01 The Early Years
If Paul Colnaghi had emigrated to America in 1783, as Benjamin Franklin advised him to do, London would be without one of its oldest and most celebrated galleries. Instead, Colnaghi went to work for Anthony Torre, whose father, Giambattista, had established businesses in Paris and London. Anthony's London premises enjoyed a reputation for stocking the finest prints of celebrated engravers. When Paul Colnaghi joined him in 1783, they soon moved to a superior address at 132 Pall Mall, and by 1788 the younger Colnaghi had taken control of the business. Paul Colnaghi was to raise the small business to a status unsurpassed in the art-dealing world. There were difficulties in the beginning: as a result of the French Revolution and the ensuing disorders, trade with the Continent suffered. Colnaghi, however, managed to weather the storm by a series of adroit moves. During 1792-1797, he published what is probably the most famous series of English stipple engravings, The Cries of London. At the same time he began to issue engravings of military, naval and patriotic heroes. For instance, on 7th November 1803, when news of Nelson's victory and death at Trafalgar reached London, Colnaghi had already commissioned a portrait engraving. Paul Colnaghi's connections with Europe, his knowledge of languages, and his integrity in business were all of great help to him during this turbulent period. He was able to supply the Government with views of beleaguered towns on the Continent, thus providing information for the besieging armies which would otherwise have been lacking.
In this way, Paul became known to many important officials, and the shop at 23 Cockspur Street, where he had moved in 1799, became a meeting place for the ‘Upper Ten Thousand’. Colnaghi was appointed print seller to the Prince Regent who employed him to arrange the Royal Collection. He gave a monthly 'three o'clock levee, crowded with beauty and fashion' where 'English marchionesses, foreign princes, knights, dames and squires of high degree met as a club'. As if to immortalise these gatherings, a series of engraved portraits of 'Royal and Noble Ladies' was issued by the Colnaghi Gallery. Dominic, Paul's son, maintained close relationships with the best artists of the day, in particular with John Constable who often bought landscape engravings. As a print seller, Colnaghi's fortunes, from the very beginning, had been linked to technical advances in the reproduction of works of art. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the firm expeditiously added photography to the other methods already employed. More importantly, Colnaghi was among the first to recognize the artistic possibilities of the new medium and, accordingly, entered into an agreement with Julia Margaret Cameron for the sale of her photographs in 1863.
02 The Gilded Age
In 1894, Otto Gutekunst joined the company and this opened up an exciting and unique period in Colnaghi's history. From this time onwards, the gallery developed important relationships with museums in Europe and with a new generation of collectors in America, among them Isabella Stewart Gardener, Henry Clay Frick, Robert Sterling Clark and Andrew W. Mellon, all of whose collections were instrumental in the founding of museums.
The first important client of this ‘Gilded Age’ of collecting, was Isabella Stewart Gardener. In 1894 Gutekunst entered into a close relationship with the young Bernard Berenson, and together, they began to form Mrs. Gardner's collection, now displayed in her 'Venetian palazzo' in Boston, pulling off coups and establishing record prices for Old Master Paintings in the process. Her greatest purchase was undoubtedly the Rape of Europa by Titian, now widely acknowledged as the finest Italian Renaissance painting in America. Success in America was matched in Europe with notable sales of works by the likes of Rembrandt and Vermeer to the Berlin Gemäldegalerie, with whose director, Wilhelm von Bode, Colnaghi enjoyed a very close relationship.
In July 1911, Gustavus Mayer joined Gutekunst, and the firm moved to the specially designed new building at 144/6 New Bond Street. Business increased still further, especially in the American market, as a result of a tacit agreement with the Knoedler Gallery in New York. Among numerous important sales during this period were the St. Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy by Giovanni Bellini and the Portrait of Pietro Aretino by Titian, both to Henry Clay Frick and now in The Frick Collection, New York. In 1930, the decision of the Soviet Government to sell for cash a number of the greatest masterpieces of the Hermitage, led to one of the most sensational transactions in the history of the modern art market. In the beginning, the negotiations were conducted jointly by Matthiesen in Berlin and Colnaghi in London. They were later joined in St. Petersburg by Knoedler from New York. The bulk of the pictures, including works by Raphael, Botticelli, van Eyck, and Rubens, were acquired by Andrew W. Mellon, and thence by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, purchased two Rembrandts and another went to the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.
