auction where Blaker, stated as being formerly the curator of the Bath Museum, picked up for a very low price “ … a wonderful example of Hobbema’s art … ” (Meindert Hobbema was a 17th Century master of the Dutch landscape, and considered to be on a par with his mentor, Jacob van Ruisdael.) “The picture was scarcely recognizable under its layer of accumulated dirt, but judicious cleaning restored the full signature of the painter.” Once again, Blaker’s keen eye and expertise triumphed.
Blaker’s interests were eclectic and his love of old masters did not blind him to the significance of modern art movements. In particular, he championed in England many of the impressionists, including Cezanne, Monet and Manet, and personally dealt with some of them, notably Degas. He struggled mightily against the establishment to have the work of Modigliani exhibited. The Courtauld Institute of Art, in its news publication of Autumn 2003, reported Blaker’s claim to be the first collector to buy Modigliani: “ … the only man to give a tuppeny damn about ‘em.” At least one of Blaker’s prized Modiglianis was bequeathed to the Tate, after his death.
Blaker is also remembered as the advisor of the sisters, Gwendoline and Margaret Davies of Wales, at the time the “ … two wealthiest unmarried women in Britain.” Largely with Blaker’s advice and encouragement they amassed by the mid-1920s the largest and most significant collection of French Impressionist and post-Impressionist works in Britain. In addition to the introduction of these now well-known artists, Blaker was securing for them paintings by Millet, as well as works by Turner and Daumier, and a fabulous selection of Old Masters, including three El Grecos and a Velasquez. In the spring of 1913, Blaker arranged for the sisters to lend a sample of their collection for a major public exhibition in Cardiff: the resulting success was “ … a most stupendous show … the greatest thing of its kind ever seen in the provinces.” The Davies sister’s subsequent bequest of over 250 works to the National Gallery of Wales has made it one of international stature.
Interestingly, a Frans Hals work that Blaker bought for the Davies sisters, and bequeathed to the National Museum of Wales, was relegated to obscurity at the time, after a certain scholar questioned its authenticity. But Blaker’s unerring eye has recently been vindicated, for, as Robert Meyrick of Aberystwyth University reports, new research has suggested that the painting was by Hals after all, and after 50 years it is finally on display. This incident only furthers Hugh Blaker’s impeccable connoisseurship.
However, apart from the French Modernists, Blaker’s main passion remained the Old Masters. Documents record his purchases of numerous Velasquez and Rubens works, as well as some Renaissance drawings by Giulio Clovio and others from the school of Michelangelo.
THE DISCOVERY OF THE CENTURY
Hugh Blaker, among other experts, had always believed that there was an earlier version of Mona Lisa painted by Leonardo da Vinci, which formed the draft model or cartoon for the subsequent Louvre version, completed years later.
Eventually, and much to his surprise after years of searching throughout Britain and Europe, it was in Bath itself in 1913 that he heard that a painting that could be of Mona Lisa did exist nearby, and, furthermore, might be available. Frantic enquiries led him to a nobleman’s estate in Somerset.
Recent research by the foundation resulted in a remarkable discovery: a painting recognized already in the 18th century as “‘The Celebrated ‘La Joconde’ by Leonardo da Vinci” 3 was acquired in Italy and brought to England by a James Thomas Benedictus Marwood in the 1770s. He had most likely been on the ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, and like so many others of the British aristocracy, had purchased various old paintings in Italy and France.
18th Century Italy and France were easy hunting-grounds for what subsequently became recognized as old masters. In this way, many priceless paintings were brought to England: some often fell into obscurity, and despite their great importance, were frequently lost and forgotten. Marwood likely kept the painting at his Somerset Manor House and the painting was exhibited at the Yeovil Fine Arts exhibition in 1856. Two years later Marwood’s possessions were auctioned at the house by Avishays. It was likely acquired by the Montacute family of Somerset.
However, the world had changed by the early part of the 20th Century. Rising taxes and the imposition of harsh estate-duties added greatly to the cost of upkeep of many great homes and estates, and this in turn meant serious financial hardship for many of the landed nobility. Selling decent artworks was one way to raise funds.
