Alasdair Nichol: William Etty was a significant and rather controversial artist in his time but was then neglected for many years following his death. What prompted your interest in him leading you to own so many by his hand?
Lot 24 | William Etty, Woodland Nymph, oil on panel, $6,000-10,000
Robert Forbes: With the wonderful and sensual Ettys, it all started a long time ago. My brother Christopher wrote his senior thesis at Princeton in the 1970s on paintings shown at the Royal Academy in London during the reign of Queen Victoria. This genre was at the time considered mostly candy box art, with few exceptions. What had once been madly sought after had been relegated to the lower reaches of storage rooms in museums, but my brother was fascinated by the 19th century and in particular this neglected slice of art history. Having convinced our father to sell what he thought was a third-rate Monet, he talked Dad into using the funds to put together a first-rate collection of Victorian art. Dad agreed so off Kip went and did just that. There were usually few if any bidders when great pieces came up, so the pickings were relatively easy.
The market began to change and these pictures were soon given a better look, and prices began to move up accordingly.
Lots 25 & 26
I was fascinated by it all. When I was living and working in London many years later, I saw that William Etty paintings were going for a relative song. I started to buy ones I liked and soon had a small if pleasing collection. His luscious nudes appealed to me - not just because they were lovely but because they contrasted starkly with the Victorian era’s reputation for prudishness. The Ettys were in fact charming and very well painted. Alas, as my wife and I wind down and pursue some deaccessioning, it is time to move these pieces along and give other collectors a chance to enjoy them.
Lots 28 & 31
AN: The February 23 European Art and Old Masters auction includes works by Fortuny and Bridgman — two noted Orientalist artists. Orientalism is a recurrent theme within the Forbes Collection, can you discuss its appeal to the family?
RB: Orientalism in The Forbes Collection owes its roots to a palace in Tangier, Morocco, that our father bought and refurbished in the 1970’s. Artwork with an exotic motif was not highly collectible at that time, with a few notable exceptions. Therefore, good quality pieces could be bought without breaking the bank. These were among the many lovely examples that hung on the walls of the Palais Mendoub for years. They are fond reminders of times spent there, including my dad’s grand 70th birthday party in 1989. The Bridgman captures a simple moment, horsemen fording a stream, but it is extremely evocative of the time of day and the place. He is another under-celebrated but fine artist. Again, as we pare down, some works must find new homes.
Lot 43 | Charles Spencelayh, Dreams of Glory, oil on canvas, $10,000-15,000
AN: There is a particularly charming painting entitled ‘Dreams of Glory’ by the popular English Victorian artist Charles Spencelayh included in the sale that I understand had a prominent position amongst the toys in the Forbes Collection on Fifth Avenue. Please can you tell us a little more about it?
RB: The Spencelayh is a splendid work that adorned the Toy Soldier display at The Forbes Galleries in New York for many years. It evokes one of the prevalent themes of the 19th Century - a boy’s dreams of soldiering and adventures, glory and victory. I related well to it, having had such dreams myself as a youngster. It was situated in a very clever display that allowed the viewer to put his or her head onto a half-round clear plastic bubble and become a little boy in bed with toy soldiers scattered around. The display was based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, “Land of Counterpane,” from his A Child’s Garden of Verses, about a boy sick in bed playing with his toy soldiers.
Lot 55 | Gustav Klimt, Dame Wittgenstein (Study for Bildnis Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein), black chalk on paper, $50,000-80,000
AN: There is a strong Central - Eastern European flavor to the February auction, and it features an important rediscovered work by the Austrian artist Carl Moll. Also included is a drawing from your collection of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein by Gustav Klimt who famously founded the Secession Movement in Vienna together with Moll. What was it about this drawing that attracted you?
RB: Ahh, the Klimt. Undeniably one of the greatest draftsmen ever, Gustav Klimt put enormous energy and passion into his many drawings. His expert handling of detail and emotion pulls the viewer in for a closer look. While this is a study for a portrait, it is still a finished drawing which alluringly captures his beautiful subject. There is a slightly haughty appearance to her but he relishes that in his subjects. I have loved his work since stumbling upon him as a college student wandering in Europe during a year abroad. Since then, I have made pilgrimages to Vienna to see as many of his pictures as possible. His paintings are now rare and stratospherically priced, but his drawings are a great way to own a work from his hand.
AN: Was there a particular focus or area within the market that drove your collecting and what advice would you give to the novice collector?
RB: While it is always sad to let go of old friends, sometimes we move on in life. It allows us to pursue other interests. Now no longer involved in the family publishing world, I am currently a children’s author with three published books of poetry, all illustrated by the late and great Ronald Searle. I find the world of children’s books rich and wonderful. I have turned my collector’s eye and interest to illustrations and animation cels – learning more about these artists and their works every day.
One of the main joys of collecting, the ever-rich thrill of discovery. So, the advice I give beginner collectors is simply to chase what interests you, first by looking and asking questions. The web is a good place to start but you need to get up close to the actual art. Always ask questions: dealers and auction houses are always happy to share what they know. Never buy a piece because someone tells you it is a good investment. Buy only because you like the object and want to live with it. It should give you pleasure every time you see it. Should that start to fade then move it along and look for something else. I have sold a few collections in order to go into a new area. It’s about the excitement and the possibilities. When you are in the hunt for a piece you quickly learn you don’t always get what you’re after, but there’s always a next time.
Children's Book Author Robert L. Forbes reads his book Let’s Have a Bite
European Art & Old Masters
Auction February 23, 12PM EST
Many other pieces from the Forbes Collection will also be included in Freeman’s February 18 Books and Manuscripts sale as well as February 25 The European Lifestyle auction.
In 2016, Freeman’s and its sister auction house, Lyon & Turnbull conjointly sold the Malcolm Forbes Collection drawn from the houses on his two hundred-fifty square mile ranch in Colorado, palace in Tangier, mansion in London, island in Fiji, legendary yacht “The Highlander”, FORBES former headquarters at 60 Fifth Avenue and his beloved New Jersey estate “Timberfield”.