In the post-war period of severe currency restrictions, Colnaghi was able to acquire, in bulk, the Prince of Liechtenstein's vast collection of prints, a section at a time, between 1948 and 1951. It contained not only great rarities, but also innumerable original etchings and engravings by masters of all schools from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth centuries, the sales providing a valuable source of foreign currency to the beleaguered British economy. In 1954, Colnaghi purchased sixteen drawings by Dürer from Prince Georges Lubomirski. At the same time, James Byam Shaw, who was the world's leading authority on Italian drawings, was directly involved with the formation of what is probably the most important private collection assembled in this country since the war, that of Count Antoine Seilern. Known as the Princes Gate Collection, it now forms an essential part of the Courtauld Institute Galleries and is installed in Somerset House, London. During the later 1950s and 1960s, under the directorship of Byam Shaw, Colnaghi built up a formidable reputation for scholarship and connoisseurship and enjoyed very close relationships with museums. The gallery also played a pioneering role in the reappraisal of certain relatively neglected fields of collecting, such as Italian Baroque painting.
In 1970, Colnaghi was acquired by Lord Rothschild. This marked the transformation of what had been a relatively small, private concern into a larger and more ambitious business that now extended into new fields such as oriental art and photography. The print department started to show the work of Munch, the German Expressionists and Russian Constructivists, while the gallery started to deal in sculpture and decorative arts, as well as paintings, prints and drawings. There was also a series of pioneering exhibitions on themes such as Painting in Florence 1600-1700 (1978) and Objects from the Wunderkammer (1981), which helped open up new fields of collecting and scholarly enquiry. In 1981 Lord Rothschild relinquished his interest in the business to the Oetker Group, under whose ownership Colnaghi opened a gallery in New York in 1983. In the 1980s and 1990s, under the directorship first of Franco Zangrilli, and then Richard Knight and Nicholas Hall, Colnaghi organized several important exhibitions through which they developed close relationships with American museums that resulted in a number of important sales of Italian Renaissance and Baroque paintings and French eighteenth-century art. The gallery’s reputation in Old Master drawings, which had been established during the Byam Shaw era, was continued by Jean-Luc Baroni.
In January 2002 ownership of Colnaghi passed to Konrad Bernheimer, the fourth generation of the Munich-based Bernheimer art-dealing dynasty. He was soon joined by Katrin Bellinger, who had dealt in drawings in London and Munich since 1985, and together they acquired the famous Colnaghi Library and Archive, which are an integral part of the firm’s history.
Operating from the grand ‘Red Gallery’ on the ground floor at 15 Old Bond Street, Colnaghi began to deal more eclectically under Bernheimer’s ownership. In addition to the Italian pictures for which the firm had long been associated, the gallery also handled important works from the Northern Schools, from Dutch and Flemish artists such as Rubens and Brueghel to French masters of the eighteenth century, notably Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard. The gallery also enjoyed great success with the German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach the Elder, who was commemorated in a monographic catalogue and exhibition in 2009. On the drawings side, Bellinger made notable sales of French and Italian drawings, but also expanded into German nineteenth-century drawings and oil sketches, staging, for example, an exhibition of German plein-air sketches, Out into Nature, in association with Hans-Jürgen Moesch (2003).
Colnaghi continued to put on a wide range of exhibitions and to maintain their long tradition of scholarship. There was an expansion of academic activities, such as the monographic catalogue on Frans Hals’s St. Mark, which was the subject of a symposium in 2009. This commitment to maintaining the gallery’s old traditions of scholarly dealing in Old Masters was, however, accompanied by a greater engagement with contemporary art. A number of exhibitions brought Old Masters and contemporary artists together, among them In the Company of Old Masters (2005) and We are all Flesh: Berlinde de Bruyckere and Luca Giordano (2009).
In 2010 Colnaghi celebrated its 250th anniversary, a landmark accompanied by an exhibition and commemorative catalogue Colnaghi: The History. The following year the gallery moved to an elegant suite of rooms over the top three floors of 15 Old Bond St. At the end of 2015, two major changes occurred. Katrin Bellinger ceased trading to focus on her commitments in the museum world and on the activities of her Tavolozza Foundation, and Konrad Bernheimer welcomed as partners in Colnaghi the Spanish dealers Jorge Coll and Nicolás Cortés.