Rex’s selfies—portraits of a collector

Rex’s selfies—portraits of a collector
Wrapping up Portraits of the Famous and Infamous
15 December 2015

It is interesting that Rex Nan Kivell (1898–1977), an art dealer who was so passionately interested in portraiture and in the representation of those that shaped our part of the world, only commissioned two artists to capture him in portrait form. He included these works in his compendium Portraits of the Famous and Infamous along with references to, and images of, his friends and those who had assisted him to produce his very time-consuming volume over nearly two decades.

Nan Kivell listed as part of his biographical details that he was an ‘Archaeologist, publisher, Director of Redfern Gallery of Modern Art’ and that he ‘formed the comprehensive … Rex Nan Kivell Collection’ and published on ‘Romano-British’ archaeology and ‘English artists’. From time-to-time, he also commissioned photographers, such as Ida Kar (1908–1974), to produce images such as this one documenting him in his gallery for publicity and publication purposes.

Ida Kar (1908–1974), Rex Nan Kivell in the Redfern Gallery, c.1960, gelatin silver photograph, Rex Nan Kivell Collection

The earliest portrait of Nan Kivell held by the Library was commissioned in 1960 from Bryan Kneale (born 1930).

Bryan Kneale (born 1930) Portrait of Rex de C Nan Kivell, 1960, oil on composition board, Rex Nan Kivell Collection, nla.obj-138411430

The British painter-turned sculptor’s career was launched by Nan Kivell in the 1950s and his cubist rendering of his dealer and friend, symbolically positioned with some of his rare books and expensively-bound albums documenting his collection, must have been commissioned to encourage Kneale. The portrait appears to have been derived from a photograph of Nan Kivell by James Mortimer (which is held in the Library’s collection).

James Mortimer, Portrait of Rex Nan Kivell, c.1960, gelatin silver photograph, Rex Nan Kivell Collection, nla.obj-136771829

Another slightly earlier portrait by Kneale of Nan Kivell was owned by his partner Mizouni Nouari but is now in a private collection.

The pastel portrait seen here is by Robert Buhler (1916–1989) and was commissioned nine years later.

Robert Buhler R.A. (1916–1989), Rex Nan Kivell, 1969, pastel on Michallet paper, Rex Nan Kivell Collection, nla.obj-135629005 

It is one of a series of at least six portraits of Nan Kivell undertaken by Buhler. This version by Buhler exists in the Te Papa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand. And, in 1973 Nan Kivell gave another version of the Buhler portrait which is similar to ours, to the National Library of New Zealand. The collector was obviously keen to have his preferred likeness available for future researchers and the public through the commissioning and gift process he undertook.

Born in London to Swiss parents, Buhler studied commercial art in Zurich and Basel and later printmaking and painting in London. He also taught at leading art schools. Buhler is an interesting choice for an art dealer to make when he could have commissioned just about anyone to take his portrait. Nan Kivell represented Buhler briefly and must have found his sober, rather timeless style—reminiscent of certain post-impressionist painters—appealing. Nan Kivell had made a fortune selling French impressionist and post-impressionist art and perhaps sympathised with this work. It seems a Buhler portrait was something he wanted to live with and be remembered by. Moreover, the fact that Buhler was commissioned to, or chose to produce, numerous portraits during his career of the literary and artistic world of London meant that Nan Kivell would have felt he was in good company. In the same year as undertaking Nan Kivell’s portrait, and in the following year, Buhler also completed a pastel portrait of the writer and poet, W.H. Auden, two of the Poet Laureate, Cecil Day Lewis, and a portrait of the composer, Sir Lennox Berkeley. Buhler’s mother ran a bookshop and café that attracted artists from the Euston Road School and her son was influenced by their brand of realist art, created to appeal to the common man. During his career, Buhler also completed portraits of the leading figures, Steven Spender, Ruskin Spear, Barnett Freedman, John Minton, Francis Bacon and John Davenport. In 1956, aged 40, Buhler was made a Royal Academician, making him one of the youngest to have achieved this distinction.