The Christmas star

Annibale Carracci (after; 1560-1609), Adoration of the shepherds, o/c, 45 5/8 x 33 ¾ ins (116 x 85.5 cm.), lot 146, Sotheby’s, 3 May 2017; copy of that in the Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Orléans

This is a very brief post for Christmas 2019 on a particularly packed and joyful nativity, which has been given a splendidly appropriate frame in the spirit of the subject.

Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), Adoration of the shepherds, c.1596-98, o/c, 103 x 85 cm., Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Orléans

There are several copies of the painting, the original of which is in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Orléans, in a very plain Baroque frame. It came to France out of the gallery of Cardinal Lodovico Ludovisi in Rome [1], and passed through several  further collections before entering that of Louis XIV in 1684.

The copy – which is very close to the original – may have been made in Rome or possibly in France, and has been in a British collection for an apparently unrecorded period. It first came onto the contemporary market in the so-called Ickworth sale of 1996, when the financially embarrassed Marquess of Bristol [2] sold the contents of Ickworth House over two days in June through Sotheby’s. Two hundred and fifty paintings were included amongst similar numbers of objets d’art, pieces of furniture and household goods, as well as classic cars. Before that the Adoration had been catalogued in the 4th Marquess’s posthumous inventory, made in 1952, when it was believed to be from the hand of Carracci himself. It may well have been acquired – in Rome or in France – by Frederick Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol, who was generally known as the Earl-Bishop, and was responsible for the building of Ickworth.

Hugh Hamilton (1739/40-1808), Frederick Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol & Bishop of Derry, 1790, pastel, 38 ½ x 46 ½ ins (97.8 x 118.1 cm.), Ickworth NT

The Earl had succeeded to his title and estates unexpectedly (both his elder brothers succeeding and dying without heirs), and slightly belatedly, at the age of 49; so he was both philanthropically generous within his Irish bishopric and extravagant in acquiring his art collection, whilst remaining unwilling to finance his children [3]. He had in fact moved to the Continent with his young family in the mid-1760s to save money [4], but his taste for the paintings he found there rather negated this move.

Ickworth, the garden front, detail. Photo: Tony Hawkins

When he inherited his family’s fortunes and estates and set about recreating Ickworth, the two flying wings were designed as art galleries springing from the huge and prominent rotunda; although when his son succeeded the rotunda became the gallery, the family living in the East Wing. Much of the Earl-Bishop’s art collection had been built up and remained in Europe while his house was being built, and unfortunately both he and it were overtaken by time and war. He was imprisoned by Napoleon’s troops in Milan in 1798, and his collection was confiscated; although he was released a year-&-a-half later, he died in 1803, long before Napoleon’s defeat and any restitution of his looting began. His descendants continued to collect enthusiastically, so the copy of Carracci’s Adoration may have been acquired at almost any point between the 1780s and the late 19th century.

Annibale Carracci (after; 1560-1609), Adoration of the shepherds, ex-Ickworth collection

It’s a pity that no provenance beyond the Ickworth collection has been traced, since the frame of the painting is both beautifully conceived and executed, as well as being symbolically so apposite. It provides a far more glorious setting for the subject that the frame of the original in Orléans; and actually the adjustment in height made for the copy (which extends it 13 cm. upwards) also improves the balance of the swirling double oval of the composition.

The frame has a very simple profile – a wide ogee at the top edge, a cavetto, and a small ogee at the sight edge. The outer ogee is carved with alternating fanned lambrequins in wreaths of palm leaves and stars in wreaths of acanthus, separated by S-scrolls; the corners are carved with sprays of lilies; and the sight edge has alternating palmettes and florets between undulating acanthus leaves. It is conceivable that the stars might refer to the coat of arms of an owner, as – in another frame – an eight-pointed star may refer to the Italian Chigi or Altieri families, although straight-edged five-pointed stars tend to belong to British, rather than French, arms. However, with stars and lilies combined, it seems much more likely that these are symbols of the nativity and the Virgin. Lilies are her flower, standing for purity; the star is also a reference to the Virgin as the Star of Ocean, but is more directly the star of Bethlehem. No guiding star appears in the painting (there is hardly room for it, with the great sunburst of rejoicing angels  exploding across the top half of the canvas), so this may be an example of the frame enlarging upon what is shown in the image. It is a striking use of decorative symbolism – the perfect nativity frame.

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[1] It was recorded in Ludovisi’s collection in Rome in 1633

[2] John Hervey, 7th Marquess of Bristol (1954-99)

[3] See Caroline Chapman, Elizabeth & Georgiana: the Duke of Devonshire & his two duchesses, 2002. Lady Elizabeth Hervey was the Earl-Bishop’s second daughter, and like her elder sister ran away from an unsatisfactory husband. The sisters lived together in Bath, where their father seems to have been reluctant to subsidize them and their children otherwise than at a very economical rate.

[4] Ibid.