A painting of Hampstead at Sotheby’s auction house

THE ARTIST JOHN Constable (1776-1837) lived at various addresses in London’s Hampstead. There, he created many sketches and paintings. He was extremely interested in depicting clouds – difficult subjects for an artist to portray convincingly, but Constable was able to do it well. Hampstead, high above most of the rest of London, provided a good spot for an artist interested in creating pictures of meteorological phenomena. High above the built-up parts of the city with no obstructions in his field of vision, Constable was able to set up his easel under a vast sky.

Recently (5th of June 2023), we visited the pre-auction viewing rooms at Sotheby’s in New Bond Street. In one of the galleries, paintings by ‘Old Masters’ were on display. One of them, which caught my eye, was by Constable, and labelled “Study for Hampstead Heath with a rainbow”. Valued at between £300,000 and £400,000, this picture includes a pond in the foreground; two people on the edge of the pond; some trees; a windmill with some small buildings near it; and a flock of birds flying above a small hill. This rustic scene is lovely, but what really catches the viewer’s attention is the sky. Constable has painted billowing clouds, which almost completely hide the clear sky behind them. Some of the clouds are white and others are ominously grey. Almost as accurate as a photograph, this cloudscape does more than slavishly reproduce what the artist saw – it manages to evoke what he must have felt seeing these clouds. And given the fleeting, ever-changing appearances of clouds, the artist must have worked swiftly to capture the celestial scene he saw.

Although I know that Hampstead once had a windmill near Whitestone Pond (now remembered by a lane called Windmill Hill), judging by its surroundings, the pond in the picture was not Whitestone. It might have been one that local enthusiasts he reconstructed recently – located beside Branch Hill. There is a painting in the Tate Gallery’s collections called “Branch Hill Pond, Hampstead Heath, with a Boy Sitting on a Bank”, which has a similar appearance to that which I saw in Sotheby’s, except that there is no windmill. Constable made many paintings and sketches that included the Branch Hill Pond, but apart from the picture I saw in Sotheby’s, which is a study rather than a finished work, they do not include a windmill.

A few months ago, I published a book about Hampstead and some of its interesting neighbours (including Highgate, West Hampstead, and Primrose Hill). Some people have wondered about the title I chose. It was because of Constable’s fascination with sky and clouds and his years of residence in Hampstead that I chose to give my book about the area the title “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs”.

My book is available from Amazon as a paperback or an e-book:https://www.amazon.co.uk/BENEATH-WIDE-SKY-HAMPSTEAD-ENVIRONS/dp/B09R2WRK92/

Anne Boleyn’s bowl

THE MAJOR AUCTION HOUSES in London, such as Sotheby’s, Christies, and Bonham’s, provide a wonderful service that benefits as well as enticing potential buyers. For several days prior to big auctions, the lots that are about to be sold are beautifully displayed in galleries, which can be viewed by members of the public. What makes these exhibitions so special is that the artworks and other objects on display are usually not viewable by most people because before and after they are sold, they are housed in places, which are completely inaccessible to the general public, such as private collections. Today (5th of June 2023), we paid a visit to Bonham’s in New Bond Street. In addition to seeing a superb display of paintings and prints by contemporary or recent artists from the Indian Subcontinent, there was a fascinating display of – for want of a better word – ‘antiques’ made mostly in India.

One of the lots that will be auctioned is a bowl made of mother-of-pearl. It is described as “Indo-Portuguese” from Gujarat. When it was made, there were already well-established Portuguese settlements in Gujarat – for example, Daman and Diu. Beside the attractive bowl, there was a hand-written note which read as follows:

“Given by Anne Boleyn Queen of Henry the 8th to Sir John Brereton Kt & given in 1839 by Miss Brereton of Brereton Hall Cheshire to Henrietta E Sharpe who has collateral descent from Sir John Brereton”.

Anne Boleyn lived from c1501-1507 until 1536. Brereton Hall, in Brereton, Cheshire, was built after Anne’s beheading in 1536 by Sir William Brereton (1550–1631). So, who was the person to whom Anne gifted the bowl? Before answering that question, I will tell you about William Brereton (c1487-1536) of Cheshire. One of Henry VIII’s courtiers, he was accused of committing adultery with Anne Boleyn, found guilty, and executed. He was a son of William Brereton, who died in 1485. Many historians no doubt that he was guilty. Guilty or not, there was at least some connection between him and Anne Boleyn. If the handwritten label I saw at Bonham’s is accurate, then the recipient of the bowl must have been alive when Boleyn lived.  John might have been William’s brother, Sir John Brereton (c1447 – 1527), but I cannot be certain. As for the ‘Miss Brereton of Brereton Hall’, she is difficult to identify without her first name(s). And Henrietta Sharpe, who was given the bowl is also not readily identifiable.

How exactly the bowl came into Anne Boleyn’s possession is yet another mystery, but during the reign of Henry VIII and his predecessor, England and Portugal were on friendly terms. The bowl is not only attractive but also poses many questions, which I am as yet unable to answer. One of these is: who will become its next owner? If you want to know the answer, the auction is being held on the 7th of June. But often, the buyer is anonymous.

