Old Masters to go in last rites for iconic collection of the Golden Age

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The Independent Online

By the time the wealthy linen and textiles merchant Sir Francis Cook died in 1901, he had acquired more than 500 paintings to rival the collections of the finest public galleries in Europe.

Now the last important works from the great Victorian collection, including an oil sketch by Rubens and a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, are to be sold at auction.

On 8 December, eight Old Masters valued in the region of £5m will go under the hammer at Christie's in London at the direction of Brenda, Lady Cook, the widow of Sir Francis's great grandson, also Sir Francis, an artist with works in several British collections. He died in 1978.

Richard Knight, international director of the Old Masters department at Christie's, said the collection assembled by the Victorian businessman Sir Francis Cook ranked alongside other great 19th-century collections of the so-called "golden age".

"You can't over-estimate how rich in quality and importance the pictures were in the Cook collection. It was a bit like the Frick collection [in New York]. It was spectacular," Mr Knight said.

Until his middle age, Sir Francis had been a collector of antiquities not art. Only after turning 50 did he begin to acquire paintings with the aim of assembling an encyclopaedic collection to rival the best public galleries in Britain and Europe.

The grandson of a Norfolk sheep farmer, Sir Francis's purchases included paintings that are now world famous - Jan van Eyck's Three Marys at the Sepulchre, Diego Velazquez's Old woman cooking eggs, Filippo Lippi's Adoration of the Magi and J M W Turner's The Fifth Plague of Egypt.

His grandson, Herbert, who continued and expanded the collection in the first half of the 20th century, credited the leading connoisseur of the Victorian art world, John Charles Robinson, with helping Sir Francis acquire "numberless treasures worth today 10 times what he paid for them," The Burlington Magazine recorded.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the collection included around 500 works, with masterpieces by Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, del Sarto, Titian, Tintoretto and Raphael.

"In a very short period of time, he went from having nothing at all to having one of the outstanding collections of the 19th century," Mr Knight said.

Encountering financial difficulties after the First World War, the family began significant sales, largely to institutions around the world, but with some gifts. Sir Francis, Herbert's son, donated one of the most impressive masterpieces, Titian's La Schiavona, to the National Gallery in 1942 in memory of his father. Then in 1949, the family gave up Doughty House and, gradually, fewer works remained in its hands.

A spokesman for Christie's said that now, 27 years after the death of her husband, Brenda, Lady Cook, was putting her estate in order.

"These are the last important pictures from the collection," Mr Knight said. The Rubens sketch, The Hunt of Meleager and Atalanta, was purchased by Sir Francis in 1868 and is believed to be one of the finest oil sketches remaining in private hands. It is expected to fetch up to £3m.

The portrait of Captain Hood, later Lord Bridport, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, depicts a hero of the British navy during the Seven Years and French Revolutionary Wars and came to the Cook family via their family connections to Admiral Lord Nelson. It is expected to make up to £350,000.

Other works include a portrait of Christ by the Spanish Baroque artist Bartolome Esteban Murillo valued at up to £700,000 and a rare, very early Madonna and Child by Naddo Ceccarelli, a Sienese master from the generation immediately following the founder of that school, Duccio. It dates from 1347, the year before the Black Death devastated much of Europe, and its guide price is up to £800,000.

Mr Knight refused to be gloomy that such a glorious collection was to be no more. "Collections are formed and collections are sold. Works of art are coming on to the market all the time," he said.

"Of course it's sad in a way to see a collection like this gradually sold, but on the other hand, the positive side, is the great museums of the world have benefited enormously. Had it not been for dispersals from the Cook collection then one of the truly great American collectors of the mid-20th century, Samuel H Kress, wouldn't have been able to do what he did. There are paintings from the Cook collection in institutions all over the world."