A Gothic Angel

In the drawing room at Rouse Hill your eye is instantly drawn to a small painting on the far wall; a figure of an angel in a shining gilt frame, originally acquired by Hannah Rouse in the 1870s.

While there are other, far larger ‘Grand Tour’ paintings in the collection, this small work  stands out in the interiors of Rouse Hill because of its exuberantly Gothic frame: an elaborate, gilt architectural design with a central pointed arch and decorative fleur de lys finials. The whole has the appearance of a small, precious tabernacle. In this view of the room the painting can be seen to the right, above the display cabinet.

The Rouses’ painting is a detail from a much larger work, by the early Renaissance painter Fra Angelico (ca. 1395–1455) and known as the ‘Tabernacle of the Linaioli’ – that is, of the guild of linen manufacturers. Originally created for a setting on the outside of the guild’s headquarters, today it can be seen in the National Museum of San Marco, Florence. It is a triptych – made of three panels - the two outer folding doors painted inside and out with images of saints, and that close over the central devotional image. Begun in 1433, the marble architectural setting – far too imposing to simply call it a frame - was designed by fellow Florentine artist Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378 – 1455, best known for the bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery). When opened, the central image is of an enthroned Madonna and child; the slim arched border contains a heavenly choir - twelve tiny angels singing or playing instruments. The painting at Rouse Hill is of the one seen at the bottom right - an angel playing a tambour, or small drum.

In 1876, while Hannah Rouse with her daughter Lizzie toured Europe1 and visited Florence, the triptych was exhibited in the long east corridor of the Uffizi. Baedeker’s guide (‘Northern Italy…’, Williams & Norgate, London, 1868; p352) described it prosaically as:

Tabernacle with gold ground, on the exterior St. Mark and St. Peter on the interior St. Mark, John the Baptist and Madonna with the Child, surrounded by angels playing on instruments.

Copies of famous artworks were an essential souvenir for the wealthy tourist of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Vaucluse House, for example, originally had several bronzes after classical statues and paintings acquired by the Wentworths during their own travels. The imposing Aurora leading the Chariot of the Dawn after Guido Reni (the original adorns the ceiling of a pavilion at the Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi, Rome, and was commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in 1614), can be seen in the drawing room there. The romantic, tragic ‘Beatrice Cenci’ after Reni was also originally seen at Vaucluse and many other houses, and a later printed copy hangs in an upstairs bedroom at Rouse Hill. Vaucluse’s tall main corridor is hung with a series of paintings after Raphael and Michelangelo, and effectively serves as a small picture gallery.

The iconic Madonna della Sedia, the ‘Madonna of the chair’ by Raphael much admired for its colouring, was particularly popular and was found in many colonial homes, including Elizabeth Bay House, where another copy from the Art Gallery of NSW collection hangs today. When the contents of Sir Charles Nicholson’s Lindsay was auctioned in 1862, the considerable art collection similarly included works after Fra Angelico, Raphael, Reni, Dolci, Corregio and Titian.

Many of these colonial paintings were, it seems, accepted as, or at least for a time passed of as, original works. Nicholson’s advertised catalogue boasted a genuine Kauffman, Michelangelo, Van Dyke and even a Da Vinci! In 1848 a earlier advertisement for “A splendid Oil Painting, on oak panel, by Raphael, MADONNA AND CHILD” actually claimed “[t]his splendid Oil Painting [likely yet another Madonna della sedia] is unquestionably the finest in the, Colony, and the family in whose possession it has been for many years are perfectly satisfied of its originality, and but for unforeseen circumstances it would on no account have been offered for sale in this Colony.”2

The following year, in 1849, the Sydney Morning Herald criticised an exhibition by the Society for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Australia, and railed against the passing off of copies as genuine works to gullible buyers:

  • 1. This was Hannah’s second European tour. In 1868, recently widowed, she travelled with her children ----- to Europe and Britain. It was on the voyage home that they met the Buchanans, another colonial family returning to Sydney and whose daughter Bessie would later marry Edwin Stephen Rouse.
  • 2. Auction notice placed by Edward Salamon, The Sydney Chronicle, 12th Aug 1848

