One of Campion Hall’s greatest treasures is returning to Oxford this week, having been in the care of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and it will be on display in the Ashmolean. It is a tiny folding triptych of gold and translucent enamel, made between 1350 and 1370 as a luxury devotional object. What makes it particularly important is that it is English, and three other works by the same goldsmith also survive – a unique circumstance for medieval England. The external faces of the triptych, when closed, were adorned with images of individual saints, who include St James the Great, St Giles, and St Edmund, king and martyr, and with episodes from the life of the Virgin Mary. The images on the inner faces are of the life of Christ: the two side leaves feature the Annunciation and the visit of the Three Kings respectively, and the main panel, which is divided into compartments, is decorated with the events of the Passion. It was thus intended as an aid to private contemplation and prayer.
The triptych is thus of great value as an example of fourteenth-century English goldwork, but it also has a most extraordinary and romantic history, some of which is literally inscribed on it, on a gold band round the outside: ELIZABETH VAUX DD. RMO CLAUDIO AQUAVIVAE SOCIET. JESU GENER. PRAETO, that is, ‘Elizabeth Vaux gave [this] to the most reverend Claudio Aquaviva, General of the Society of Jesus’. A clue as to where she got it from is that the triptych acquired a travelling case in the seventeenth century, with a silver label stating that it had been owned by Mary, Queen of Scots.
The Vaux family were prominent English recusants. They would certainly have been sympathetic to the imprisoned Scottish queen, though it is somewhat surprising that any member of the family was allowed to see her. William Vaux, third baron Vaux of Harrowden, was tried in 1581 for harbouring St Edmund Campion, and fined the enormous sum of £1,000. However, it is certainly true that Mary was able to make a variety of talismanic gifts to sympathisers, all of which are small enough to hide in a pocket. William Vaux’s first wife was an Elizabeth, daughter of John Beaumont of Grace Dieu in Leicester, and they had a daughter, another Elizabeth, who became a nun at Caen in Normandy. Another possible Elizabeth Vaux is the wife of William Vaux’s son by his second wife, George, who was a Roper by birth. In any case, one of these three ladies gave the triptych to Claudio Acquaviva, who was General of the Jesuits from 1581-1615, and she must have done so before 1605, since he gave it as a coronation gift to Pope Leo XI in that year. The nun is perhaps the most likely, since she was on the continent, and would may well have wished to renounce such a valuable and personal possession, which was too small to be of use to her community.
Leo XI was Pope for precisely 26 days. Because his reign was so short, the various presents he had been sent to mark his elevation were returned to the original donors, and in this case, the triptych was returned to the family of Fr Aquaviva, the Dukes of Atri. After Acquaviva’s death in 1615, but before 1617, it passed to Maximilian I, Duke of Bavaria, by sale or gift; we know this to be the case, since it appears in an inventory of Wittelsbach treasures in that year. A case was made for it, now lost, with a Latin inscription which said ‘this image was the companion of the exile and prison of Mary Stuart Queen of Scots; it would have been the witness of her murder also if she had lived’. It is this case which first mentions the triptych’s connection with Mary, Queen of Scots, which must have been on the say-so of Elizabeth Vaux.
The triptych remained in the Wittelsbach treasury for more than three centuries. It was lent in the 1920s to the Münchener Schatzkammer, the former Wittelsbach palace in Munich, for an exhibition. The Wittelsbachs’ wealth and power was greatly reduced after the First World War, and they took advantage of the interest attracted by the triptych’s beauty and romantic history to put out discreet feelers for a buyer; it was offered privately to the Victoria & Albert in 1926. In 1932, it was openly on the market: Fr. D’Arcy got to hear about it, and was very excited. It was sold to Saemy Rosenberg, a fine art dealer in Frankfurt, in 1933, and bought by Fritz Mannheimer.
Mannheimer was a German Jew, and in many ways, an extraordinary man. He was a banker, and headed up the Dutch branch of a private bank, Mendelsohn & Co. Through the 1920s, he began accumulating art on a massive scale, and continued to buy through the 1930s. Among other things, he bought a variety of precious medieval gold-and-enamel pieces, so the English triptych had an obvious attraction for him. In 1939, he became gravely ill, and hired both a personal physician to travel with him wherever he lived and worked, and also a qualified Brazilian nurse, Marie-Annette Reiss, known as Jane. On 1 June 1939, he married her. Two months later, he was dead. Crucially for our triptych, just before his death on 9 August 1939, Mannheimer moved particularly treasured pieces of art to the firm of Chenue for safekeeping, since they were based both in London and Paris, and he put the items in his wife’s name. The triptych was one such, and was sent to London, where Chenue & Co. put it in the safe depository in Chancery Lane along with Mannheimer’s other treasures. On 23-24 September, 1940, the Chancery Lane depository was severely damaged in the course of a German bombing raid.
As the story was subsequently disentangled by the Metropolitan Police, the triptych ‘was sold in January 1941 by an Irish labourer, who claimed he had found it while doing demolition work in England, to a junk dealer in Killarney. The dealer, who had bought it for 15 shillings, sold it as scrap gold for £2.10 shillings.’ It was one of two Mannheimer treasures robust enough to survive a bomb; the other was a bronze, attributed to Donatello, Boy, right hand on chest, originally from the Hermitage, which similarly, was picked up out of the rubble.
The triptych next surfaced in the window of Wine’s, an antique dealer on Grafton Street in Dublin, in 1942, where it was spotted by Edward McGuire, a wealthy Dublin businessman, who counted among his friends the great art and antique dealers John and Pilzel Hunt. At Christmas that year, Hunt sent details of the triptych and its inscription to his old friend Fr. D’Arcy. Hunt made no secret of his desire to acquire it, and he and McGuire haggled uneasily for some time, before agreeing joint ownership.
One crucial aspect of the triptych’s history is that the inscription states that it was given to Aquaviva. Hunt, consequently, felt that the Society of Jesus had a moral right to it, since he was unaware that it had been perfectly legitimately disposed of after Aquaviva’s death. He consequently wrote to D’Arcy again in 1947, saying that he wished to give his share in the triptych to the Jesuits. Meanwhile, how it had come to Wine’s remained a mystery, which was eventually solved by police detective work, which revealed the part that an unnamed Irish labourer had played in its story. This investigation also brought to light that the triptych had been deposited in Chancery Lane by Fritz Mannheimer in his wife’s name. Suddenly, there was a possible legitimate owner. Mrs Mannheimer, by this time, was in the United States, and had just married the exceedingly wealthy Charles W. Engelhard, known as ‘the Platinum King’. In March 1948, Hunt received an excited letter from Fr D’Arcy, to say that he had just been introduced to Mrs Engelhard, and found her highly sympathetic.
By means known only to himself, Fr D’Arcy, who passionately wanted the triptych, persuaded Mrs Engelhard to share Hunt’s view that it rightfully belonged to the Society of Jesus. On a visit to England in 1952, she asked him to find out on what terms Hunt and McGuire would relinquish their claim to it, and in consequence, wrote him a cheque for £2,100. After prolonged and complex negotiations, the triptych was exchanged for Mrs Engelhard’s cheque on 4 October 1952, and returned once more to the care of the Society.
Since it is both very small and very valuable, it has never been appropriate to try and display the triptych at Campion Hall. It was initially sent to the Victoria & Albert, for safekeeping and exhibition, but it is equally appropriate for it to be lodged in the Ashmolean here in Oxford, alongside Campion’s other most conspicuous treasure, Marcello Venusti’s Crucifixion after Michaelangelo, where it can be securely put on display. Few items in any collection can have had so complex a history
- Jane Stevenson
(copyright Ashmolean Museum, university of Oxford)