The search for a lost religious masterpiece: the history of a century-long quest to uncover the hiding place of a cat painting, by Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo1921_22

In 1902, the British inventor, businessman and connoisseur Arthur Hungerford Pollen bought a beautiful small drawing by Leonardo da Vinci. For 12 guineas, he acquired a sepia ink sketch, 7.1cm wide by 8.4cm tall, depicting the Madonna and Child, with the infant Jesus holding a cat on his lap. It is a drawing of great plastic power, with strongly wrought drawing around the figure of Christ and the restless cat he struggles to control; small in size but able to tell across a room because of the sculptural depth Leonardo gives to his figures, a depth and vitality that is largely lost in reproduction, however fine. When it was shown at the Louvre in Paris in 2003, in a retrospective of Leonardo’s drawings and manuscripts (only the third time this miniature Madonna is known to have been exhibited), it held its own, hung opposite the entrance to the first room and able to draw in the spectator’s eye from 25 feet away.

The drawing is the most finished, and likely the final, in a series of 10 sketches on the subject, known to art historians as the Madonna del Gatto. Other examples from the group are in the British Museum (five in all), the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan, and the Bonnat museum in Bayonne. In the 90 odd years that the drawing has been known to Leonardo scholars, they have consistently ascribed it, and the rest of the series, to the period 1475-80, a time when Leonardo was collaborating in Florence with his former master Andrea Verrocchio and when he first took Christ and his mother as a subject, not least in his studies for the unfinished Adoration of the Magi for San Donato a Scopeto.

In 1921 AH Pollen looked into having his drawing published for the first time. He had previously shown it to Sir Claude Phillips, the art historian and first keeper of the Wallace Collection, in London, and Marquis Emanuele Ordoño de Rosalès, sculptor of a Leonardo memorial in Milan, both of whom accepted it as the work of Leonardo da Vinci. In December 1921, the drawing was enthusiastically endorsed by AM Hind, curator of drawings at the British Museum.

Pollen then asked the Vasari Society whether they would like to reproduce his Madonna in an upcoming edition of the drawings of Leonardo, if it could be published with the British Museum studies on the same subject. Two of these are drawn on two sides of a piece of paper, the one apparently traced through from the other, putting the infant on the left-hand side of the spectator instead of on the right. In all the other studies of the subject, the child is on the right. To Pollen it seemed “self-evident from the tentative head outline on the British Museum drawing that Leonardo, after executing that, had, on the same piece of paper, redrawn a final selection from the alternative composition, and this redrawing was the one in my possession”.

After agreeing arrangements with the Vasari Society, Pollen had the drawing photographed and printed as a collotype by Emery Walker and sent copies to connoisseur friends. (The choice of Walker, co-founder of the Doves Press, and unofficial adviser to William Morris’s Kelmscott Press, is interesting. He was both a pioneer of the revival of private-press printing in Britain and a member of the Pre-Raphaelite circle of Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and Edward Burne-Jones, a group of which Pollen’s father, the decorative artist, writer, architect and curator John Hungerford Pollen, had also been a member.)

The experts consulted by AH Pollen were well chosen with a view to giving the drawing a serious, scholarly reception; all were leaders in their fields whose good opinion would lay the ground for the drawing’s acceptance into the Leonardo canon. Among the recipients were Pollen’s long-standing friend Mary Berenson, sister of the writer Logan Pearsall Smith and wife of the art historian Bernard Berenson; Otto Gutekunst of the dealers Colnaghi (Gutekunst had collaborated with Berenson in the formation of the Isabella Stewart Gardner collection); Sir Herbert Cook (founder of Burlington magazine and heir to the superlative Doughty House collection of Old Masters); and the banker Robert Hugh (Robin) Benson. Benson, after rescuing a failing family bank through shrewd investment in the United States, had built up a remarkable collection of 14th and 15th-century Italian pictures with works ranging from Duccio to Veronese, and was the author of authoritative catalogues of his own pictures and those that his brother-in law Sir George Holford kept at Dorchester House, London, and Westonbirt in Gloucestershire. (Benson’s daughter Rosalind was married to Arthur Hungerford Pollen’s nephew Walter Hungerford Pollen in 1925.)
The formal publication of the Pollen Madonna came in the following year, 1922, when the distinguished Italian art historian Adolfo Venturi featured the drawing in an article in his new periodical L’Arte, welcoming it to the canon of Leonardo’s work. The drawing was duly registered in Venturi’s Edizione Vinciana (1928), and Bernard Berenson (who, from the photograph he received while travelling in Egypt in 1922, had thought it a “genuine and very lovely Leonardo”) included the sketch in his revised edition of Drawings of the Florentine Painters (1938). The Pollen “Madonna and Child with a Cat” was subsequently included in the two largest retrospectives of the artist’s work: the great war-clouded exhibition of drawings, paintings and reconstructed inventions, put on to the glory of Italy and Benito Mussolini in Milan in 1939, and the exhibition of drawings and manuscripts shown in 2003 at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and the Louvre, in Paris.