…The critic contributes largely towards the formation of public taste in those countries where the most valuable galleries are constantly open, and the productions of tho first men of the age are daily brought before the public gaze. How much more needful must he be in a colony where no such advantages exist! The first reflection that presents itself on glancing at the catalogue, is the propensity to affix great names to paintings: a propensity which is common to all countries, but which appears exaggerated out of all reason in this colony. The cupidity and trickery of dealers, the gullibility and vanity of collectors have manufactured more Raphaels, Titians, Corregios, Carraccis, &c, than ever came out of the painting rooms of these great men, and against being thus deluded, or thus deluding themselves, we most emphatically warn colonial purchasers of pictures, especially those whose experience is limited to these shores.  …If buyers cannot buy according to quality, let them at least calculate the chances of the article tendered being genuine. The exhibition on the present occasion contains several instances of this christening worthless pictures, ludicrously- absurd on a single glance at the subject.

The Sydney Morning Herald. Tuesday 29th May, 1849

EXACTING COPIES

Regardless of how they were later perceived, artworks such as those bought by the travelling Rouses and Wentworths were copied and sold in studios in all the major Italian destinations: Rome, Naples, Venice and, as in this case, Florence. In an age before photography the acquisition of copies was a recognised and legitimate way of appreciating an original. Well-heeled tourists could acquire exacting copies of the very works they had only just been admiring in the nearby galleries and palazzos – the precursor to ‘exiting via the gift shop’. Guidebooks provided locations and recommendations of the various workshops and their specialities. Hannah Rouse’s own guide to Rome advises:

Gilded painting on panel.
Fra Angelico, 'Tabernacle of the linen drapers'. Source: Wikipedia, used under creative commons licence
Gilt painted image of saint with halo in gilt painted frame.
Painting of an angel after Fra Angelico, Rouse Hill House collection. Photo Scott Hill © Sydney Living Museums

Copyists of old Masters:- Mazzolini, Palazzo Capranica, 121, Piazza del Monte Citorio... has always a large number of copies of the most celebrated paintings on sale, and is perhaps the best copyist in Rome… 
Bronzes:- Messina, no.135, Via Sistina, an excellent artist for small copies of the most celebrated statues…

Murrays Handbook of Rome and its environs, 9th edition. 1869. Rouse Hill House collection

 
Ornately furnished room with paintings on walls above fireplace.
The sitting room at Rouse Hill House with the ‘Angel of the Annunciation’ at left, and ‘Magdalene’ to the right of the chimneypiece. Rouse Hill House and Farm. Photo © James Horan Sydney Living Museums

The Wentworths acquired two bronzes from Messina; one was a copy of the famed Dying Gladiator (as it was then known). The Rouse’s painting was acquired from the Florentine dealer Louis Pisani, and is one of several that Hannah Rouse purchased from his studio. It seems she was particularly attracted to the works of Baroque painter Carlo Dolci (1616–86), as in Rouse Hill’s sitting room ‘The Adoration of the Madonna to the Holy Child’4, ‘The Angel Gabriel’5 and a ‘Mary Magdalene’6 are all after Dolci. All are also labelled on the back ‘Louis Pisani’s Picture Gallery; 38 Borgognissant[e] first floor; Florence’.

  • 4. after the ‘Madonna of the Veil’ in the Palazzo Corsini, Rome
  • 5. ‘The Angel of the Annunciation’ in the Uffizi
  • 6. also in the Uffizi

These aren’t the only works after Dolci at Rouse Hill; upstairs in the house’s principal bedroom is an engraving of the ‘Madonna of the Veil’, and in a small dressing room is a head of a ‘Sorrowful Madonna’ (likely after Dolci’s ‘Madonna of the thumb’). As tastes have changed, Dolci’s works have largely disappeared from the public consciousness. At the time of Hannah’s purchase, critics such as Ruskin were already decrying his style – he once labelled Dolci, together with other Baroque painters, “the school of Errors and Vices”. Ruskin’s later comments were far blunter. However, Dolci’s works were highly popular and the Rouse collection is – though unusually concentrated on one artist – a very standard selection for the time.

