The wife of the Lord Mayor of London introduces this book. She tells how Harold Samuel became Britain’s “first post-war millionaire” by building up Land Securities partly through acquisition of bomb-sites whose attraction was “location, location, location”.
Knighted in 1963, ennobled a decade later, Samuel moved to Wych Cross in Sussex and began collecting 17th-century Dutch art, using a dealer inherited from the house’s previous owners. “It is a compliment to Lord Samuel’s tutored skill as a connoisseur and to his advisers,” says the book’s author, “that so few of his pictures have failed the test of time”.
When he died in 1987, Samuel’s paintings went to the Mansion House. Following renovation of that building, they were hung in its passageways, staircases and salons. An avid gardener, Samuel had ignored flower painting, preferring “the real thing”. He also avoided portraits, another genre favoured by Dutch and Flemish masters, thus his bequest is not wholly typical of the epoch he admired, but it gets near enough.
It was a golden age of trade and development in the Low Countries, yet the “embarrassment of riches” came into a milieu largely averse to the grand gesture, mythopoeic excess, violence or even much colour.
A social order built on the kind of exactitude displayed by, say, a jeweller of Antwerp studying stones through a lens, favoured pictures that were small, often crowded, their point of view from on high, an eye of God as it were viewing mortals who swarm like insects — though frequently in insect-free scenes of iced-over rivers where skaters fall on their bottoms as chortling neighbours look on, backgrounded in skeletal trees.
Such external tableaux emphasise pallid skies, rarely blue, though perhaps gilded by an underlight refracted from nearby seas. These artists “understood the effect of ambient air on distance”. They placed their horizon lines low in composition, underlining the flatness of what they saw.
Interiors by contrast are often dark. More than one student of Rembrandt is represented, though not the master himself. Eroticism occasionally peeks out, “slightly naughty, but not enough to be vulgar”, yet the “Dutch Caravaggists” are eschewed. Joyous, spontaneous individuals rarely appear; a notable exception is the Merry Lute Player of Frans Hals and there are some cameos celebrating the senses. Even the austerity of Samuel had limits — cityscapes with architectural follies, harbours striated with masts of vagabond boats raise the spirit — but one never feels far from a sensibility whose main ocular activity must have been to inspect financial projections and architects’ plans.
The paintings are carefully described by Michael Hall, who once curated Old Masters for the Rothschilds and was a visiting scholar at the Getty. His account of 84 works is strong on technical matters to do with whether paint is applied to copper, oak, canvas, etc. This makes it an education whether or not it is read in proximity to its subject — a remarkable cache of some of The City’s less trumpeted treasure — and at the remarkably reasonable price of £15.