Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. This is a true story of a great masterpiece, lost in time for 350 years and found in our family.My great-uncle Ernie was born Ernest Onians on August 14th, 1904 in Liverpool. He was the youngest of 6, and his immediate elder brother Frank, with whom he was close friends as a young man, was my grandfather. After working together as salesmen selling animal food in East Anglia, Ernie recognized a huge business opportunity – taking waste food at the back door of London restaurants and turning it into pig food which he would process at his mill in Suffolk and then sell to the farmers. He was very successful, a ladies man, and became wealthy.
As he traveled around Suffolk he became interested in art and to educate himself he read extensively, subscribed to art magazines and developed an eye for beautiful things. During and after the War many large houses were being forced to sell their paintings and furniture because of death, taxation and the poor economic situation in the country. As my cousin John wrote “during the ‘forties and early fifties’ he visited many a house sale and county auction, bidding – or more frequently leaving bids – for literally thousands of objects which, like the girlfriends of his youth, caught his curious and sensuous eye. The honied toned ivories, the fresher colors of porcelain, the weave of tapestries, the smooth escapements of watches, the chimes of clocks, the polished veneer of furniture, and above all the flesh, flowers, fruit, animals and landscape found in paintings, all called him to possess them.”
But sadly, although married for a while, he became a hoarder and a miser. He collected so many pieces that he filled up his house and three sheds in his garden with paintings stacked vertically in dirty conditions. As a child I remember my uncle and my father taking me through the piles of paintings, tapestries and clocks which were not insured because Ernie didn’t want anyone to know. My father would visit him frequently (out of loyalty to his own father) as would two of my father’s cousins who were in the art world themselves, one John the professor, the other Dick the artist.
Typical family stuff – until one day one of the sheds burned down. As a result of the fire Ernie did ask his nephews for help to get a review of his pictures. Christies came to the Mill for 2 days and told Ernie and his nephews that there were 7 paintings that should be fully researched before they were sold.
But as is so often the case, his treasures obsessed him. Arguments erupted about what was going to be in his Will and Ernie decided he did not want anyone to get the benefit of his treasures after he died. My father, despite having spent 30 years visiting his uncle and trying to help him, in the end would not be a part of it because, after many iterations, Ernie insisted that his whole estate be tied up in a trust that would last for 30 years after his death. Only a few of his great nieces and nephews who he hardly knew would benefit, and only if they did not get divorced in the meantime.
Uncle Ernie, as I remember him,
in the doorway of his home Baylham Mill
Sale catalogues from some of the
auctions he attended
As a result, when Ernie died at age 90 in 1994 the paintings were not researched and his executors gave the sale of the estate to Sotheby’s. A quick one day sale later the estate fetched £2M.
But unbeknown to the experts, and to my cousins who administered his estate, there was a treasure in among the paintings.
This painting had a small, very dark photo in the glossy catalogue (a copy of which my father keeps on his shelf as a reminder of life’s ironies). It was “Attributed to Pietro Testa” as The Sack of Carthage and estimated to fetch £10,000-15,000. But experts watch the sales and as the Guardian reported four years later it was “picked up at the Onians’ auction for £155,000 by the London gallery Hazlitt, Gooden and Fox, after its advisor, the distinguished Poussin expert Sir Denis Mahon, spotted a photograph of it “the size of a large postage stamp” in the catalogue and ordered them to acquire it “at any cost”.”
The catalogue cover
The thumbnail and description
Hazlitt’s cleaned it, restored it, had it confirmed by the Louvre and it was then that we learned that it was actually the glorious masterpiece the Destruction And Sack Of The Temple Of Jerusalem. Painted by Nicholas Poussin in Rome in 1625-1626, it had been commissioned by the Pope’s nephew Cardinal Barberini as a gift for Cardinal Richelieu! It fetched £4.5M when it was sold to the Rothschild foundation who gave it to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem where it is now the pride of the museum.
I visited the painting in Jerusalem in March of this year and as I stood in front of it I wondered at the mystery of its journey.
Visiting the painting in Jerusalem
If the executors of Ernie’s will, or Sotheby’s, had had it cleaned as Christies had advised, they would have known what it was immediately. In the middle of the painting is a large menorah being carried out of a Roman temple. And it is the traditional shape of menorah that Poussin would have seen in Rome on the Arch of Titus (who was the general, and future emperor, who sacked and destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70CE in a brutal, fiery battle to put down the Jewish rebellion – and until 2009 that was the earliest depiction of a menorah found). Any historian would have known it to be destruction of the Temple as documented by Josephus, an event that was the beginning of the diaspora and is mourned even today by Jews around the world.
The menorah in the painting
And on the Arch of Titus on the Via Sacra
in the Roman Forum, celebrating
the sack and destruction of the Temple
But the story didn’t stop there. My cousins sued Sotheby’s for negligence in 1999 when this all came to light. The suit went on for several years until, in 2002, as Sotheby’s realized their £3M insurance policy was running out, they settled (the BBC reported “Pig swill estate wins Poussin war” !! ) and £1.4M went to the estate with the rest going to the lawyers.
In the end my father bought a beautiful painting and a clock out of the estate which he cherishes in his home, and a cabinet which was in our house for many years as he lovingly had it restored for his uncle is now in a museum in Los Angeles and known as the Onians Cabinet. Hopefully many people are enjoying the many paintings Uncle Ernie saved, and millions of people will have a chance to marvel at the Poussin in Israel.
The Onians cabinet Naples, Italy circa 1600
Is it sad that the family did not recognize the painting? After all, the children will get plenty of money from the estate in the end. Or is it instead perfect that a painting that depicts such an enormous event in Jewish history was lost, picked up for pig swill cash, not researched by the family, and so was available to be bought by a benefactor who gave it to Israel so Jews from all over the world can cherish it? Personally, I think it’s ironic and perfect.
Notes on the painting from an exhibition at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Nicolas Poussin was the foremost exponent and practitioner of seventeenth-century Classicism. This work from his early Italian period (1625-1626) was commissioned by Poussin’ patron Cardinal Francesco Barberini, nephew and secretary of Pope Urban VIII, and was offered as a gift to Cardinal Richelieu, the French head of state. Barberini led a papal legation in a vain attempt to reconcile France and Spain, at the time engaged in a bloody war. Poussin draws a parallel in the painting between his patron, the would-be peacemaker, and the enlightened pagan emperor Titus, who tried unsuccessfully to prevent the ruin of Jerusalem and its temple. The composition is divided between the image of the Temple engulfed in flames in the background and the chaotic struggle, dominated by the striking figure of Titus on his white mount, in the foreground. A sense of drama, with the clash of arms and flashes of golden light from the Temple vessels, suffuses the entire work. Classical Roman architecture and sculpture provided sources for Poussin’s painting. The scene seems to be a Roman city: the soldiers’ dress is taken from reliefs on Roman sarcophagi; the facade of the Temple resembles that of the Pantheon; the figure of Titus was inspired by the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Capitoline; and the menorah derives from the famous depiction on the Arch of Titus. After Richelieu’s death, the painting was inherited by his niece, who then sold it. It changed hands many times and eventually reached England. Its whereabouts were unknown from the late 1700s until 1995, when it was rediscovered by the art historian Sir Denis Mahon, restored to its original state, and donated to the Israel Museum in 1998.