The reason for Hannah Rouse’s interest in Dolci may, ironically, be found in another quote from Ruskin: “I believe that the four painters who have had, and still have, the most influence, such as it is, on the ordinary Protestant Christian mind, are Carlo Dolci, Guercino, Benjamin West, and John Martin... a smooth Magdalen of Carlo Dolci with a tear on each cheek… rarely fails of being verily, often deeply, felt for the time.”7 Emotionally engaging and religious in subject, yet typically without a multitude of ‘Roman’ saints, Dolci’s and his Catholic Baroque contemporaries’ works safely appealed to the Evangelical Protestant spirit of the Rouse family and their contemporaries.

  • 7. John Ruskin, The stones of Venice, Vol. 2. 2nd edition. London; Smith, Elder & Co., 1867. P102

A STROLL ALONG THE BORGO OGNISSANTI, FLORENCE

Pisani’s studio faced the Piazza Ognissanti, around fifteen minutes walk west of the Uffizi and a block in from the river. The street held a number of studios, ceramicists, mosaic workers and jewellers. Hannah and Lizzie also went a few doors up the road to the studio of Antonio Boschi, where she bought two still lives by Michelangelo Meucci (1840-890) – tromp l’oeil ‘trophies’ of songbirds, that can be seen today in the drawing room.

Oval shaped painting in matching oval frame.
Madonna, after Carlo Dolci. Rouse Hill House & Farm Collection, Sydney Living Museums
Two sets of stuffed birds in wooden frames.
Still life tromp l'oeil of Songbirds. Rouse Hill House & Farm collection Sydney Living Museums

As with Meucci’s still lifes, even a brief web search for works from the Pisani studio will bring up quite a list, including others of Fra Angelico’s angels in identical gilt Gothic frames. Being smaller – and cheaper - than the larger works these were no doubt quite popular. Some are labelled with the name Benito Fisani, an artist presumably employed by Pisani and most likely the artist of all the angels - including that on the drawing room wall at Rouse Hill. Hannah initially purchased two of the Fra Angelico angels, and one work after Dolci as the receipts survive:

Luigi Pisani
Firenze 38 The Borognissanti
the 22th [sic] of April 1876

Sold to Mrs H Rouse the following oil paintings with gilt frames

Two copies of two Angels by Beato Angelico with gotical [i.e. Gothic] frames ...£180
A copy of the Angel Gabriel by Carlo Dolci with frame ...£340
[Total] 
...£520

Quite a sum. She presumably went away and had another think as, two days later, a second expanded receipt adds two more works after Dolci: the Magdalene and the Madonna of the Veil. 

Close up of ornate gilt painting of angel's head in painting
Detail of painting of an angel after Fra Angelico. Rouse Hill House collection, Sydney Living Museums
Back of painting.
Reverse of painting showing the handwritten label. Rouse Hill House collection, Sydney Living Museums

They were sent on to the London home of her daughter and son-in-law, Emma and Dudley Batty, where Hannah was soon headed to see her new grandson. That didn’t seem to go well, as a letter from Pisani dated May 27th indicates there was damage.

Dear Madame!
I am very sory to hear that the paintings did not arrive quite safely – it is the first time that such a thing did occure, and that I can assure you Dear Madam, that the packing was perfect, because I was myself present. In some days I got to London, and I will see the paintings and the frames, and I will arrange and explain all to your satisfaction (I hope). I pray You Madam to give nothing to arrange in the paintings of frames, till my arrive to London, I know ­were and whome one can give these things.
Accept my and Mrs Pisani’s best compliments for Yourself and the Young Lady [Lizzie] and believe me
Yours very truelly Louis Pisani
The 27th May 1876

The second angel may have stayed with Lizzie, or possibly was a gift for the Battys. Hannah returned to Sydney and Rouse Hill with her repaired paintings and, 141 years later, her prized paintings still hang in the sitting and drawing room, where they provide a reminder of her European travels and a permanent record of the tastes and interests of a 19th century colonial family.

Ornately furnished room.
The Fra Angelico angel in the drawing room at Rouse Hill. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums