The Blue Blot

notes, finds & fragments of research

On a Steamboat to Spain? ~ Children’s Portraits under the hammer at ‘Sinterklaas’

It is early December, which means the happiest of times for Dutch children: Sinterklaas. This also means it is that one time of the year that even the Dutch adults, known for their Calvinistic way of life, become kids again. Everyone makes silly rhymes and prank gifts, and stuffs oneself with all things sugary while singing songs. What is even more baffling: For a couple of weeks, a very deeply protestant nation turns absolutely crackers over something that is strictly catholic.

It starts at the end of November with the arrival of Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra (270-343). He is originally from Turkey, but in Dutch tradition he arrives from Spain on his steam-boat full of gifts, his white horse called Amerigo and his large retinue of Moors, dressed in colourful suits with white stockings and large collars, to bring the children, who have been good all year, presents and candy. The one thing that could be placed in the protestant tradition is the fact that the good saint holds a book in which he has all the names of the children and keeps notes about whether they were good or bad – it does remind you of another guy dressed in red, doesn’t it? For many people it is quite confusing as there are many similarities, but no, Saint-Nicholas and Santa Claus are not the same person, although Santa is derived from the original Saint. It is a very complicated history, but for those who like to stick to small facts and urban legends without too much of a fuss: The biggest difference would then be that in their current forms, Saint Nicholas is basically a Catholic bishop, whereas Santa Claus would be a streak of marketing-brilliance by another multinational: Coca Cola. In both cases I, personally, wouldn’t think too much about their employers but just focus on their own good deeds and the joy they bring to children.

The feast of Saint-Nicholas is practised in various forms all over Europe, but I shall stick to what I know, and keep it to the Dutch feast of Sinterklaas.
Obviously, the use of a steamboat for his arrival doesn’t go back that far in history, but Saint Nicholas has a history that can be traced back in Holland to the early 15th century. Children would throughout the ages placed their empty shoe on December 5th in front of a fireplace and sing songs to appease the Saint for any mischief they might have done. To be extra sure they put a carrot in their shoe for the horse, and often some cookies are left for the Saint and his Moors. Then at night, Saint Nicholas and his Moors start their tour, over the rooftops, stopping at every house and checking the book, after which the moors climb down the chimneys and leave something behind in the children’s shoes. When the children wake up the next morning they find their shoes filled with presents and sweets – that is, if they were good; because there is always the risk of finding a bundle of birch (rod) named ‘de roe’ or a little bag of salt. The latter basically means they are reprimanded for bad behaviour. I sincerely doubt the latter is still being issued to make a pedagogical statement, especially in these times where it is justly considered cruel to mentally scar a child for life. What remains though is the fear for the actual execution of the sign of the ‘roe’. All children know of the myth where the bad kids are being taken in the empty Moor’s bags to the steamboat by which they are taken back to Spain – for God only knows what, because that isn’t included in the story.

The Feast of Saint Nicholas by Jan Steen

The Feast of Saint Nicholas, by Jan Havicksz. Steen (1665), oil on canvas, 82.0 x 70.5 cm, photo & collection Rijksmuseum Amsterdam


The harshest moment in a child’s life is the point where it discovers that Saint Nicholas doesn’t actually tour the rooftops with his retinue. My personal ‘belief’ in Saint Nicholas ended rather abruptly when I was about nine years of age. I faked sleep but stayed wide awake to listen whether I could hear the horse on our roof, or a Moor climbing down our chimney. It was a very long night and nervously I tried to remember all the mischief I had conducted in the past year, praying I had have been forgiven for such trifles, or, hopefully, that Saint Nicholas, in faraway Spain, hadn’t heard of it. When I finally perceived a stumble in the drawing room I climbed out of bed, crept downstairs, and silently looked around the corner. In the seconds following I did a lot of math as I saw my mother exchanging the carrot for presents, scattering candy around the fireplace, and eating the poor benumbed and hard-working Moor’s cookie. I had two choices, but I chose to go for the opportunistic one, and decided to check with my friends first before calling her out. There was still the chance that Saint-Nicholas was rather busy and that he had sent a note to my parents, that it was okay to reward me for my unyielding efforts of being a picture-perfect child. It was the last year. The scales had fallen from my eyes, and suddenly I lost a bit of my childhood. Dramatic indeed; but now I can smile about it. The feast of Saint Nicholas became less stressful and the painful trauma has softened over the years. In the coming years I shall hopefully see the same fervour I once had, in the children of my friends.

