Titian painting given to Charles I's plumber goes up for sale

Oliver Cromwell’s government gave artwork as part payment of money owed for palace repairs

A Titian painting once owned by Charles I and given to his plumber as part payment for money owed is coming to auction.

The two-metre tall painting is a show-stopper in its own right, depicting the terrified virgin martyr St Margaret escaping from the mouth of Satan in the shape of a dragon. But its extraordinary provenance adds another layer to its story.

Its sale comes as the Royal Academy of Arts prepares to open what is expected to be one of the blockbuster art shows of the year, with works from Charles I’s collection reunited for the first time in 400 years.

The RA show will include about 150 works by artists including Holbein, Van Dyck, Rubens and Mantegna, many of them sold by Oliver Cromwell’s government after Charles I’s execution in 1649 and which are now stars of collections around the world.

Cromwell’s government wanted to both raise money for the state and pay off Charles’s debts as quickly as possible, selling an estimated 1,500 paintings and 500 sculptures.

One person owed money – £903 for various palace repairs – was John Embry, the royal plumber. A deal was offered whereby the state would give him £403 in cash and the rest could be made up with pictures. He chose 24, including the Titian, then called Margrett Afraid of a Monster, and valued at £100.

Alexander Bell, co-chair of old master paintings at Sotheby’s, said that valuation was less than some of the other Titians Charles prized so much, “but more than the vast majority of works in the enormous and storied collection, including the now-world-famous Salvator Mundi by Leonardo Da Vinci at £30.”

Charles I’s collection was one of the most stupendous on the planet and he particularly valued his Titians, hanging them at his palace at Whitehall. Saint Margaret hung in the same room as remarkable paintings such as the Allocution of the Marquis del Vasto to his Troops, now in the Prado collection; the Entombment of Christ, now in the Louvre; and Woman in a Fur, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

The painting tells the story of Margaret of Antioch, a virgin martyr who refused to marry the prefect of Antioch and was tortured and imprisoned as a result. The legend goes that Satan appeared to her in the form of a dragon and devoured her. FShe managed to escape by using a cross to irritate the monster’s insides.

Scholars believe it was painted in the mid-1560s, one of two versions on the same subject signed by Titian. The prime version is in the Prado in Madrid and scholars believe this second version would have been painted alongside it with greater assistance from his studio.

Nothing is known of what Embry did with the painting, although the assumption is that he chose it in the hope of selling it on. He later became Cromwell’s surveyor general and had awkward questions to answer when the monarchy was restored. He gave the new king, Charles II, some of the paintings, but not the Titian.

After Embry, the painting has been recorded in the collection of an early 18th-century Hampshire MP, Richard Norton – an eccentric known as “Mad Dick”; and the aristocratic Harcourt family of Oxfordshire. It was sold at auction in 1948, for 500 guineas, and subsequently sold by a Swiss dealer in 1959 to the forebear of the present owner.

While the painting will not be in the RA show, it will be part of an online reconstruction of the collection of Charles I at Whitehall Palace. It will also be on view at Sotheby’s New York from 26 January ahead of its sale there on 1 February. It carries an estimate of $2m-3m (£1.5m-£2m).

The RA show opens to the public on Saturday and will include Titians that hung alongside Saint Margaret during Charles I’s lifetime, including Supper at Emmaus, a painting often overlooked by visitors to the Louvre because it hangs in the same room as the Mona Lisa.

Contributor

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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