Furthermore, there was the matter of discretion: no family would want their reduced circumstances publicised, and the painting was therefore definitely not on the open market. Montacute house was sold in 1911, and it is likely that its content were then dispersed privately to local buyers. Just two years later, Blaker fell upon the ‘Earlier Mona Lisa’ close by in Bath itself.
Blaker’s position of trust and professionalism, coupled with his numerous contacts in the area, gave him a unique advantage. The painting had somehow been forgotten, perhaps barely noticed, and in definite need of good cleaning. Yet as soon as he set eyes on it, Blaker immediately recognised what it was. Heart pounding, he had great difficulty disguising his excitement. With classic ‘sang-froid’, and hardly believing his good fortune and the realisation of his dreams, he somehow managed to negotiate the purchase of the painting there and then. He subsequently brought it to his home and studio at Isleworth, just outside London. It is believed that it was Blaker who arranged the very delicate re-lining of the canvas on a replacement stretcher. It then became known as the ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa’: indeed the discovery of the century.
Hugh Blaker notes in his diary:
“January 1914: About to publish abroad details of my Mona Lisa picture, picked up in Bath, a very delightful thing showing the colours mentioned by Giorgio Vasari; and much larger than the Louvre picture, which has just been restored after her adventures.”
Shortly afterwards, Blaker writes to his sister about his Mona Lisa discovery.
“The Mona Lisa is perfectly beautiful. Witcombe (the painter) is raving about it too. I may be very sanguine, but I think there is big money in it. I am sure it was done in Leonardo’s studio before the Louvre picture was finished as the background is entirely different and two columns, of which the bases are just showing in the original (sic !) run up each side of the painting. The Louvre one is 31 x 21 in.: mine is quite 33 3/8 x 25 ฝ in. One would argue that … the figure was probably done first and the background left until the end. Hence the disparity between the two backgrounds. That in mine is not so finely wrought and quite different in composition. Therefore it is not a copy as we understand the term. The hair is different too and the Louvre picture must have been cut down after mine was finished. My dress and hair are darker in tone on account of the canvas. The Louvre picture is on panel which keeps pictures in far better condition. The hands and face being in light opaque colours do not vary very much from the other one. If there is a reproduction at … see what I mean about the columns. The edge(s) of the bases are just showing, the rest about 2 in. each side of the picture is cut off *. I am intensely interested and shall get every particular possible about the Louvre picture and a copy in the Uffici (Uffizi) and one in the Prado. But mine is not an exact copy as these are, which makes it so very important. … It is indeed a capture.”
As it turned out, the timing of his discovery was not great, and within months both his peaceful existence and his plans were soon to be totally disrupted. Later that summer of 1914, with the outbreak of the First World War, “ … the golden world of connoisseurs that stretched from Philadelphia and Boston to Berlin and St. Petersburg was shattered.”
The painting was sent to the United States for safekeeping during the Great War. Documents show that it was hanging in the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston, where it was on loan from December 1914 until January 1918. The terrible conflict would eventually be over, though life, and the world, would never be the same again.
Throughout the war Hugh Blaker remained irrepressible, and in his diary entry of April 17, 1921, noted that he bought a Holbein at the “tragic sale  of the Sydney family in Kent. The Marsham Townshends [and] Duveens are negotiating for it, and Langton Douglas as well.” Blaker eventually sold the painting to Duveen. In 1923 Paul Ganz, the Holbein scholar, finally authenticated the work, confirming Blaker’s accuracy in identifying old masters.
Eventually, towards the end of 1922, Blaker finally had the opportunity to send his Mona Lisa to Italy, to be assessed by some of the greatest Leonardo experts living at the time.
*Editor’s note: After extensive testing in 2004, the Louvre verified that the painting of their ‘Mona Lisa’ had never been trimmed, meaning that the columns on Blaker’s ‘Isleworth’ version were unique and original to that painting. [See section: ‘The Vital Importance of the Columns’]