Tonight, instead of stuffing myself silly with chocolate and spice-nuts, I browsed the catalogue of Sotheby’s because I got a note about their Old Master & British Paintings Evening and Day Sales, on the 5th and 6th of December. And what did I find… an awful lot of stunning children’s portraits. And I do wonder… which of these portraits will end up on a steamboat to Spain, to be added to an art collection there.

Giovanni Gaddi (1493-1542)
Portrait of Giovanni Gaddi (1493-1542), head and shoulders,
wearing a black cap – ca. 1505-1508.

Florentine School, 16th Century
Oil on poplar panel, 61 x 43 cm.
(From the Collection of Chatsworth?)
Lot 18 (catalogue) at the Evening Sale by Sotheby’s on December 5th
Estimated 600,000 – 800,000 GBP – sold for 1,273,250 GBP

This Renaissance portrait of a young Florentine noble boy in his early teens is, to me, the most stunning of all I have seen in the catalogues of the two auctions. And the new owner of this portrait will get a stupendous amount of documentation with it.
Giovanni di Taddeo di Agnolo Gaddi (Giovanni, son of Taddeo Gaddi, and grandson of Agnolo Gaddi) was born in Florence on April 25th, 1493. Son of Taddeo di Agnolo Gaddi and his wife Antonia di Bindo Altoviti. The Gaddi family was a prominent Florentine family of artists whom later became bankers. They came to wealth alongside the De’Medici family, their associates. This young boy is said to have been a close friend to Giuliano de’Medici (1479-1516); Giovanni entered the clergy under the protection of the latter’s family and would apparently keep an impressive collection of manuscripts and codices, which he had inherited from his grandfather. He was a patron of the arts, and died in Rome on the 18th of October 1542, 49 years of age.
Those who wish to know more details about the boy and his portrait – open the catalogue link for the notes and video-clip. The author is not named, but this is what I always hope to find when browsing through the catalogues.

Young Boy by Nicholas Maes
Portrait of a young boy, together with a goat and a dog, in a landscape
By Nicolaes Maes (Dordrecht 1634 – Amsterdam 1693)
Signed lower left: MAES
Oil on canvas, 69.2 x 57 cm
From a European Private Collection
Lot 146 (catalogue) at the Day Sale by Sotheby’s on December 6th
Estimated 30,000 – 40,000 GBP

Nicolaes Maes is hands down one of the better artists when it comes to late 17th century children’s portraits. The way he present children is so beautiful – I can look at them for hours. The boy is dressed according to the very popular classical style. Many adults, and quite possibly his own parents too if they had their portraits done also, would dress up in attire that was generally deemed to be the garb of the ancient Greeks and Romans, often with symbols relating to specific gods and goddesses. In this case, if you will notice the quiver over his shoulder and the arrow which can be seen in his left hand, this already hints that he was meant to depict Amor or Cupid; which was only confirmed to me when I found the hint of a golden arrow point behind his right index-finger.
As the catalogue states it was very popular for wealthy households to keep a menagerie on their country estate, or even, partially, in the city. Goats were considered very suitable pets. It is a funny fact (and I wish that Sotheby’s would add this more to its descriptions) that the goats were indeed used by the children in the gardens to pull their play-chariots. This way these privileged children of the Golden Age, could feel like the almost godlike children they were: high above the rest of the world in wealth and future. The Dutch mercantile families, despite their often common birth, sometimes enjoyed the wealth of royalty.
I’m keeping this boy in a separate folder to investigate further. With some research after the mentioned provenance in the catalogue, there’s always a possibility of perhaps retrieving his identity; in which case he might just hide in my research-database of the Dutch Elite.

