Letters between Constantine Ionides and 19th century artists

Item author: Various including D G Rosetti
Item date: 19th century
Grant Value: £10,000
Item cost: £21,900
Item date acquired: 2018
Item institution: Victoria & Albert Museum, National Art Library
Town/City: London
London borough: RB Kensington & Chelsea

Constantine Ionides was one of a family of art collectors and patrons of Greek origin in Victorian London. In 1900 the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) accepted the bequest of his important picture collection, consisting of over 1,100 paintings, drawings and prints representing a wide variety of schools, periods and artists, including Old Masters, works of the 17th century and those by contemporary (19th-century) French and English artists, with many of whom Ionides was personally acquainted. The Ionides collection is one of the very few surviving undispersed Victorian collections of progressive art.

Ionides himself left little documentary evidence about his taste, relationships or collecting activity, so the surviving letters addressed to him shed precious light on the formation of the collection, on individual works within it, and on Ionides’s relations with artists and art world associates. The largest number of the present group are from D.G. Rossetti, and concern the commission and progress of one of his finest pictures, ‘The Day Dream’, a portrait of Jane Morris sitting in a bower, in her lap an open but neglected book. In various letters, among other matters, Rossetti assures Ionides of a fair price, tactfully accepts his patron’s advice on matters such as ‘a darker background’, and gives detailed recommendations for how the painting should be displayed.

Other correspondents include the British Val Prinsep, Robert Macaulay Stevenson and G.F. Watts (who painted many portraits for the Ionides family), and French Guillaume Urban Régamey and Alphonse Legros, with references to a number of paintings still in the collection. Legros was a close friend of Ionides’s, and advised him on art acquisitions: a letter here recommends two supposed Veronese decorative figures (now given to Caliari), which Ionides duly purchased; others gently request outstanding payments for pictures. A rare, more personal note is also struck in 1886 when Legros declines a social invitation, declaring ,‘Our relationship is no longer, nowadays, what it used to be … We are both showing … more coyness in our dealings with each other … I have now been waiting long enough for an explanation on your part’.

Several letters to Ionides’s daughter Helen, an art collector in her own right, have joined the main correspondence. Her closeness to the sculptor John Maclellan Swan and his family is evidenced here, and there are also several letters from Laurence Binyon after 1910 in his capacity as a British Museum curator of Prints & Drawings. He gently explains to Miss Ionides that he cannot allow the Museum’s conservator to work for her privately: ‘He would be only too ready to accept commissions … but the result of his doing so in the past has been that he has influenced his health and several times broken down, & … people have been kept waiting for several years, unable to get their things back’.

A few letters to Constantine Ionides have appeared on the market piecemeal (the V&A already owned 16, mainly acquired in 1979) but the group being sold in September 2018 is probably the only remaining cache, preserved by a direct descendant. We are deeply grateful to the Friends of the National Libraries for enabling the most important majority of this material to enter the museum where the remarkable bequest is preserved and on display.

The letters are accessioned (as National Art Library MSL\2018\3) and available for consultation. It is proposed to publish them as a group with the letters we already hold, and commentary, in an appropriate print title (e.g. Walpole Society), as well as to digitise them in entirety online.

Letter from Rosetti to Ionides, 5 October 1879.
Letter from Rosetti to Ionides, 5 October 1879.
'The Day Dream’, 1880.
Many letters relate to the commissioning of 'The Day Dream', a portrait of Jane Morris by Rosetti. Images courtesy of National Art Library, V&A Museum.