A battle scene under the hammer

SRIRANGAPATNA (SERINGAPATNAM) IS A town on an island in the River Kaveri in the state of Karnataka in southern India. I have been there several times as it is near a holy spot (the ‘sangam’, where three streams meet) where ashes of deceased Hindus, including those of my parents-in-law, are ceremoniously deposited in the waters of the Kaveri. The town near the sangam was the capital of the realm ruled by Tipu Sultan (1750-1799). This former capital of a great ruler is full of impressive architectural reminders of his era. One of these, which I have visited at least twice, is a Summer Palace, the Daria Daulat Mahal (literally, ‘Wealth of the Sea Palace’) built for Tipu in 1784. This lovely, large pavilion in the middle of a formal garden is decorated with huge painted murals depicting various subjects. Some of them show scenes of battles in which Tipu was involved, often with his enemy the British East India Company. Filled with fascinating details, these are well worth visiting.

On the 30th of March 2022, a wonderful artwork was auctioned at Sotheby’s auction house in London’s New Bond Street. Created in 1784, it is a painting measuring 31.6 feet by 6.6 feet. It is one of three copies of a work commissioned by Tipu for the Daria Daulat pavilion. It depicts the Battle of Pollilur fought on the 10th of September 1780 between the British troops of the East India Company and the Mysore Army led by Haider Ali (c1720-1782) and his son Tipu Sultan. Writing for the Sotheby’s website (https://www.sothebys.com/en/buy/auction/2022/arts-of-the-islamic-world-india-including-fine-rugs-and-carpets/the-battle-of-pollilur-india-seringapatam-early), the author and historian William Dalrymple explained:

“At Pollilur, Tipu Sultan inflicted on the East India Company the most crushing defeat the Company would ever receive, and one which nearly ended British rule in India.”

He added, referring to the British:

“Out of 86 officers, 36 were killed, 34 were wounded and taken prisoner; only 16 captured were unwounded. Baillie received a back and head wound, in addition to losing a leg. Baird received two sabre cuts on the head and a pike wound in the arm. His ADC and young cousin, James Dalrymple, received a severe back wound and “two cuts in my head”. Around two hundred prisoners were taken. Most of the rest of the force of 3,800 was annihilated.”

Of the painting being auctioned at Sotheby’s, he wrote:

“The painting extends over ten large sheets of paper, nearly thirty-two feet (978.5cm) long, and focuses in on the moment when the Company’s ammunition tumbril explodes, breaking the British square, while Tipu’s cavalry advances from left and right, “like waves of an angry sea,” according to the contemporary Mughal historian Ghulam Husain Khan. The pink-cheeked and rather effeminate-looking Company troops wait fearfully for the impact of the Mysore charge, as the gallant and thickly moustachioed Mysore lancers close in for the kill. To the right, the French commander Lally peers triumphantly through his telescope; but Haidar and Tipu look on majestically and impassively at their triumph, while Tipu, with magnificent sang-froid sniffs a single red rose as if on a pleasure outing to a garden to inspect his flowers.”

As with all other items to be auctioned at Sotheby’s, the painting was put on display to the public for several days before the auction. We were lucky to have been able to view it, as we arrived only a few minutes before the public viewing period ended. One of the technicians at the auction house let us get close to the painting so that we could examine it much better than is possible when visiting the Summer Palace at Srirangapatna. I took the opportunity to take close-up photographs of details of this incredible record of late 18th century warfare. [You can view my photographs on the following website: http://www.ipernity.com/doc/adam/album/1319222] Some of them are quite gory, including decapitated heads with blood issuing from their severed necks. Many of the British can be seen being impaled by what looked like very thin, needle-like spears. I spotted one Indian soldier being struck on his head by a bayonet wielded by a Britisher. Some of the Mysore Army soldiers brandish rifles fitted with bayonets.

The British soldiers are mainly dressed in red jackets. Their opponents are depicted wearing clothes in a variety of colours. Most of the Indian soldiers have dark-coloured eyes but, as my wife spotted, some of the British have pale coloured (blue?) eyes.  Many animals appear in the picture: horses, camels, elephants, and bullocks. In addition to rifles and spears, there are other weapons in the painting including: cannon, swords of various kinds, and archery bows. Seen as a whole and in detail, the painting portrays great activity and a sense of the confusion that reigns in a battle. Whereas the British appeared to be maintaining orderly formations, their opponents can be seen making a terrifyingly massive onslaught in an apparently less organised, but ultimately successful, way.

Although words are inadequate to convey the impression made on me by this painting, I am glad that I was able to see it before it is sold. It was last exhibited for a few months in 1999 in the National Gallery of Scotland (Edinburgh), and before that for a few months in London in 1990. If it is sold to a private individual, it might not be available for public viewing again for a long time.

How sad is that?

I was visiting Christie’s auction house in London to view some modern art being displayed prior to an auction.

Seated by a large painting by David Hockney, there was a well dressed man looking at his mobile phone.

A decorous young lady sauntered up to him and said in a French accent:

“Do you follow me on Instagram?”.

The man looked up and said:

“No. Who are you?”

How sad is that?

Shaped by nature, not by man

The word GOGOTTE is pronounced ‘go-got’

gogotte 1


Quartz and chalk were fused

millions of years ago

to create  gogottes


gogotte 2


These two gogottes were from Fontainbleu. They were on sale at Christies auction house in London