Lost Victorian masterpiece discovered and sold in Sussex

Briton Riviere's lost watercolour 'Circe and the Companions of Ulysses'.
Briton Riviere's lost watercolour 'Circe and the Companions of Ulysses'.

This week I am in the company of Nicholas Toovey.

His colleague Tim Williams researched the lost work ‘Circe and the Companions of Ulysses’ by the artist Briton Riviere., RA, which was discovered in Sussex.

This important watercolour has just sold for £27,000 at Toovey’s.

Nicholas said: “Circe and the Companions of Ulysses is arguably Riviere’s most significant work to come to auction in recent years.

“The painting propelled the young artist to fame after it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1871.

“The first owner of the work was John Kynaston Cross until his death in 1887 when it was inherited by his wife.

“An industrialist and member of parliament for Bolton, Cross served as under secretary of state for India during William Gladstone’s tenure as prime minister.

“The first – and we understand – only time the painting appeared at auction was in 1911, at Tooth and Tooth’s, where it sold to the enigmatic art dealer William Walker Sampson with the gavel falling at £385 - an enormous sum at that time.”

In an interview with Harry How, published in The Strand magazine in 1896, Riviere elaborated on the conception of the work.

He said: “I was living in Kent at the time I painted it, and I kept pigs there; as a matter of fact, three of them.

“I had styes made at the end of the garden.

“By-the-by, pigs are remarkably good sitters.

“I have had a pig in this very room.

“They are very easy to manage, and will do anything you require; they really become quite sociable in time.

“I painted the figure of Circe in London, having by that time moved to the Addison Road.

“I put in the figure two or three times from a model, but could never get it to my liking.

“At last I found a lady friend who suggested the long haired daughter of Helios admirably, and I got her to sit.”

Nicholas explained how the painting met with critical acclaim for its depiction of the swine after the picture’s first outing at the Royal Academy in 1871.

Visitors to the exhibition also revelled in the enchanting scene; John Pye, the celebrated engraver and J.M.W. Turner’s great friend, wrote ‘a charming letter of thanks to the young painter for the pleasure his work had given’.

Frederick Stacpoole was engaged to engrave a reproduction of the painting in 1875 – the first of Riviere’s works to have had this honour – and both the painting and the engraving were sent to Philadelphia for the international exhibition of 1876 where Riviere’s painting was singled out for a medal.

Circe, by now world-famous, was one of four works chosen by the artist to be included in the 1887 Royal Jubilee exhibition in Manchester.

The painting was engraved for a second time in a smaller format by James Dobie and published in the art journal of 1891.

In 1896 Walter Sickert saw the picture on display at Thomas Mclean’s gallery in Haymarket. He wrote in The Speaker: “The representative of our old friends is that beautiful Briton Riviere, ‘Circe’, of many years ago.”

Sir Charles Holmes (the director of the National Gallery), and Sir Martin Conway (art historian) deemed the painting important enough to be included as a full page reproduction in their 1927 publication ‘The World’s Famous Pictures’, which featured 144 of the most famous paintings in the world.

Riviere would often paint replicas of his most popular and well-known works, however this is the only known version of this composition by the artist.

Nicholas Toovey is already working on his next select sale of paintings which will be held on Wednesday November 28, and can be contacted by telephoning 01903 891955 or at auctions@tooveys.com.

Rupert Toovey is a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington - www.tooveys.com - and a priest in the Church of England Diocese of Chichester.