Elegant boys by Carlo Amalfi

A portrait of two elegantly dressed boys in an interior playing with a dog
By Carlo Amalfi (Vico Equense or Sorrento, ca. 1730)
Oil on canvas 128 x 96 cm
From a Private Collection in Naples
Lot 323 (catalogue) at the Day Sale by Sotheby’s on December 6th
Estimated 15,000 – 20,000 GBP

This is Italian beyond belief, and the true Neapolitan baroque at it: Over the top shiny-happy.
I’m not sure about the equality of the boys. The boy on the left looks richer in his attire than his companion. They could of course also be brothers and the parents just dressed up their boys differently, according to their hopes and dreams for them. The boy with the fancy coat (and look at that waistcoat!) leaning on something that looks like an improvised throne, a monocle dangling on a silver thread from his sleeve, finished with the blood-red heels of his shoes symbolizing his noble birth. And of course, he holds the treat for the collared dog – this is all very intentionally placed to emphasize his birth and future position as an heir to a grand estate (or more?). The boy on the right could then be his younger brother, destined for service in the army. He wears a rich military style costume which makes me think of some hussar’s regiment, also because of the sheathed sabre or scimitar he holds in his right hand.
I adore the Italians in their abundance of symbolism; yes, they could be brothers, one to rule and the other to assist. They will have had a few years more of playing with their dog(s) before duty called.

Gulston Sisters by Charles Beal

Portraits of Anne Gulston (1672-1724); and her sister,
Mary Gulston (b.1667), the daughters of James Gulston
of Wyddial (co. Hertfordshire)
By Charles Beale
(London 1660-1724)
Both oil on canvas, each 76 x 63.5 cm
Lot 328 (catalogue) at the Day Sale by Sotheby’s on December 6th
Estimated 8,000 – 12,000 GBP

The Gulston sisters, now there’s a sight. Those parents, like others I have encountered (Pride of Parents), must have been extremely chuffed by how their daughters turned out. That with a brilliant dowry could have brought them excellent marriages after some years.
On the internet page of Christies, I found the sale of another portrait of Anne, over ten years ago, and with another girl that could quite possibly be her sister. The lot description however, is not very clear. It mentions ‘another young lady’ but the inscription gives the name of a brother Richard.
Some light research gave for further information that their lineage was of ‘the most ancient and distinguished’ in Wales, and that their direct relatives were involved with both the local government in Hertfordshire and the Church of England. Father James Gulston was High Sheriff and a Justice of the Peace for the county of Hertford. Their mother was Mary Rowley, daughter of John Rowley, Esq., of Barkway (co. Hertfordshire). They had two brothers, Charles and Richard who would later become a Member of Parliament for the same county, and marry the daughter of the (Church of England) Bishop of Ely.
The sisters were of highly respectable gentry. I wonder what happened in their lives, but sadly I could find little more than their names.

Prince William, Duke of Gloucester (1689-1700)

Portrait of a boy, said to be Prince William,
Duke of Gloucester (1689-1700)

Attributed to Charles Beale (London 1660-1724)
Oil on canvas 42.5 x 36 cm
Lot 329 (catalogue) at the Day Sale by Sotheby’s on December 6th
Estimated 4,000 – 6,000 GBP

The catalogue states nothing about the portrait, other than the boy (according to the inscription) being identified as the young Duke of Gloucester, the son of Queen Anne and her husband Prince George of Denmark and Norway. The young prince was born at Hampton Court Palace on July 24th, 1689. The little prince was the only child of his much troubled parents to survive infancy.
Prince William is shown with a rather large head; this is probably why the identification is correct. The young prince had an enlarged head; it is generally assumed he suffered from Hydrocephalus, commonly known as a ‘waterhead’. The poor boy was treated by surgeons who pierced his head and drew off the fluid.
The boy-duke grew up in the midst of state- and family troubles, and is frequently mentioned in the memoirs of his servant Jenkin Lewis – the main source of information about him. From these memoirs we know that he operated his own miniature army, called ‘Horse Guards’, which consisted of 90 local boys of his age. He is described as a brave lively-like boy, but he was of very fragile health. When he died at the age of eleven at Windsor Castle on July 30th 1700, he was the last of the Protestant line of the House of Stuart. His death caused the English Parliament to take measures as they were opposed to letting another Catholic Stuart ascend the throne at some given time; this resulted in the Act of Settlement of 1701, which made sure that after his mother’s death the crowns of England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland would pass to Sophia of Hanover and her heirs, as it still does.
See for more general information, the following link: Prince William, Duke of Gloucester

