It might seem strange for someone to misplace a work of art worth well over 100,000 British pounds. But after a member of the wealthy Sitwell family purchased a whimsical 18th-century Italian drawing in 1936, the work of art was tucked away and forgotten in one of the many rooms at Weston Hall, the family’s grand estate in Northamptonshire.
“No one seemed to know where [the drawing] was, or even give it a second thought,” notes Henrietta Sitwell, a descendant of the well-known English literary family, in a statement from Dreweatts, which is set to sell the contents of Weston Hall next month.
The Sitwell heirs decided to auction off the family’s inventory of fine goods earlier this year. Combing through the hall’s nine attics, reports Neil Johnston for the London Times, Henrietta stumbled onto a surprise: a small work of art wrapped in bubble wrap and leaning against the wall.
“As I peeled back the wrapping, I instantly recognized it as something special,” says Henrietta, who studied art history in college.
Experts eventually identified the drawing as the draftsmanship of Italian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770), whose large-scale frescoes “epitomized” the extravagant Italian Rococo style, per Encyclopedia Britannica. Titled A Large Group of Punchinelli, the small ink drawing depicts a boisterous group of large-nosed, hunchbacked clowns celebrating and eating gnocchi.
After collecting dust for decades, the drawing will serve as a star lot in Dreweatts’ November 16 and 17 auction. Other featured items in the sale include an elaborate four-poster bed with needlework hangings, a selection of poet Edith Sitwell’s eccentric wardrobe and jewelry collection, and a 19th-century sword and scabbard perhaps gifted by George IV.
Members of the Sitwell family passed Weston Hall down for nearly three centuries. But last year, Edith’s great-nephew William Sitwell placed the property on the market for more than £4 million. As the food writer and occasional “MasterChef” critic wrote in a column for the Telegraph, maintaining the estate had simply become too expensive. He went on to describe the house, which boasts “50-odd rooms,” as neither “too big” nor “too small.”
The newly rediscovered artwork may sell for even more: Brandon Lindberg, head of British and European pictures at Dreweatts, tells Artnet News’ Sarah Cascone that “the most comparable example to come up for sale sold in New York in 2013 for $542,500.”
During the 18th century, Tiepolo enjoyed a successful career as a Venice-based painter and printmaker. He was particularly in demand as an interior decorator, creating large frescoes on the walls of the Würzburg Residence in Germany and later decorating the Royal Palace of Madrid’s throne room.
Compared with his elaborate ceiling frescoes on such heady themes as The Glory of Spain and The Apotheosis of the Spanish Monarchy, Tiepolo likely created this small drawing of partying clowns for his own enjoyment. As Lindberg explains in a Dreweatts video, “Here we see [the artist] really having fun.”
Tieopolo’s short, hat-wearing figures were based on the comedic trope of Punchinello, a stock character with roots in commedia dell’arte, an early form of professional theater popular across Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries. The artist also drew inspiration from Venerdì Gnocolar (“Gnocchi Friday” in English), a centuries-old celebration in Verona that found crowds feasting on polenta, wine and gnocchi in an all-night celebration. As Vicky Hallett reported for NPR in 2019, the tradition continues in modern form to this day.
“Tiepolo is known for decorative schemes in churches and palazzos, but he was fascinated by Punchinello and drew the subject throughout his career,” Lindberg tells Artnet News. “This is one of the largest and most elaborate drawings he produced.”