Last week I was transcribing a recording of my interview with the painter, Noel Forster (1932–2007), for a forthcoming monograph on him. Noel recalls his first stay in London, in Lupus Street, Pimlico. Strangely enough this was the very same street where I too had lived in 1975 after coming down from Oxford, and to add to the coincidence I had then moved to Oxford Road, Putney, where Noel had also lived. Anyway, to return to my story, Noel says that he had to use the public baths in Victoria, near the Westminster Music Library and then mentions a painting, which he thinks is a Gauguin, and then corrects himself and says it is a painting of the composer Frederick Delius by Jelka Rosen. So I decide to track this down. Knowing the Public Catalogue Foundation has been digitizing and cataloguing UK local authority collections I try out their collaborative site with the BBC, Your Paintings. I search for Delius and up comes the image with a Gauguin in the background. So it’s a 1948 copy after Jelka Rosen, by Alexander Akerbladh (1886–1958). Jelka Rosen studied art from 1892 at the Académie Colarossi. I looked her up in the Library's Paris Salons catalogues, where she appears in the 1894 and 1895 volume: in 1894 she is described as a pupil of Gustave Courtois, with a contact address at Rue Campagne-Premiere, 9 and exhibiting Au bord de l'eau; in 1895 she has the address, Avenue du Maine, 23 and she exhibited De grand matin and En plein été. Both addresses were in Montparnasse, a fertile meeting ground of artists and musicians. Delius and Rosen met at a dinner party on January 16, 1896, and a few years later they moved to Grez-sur-Loing, and married in September 1903.
My next question was whether in the background of the Delius portrait it was an actual Gauguin or a copy — perhaps, by Jelka. The painting is easily identifiable as Nevermore (1897), which is in the Courtauld Collection in London. The online catalogue reveals that, indeed, Delius was the first owner. I could also have found this out using the Frick Art Reference Library Photoarchive provenance information that sits alongside the photographs of the painting, or the 1954 printed Courtauld Collection catalogue by Douglas Cooper. The printed catalogue gives more details than the online one on how Delius might have become interested in Gauguin’s work. Delius knew the composer William Molard, who had lived in the same house as Gauguin, Rue Vercingéterix, 4, 1893–94 and Gauguin had painted a portrait of Molard (it’s on the back of a self-portrait in the Musée d’Orsay, dated 1893–94). And Gauguin was involved with Molard’s adolescent stepdaughter, Judith Gérard/Molard, the daughter of Ida Ericson, the Swedish sculptress. So Delius would have definitely have met Gauguin.
Nevermore was bought by Delius for 500 Francs (another 50 was spent on a frame) from Gauguin’s friend, correspondent and dealer, the painter Daniel de Monfreid (1856–1929) in 1898. In a letter dated 12 January 1899 from Papeete, Gauguin wrote to de Monfreid that he had done well to sell the painting to Delius: “Do you recall that you reproached me for giving this painting a title: don’t you believe that this title Nevermore was the reason for the purchase…Maybe!...I’m delighted Delius is the owner, meaning that it’s a purchase not for speculation and resale, but for pleasure…” [my translation from Lettres de Gauguin a Daniel Monfreid (Paris, 1950)]
It hung in Delius’ music room in Grez-sur-Loing, where we see it in the Rosen/Akerbladh portrait. The subsequent history is uncertain: the catalogue to the 1906 Gauguin section of the Salon d’Automne has Delius as the lender. This was the show that both Picasso and Matisse saw. It was probably sold during financial problems that plagued Delius in the 1910s. It went through the hands of three dealers – Alfred Wolff (Munich), Alex Reid (Glasgow) and Agnew (London and Manchester) before entering Herbert Coleman’s collection in Manchester. It was in Samuel Courtauld’s Collection by 1926, becoming part of the Courtauld Gift in 1932.
What effect Nevermore, with its overtones of Edgar Allan Poe, had on the work of Delius during the period he owned it is a tantalizing subject to explore. Meanwhile I need to track down where the original Jelka Rosen portrait is.