Benjamin Hatley Foote (b.1713)
Portrait of Benjamin Hatley Foote, aged twelve (b. 1713)
By Charles Jervas (County Offaly, Ireland 1675 – London 1739)
Oil on canvas, 126 x 102 cm
The property of a private corporation
Lot 330 (catalogue) at the Day Sale by Sotheby’s on December 6th
Estimated 8,000 – 12,000 GBP

Boy with dog in a landscape, one of the most allotted scenes used to depict the son and heir of a wealthy family, especially in the 18th Century. The boys are always shown as little adults with a fancy pose, a sword and sometimes even other adult symbols, all to state their well thought-out future by their parents. The dog is showing its loyalty by standing on its hind legs seeking the approval and affection from its young master. I’m not that wild about the dog though, I have seen more impressive specimens, like the dog with the two Italian boys earlier mentioned. The same goes for the landscape… Nevertheless, the boy came out very regal, and that was the whole point. The boy ended up in a corporate collection, by sale only seven years ago; his distinguished parents would have been surely horrified had they known.

Benjamin was the eldest son of Francis Foote, Esq., of Veryan (Cornwall) and Mary Hatley. He was given the name of Hatley because his mother was the last and sole heir of her family, a wealthy family from Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire. The landscape in the back could therefore be seen as alluding to the estates he would at some point inherit. Benjamin Hatley Foote, later in life, became indeed a landed gentleman and would have Malling Abbey (co. Kent) for his residence. He married Mary Mann; together they had at least two sons, George Talbot Hatley Foote, who would inherit the estate of Malling Abbey from his father; and John Foote who became a London Banker.

School of Girls
School for girls, (possibly) ca. 1738
By Philip Mercier (Berlin 1689/1691 – London 1760)
Signed (lower left) Ph. Mercier / fecit.
Oil on canvas 101.5 x 128 cm
From the Collection of a Gentleman
Lot 382 (catalogue) at the Day Sale by Sotheby’s on December 6th
Estimated 40,000 – 60,000 GBP

This is a rather lewd picture of possible child abuse – or is that just my cynical mind? The catalogue does mention however, that this portrait was, along with a pendant called ‘School for boys’, engraved in a mezzotint in 1739 ‘with verses admonishing parents to choose instructors wisely’. Indeed, do screen them before you let them alone with your flesh and blood. It is a painting full of young girls in the ages of about fourteen and a, deliberately, no doubt, loathsome teacher who practically drools over the fair child with the pretty yellow dress and sprightly hat. The girls behind her are blushingly in conversation, the girl next to her giving meaningful looks to the spectator as if she wants to say: ‘See, this is what happens to us!’ And then there is always the girl who thinks she can come further in the world by showing a bit of leg, I’m certain she became a wealthy politician’s wife in the end. It is a great genre piece of which I have seen several, but few of this quality.


Portrait of Willoughby and Arthur Wood, (ca.) 1824
By Sir Henry Raeburn R.A. (Edinburgh 1765 – 1823)
Oil on canvas 127 x 101.5 cm
Lot 389 (catalogue) at the Day Sale by Sotheby’s on December 6th
Estimated 10,000 – 15,000 GBP

The adorable Wood boys, Willoughby and his younger brother Arthur Thorold, were the eldest and fourth son of Charles Thorold Wood (1777-1852), of Thoresby (co. Lincoln), a Captain in the Royal Horse Guards and a renowned ornithologist, and his wife Jane (ca.1784-1861), daughter of Sir John Thorold, 9th Baronet Thorold, of Syston Park, Lincolnshire. About the boys, sadly enough, I couldn’t find much more than their names at this point; but when looking at them, one could hardly imagine them being put in the bag for Spain.

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This entry was posted on December 6, 2012 by in History, Notes on a Portrait, Research, Under The Hammer and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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