For Arthur Pollen, the endorsement of his drawing was a personal triumph. Venturi and others credited him with its discovery. But Pollen’s zeal for his Madonna sometimes pushed him into positions where he found himself at odds with the world of museum curators, or where he felt either he or his drawing were not given their due.

Pollen was a man of multiple talents and impressive intellectual powers. According to a manuscript memoir left by his mother, he was born in 1866 in London, at 105 Park Street, Mayfair (his birth was never registered). His childhood was spent between 11 Pembridge Crescent, Notting Hill (a house which was being enlarged by contractors at the time of his birth), and Newbuildings Place, a Jacobean manor house near Southwater, in Sussex, which his parents, John Hungerford Pollen and Maria “Minnie” La Primaudaye, had rented from their friends Wilfrid and Lady Anne Blunt. He was the sixth son and eighth of ten children, and educated at Munster in Germany, the Oratory School, Birmingham and Trinity College, Oxford.

From his parents Arthur Pollen inherited a thorough knowledge of, and instinctive taste in, the fine and decorative arts. He qualified as a barrister, stood for Parliament as a Liberal, wrote leading articles and a society column for the newly launched Daily Mail, before becoming managing director of the Linotype Company in 1898 (where he worked in league with his father-in-law Sir Joseph Lawrence Bt), his first business venture. Thereafter he became an entrepreneur in the worlds of printing, engineering and manufacturing, travelling widely (especially to the United States – often for months on end). His first published work was the preface and illustrations to In the Land of the Muskeg (1895), by Somers Somerset, a book describing the two men’s expedition in British Columbia in 1891. During their travels a tree fell on Pollen’s head, inflicting an injury that meant he could not thereafter move his neck with complete ease. Because of this, photograph portraits sometimes give Pollen a “stiff-necked”, almost haughty appearance, at odds with his optimistic, spontaneous nature. (His younger son, Anthony, remembered that, even when business matters were most dispiriting his father was already looking forward to the next opportunity that life offered.)

John Pollen had been disinherited by his uncle when he became a Catholic in 1852. William Makepeace Thackeray met him in Rome soon after his conversion, and described him then as:

the most interesting man I have met here … I try to understand from him what can be the secret of the religion for which he has given up rank, chances and all the good things in life.

The switch to Catholicism meant that Arthur’s parents would always find it hard to make ends meet, and their sons knew that they could not expect to enjoy the two-year Grand Tour that had been their father’s pleasure in the 1840s.

The young Arthur understood that he would always have to make his own way in the world. He was noted from boyhood for his intellectual powers – what his lifelong friend Hilaire Belloc described as “the rapidity and exactitude of his judgement”, making him “this most remarkable member of a remarkable family”. He was a devout Catholic but also a man of the world, a generous host, at home in clubland and a master of establishment pastimes such as deer-stalking, golf and bridge, happily pressed into court life as Gold Stick in Waiting at the coronations of Edward VIII and George V. Pollen’s powers of exposition were never better displayed than when he wrote regular articles during the First World War in the periodical Land and Water, describing the progress and prospects of the war at sea. Belloc, already a considerable celebrity, wrote the equivalent articles on the land war, and the periodical achieved huge sales, making Pollen into a public figure for the first time.

His maritime expertise came from what was at once his most interesting achievement and the greatest challenge, and trial, of his life: the devising of a revolutionary computerised naval gunnery system. Pollen needed all his savoir faire and powers of argument in the 20 years he spent conceiving and perfecting his gunnery system and dealing with the slings and arrows of Royal Navy politics as he battled to get his invention accepted.

At the heart of Pollen’s gunnery system was a differential analyser (known as the Argo clock) that enabled long-range naval guns to score hits when both the attacking ship and its target were moving fast and in varying directions. His ideas, first presented to the Royal Navy in 1905-06, and his mechanical expression of them, were two decades ahead of their time. Pollen, used to the business methods of civilian life, found himself – despite successful trials of his invention and a great investment by the Navy in time and money for these trials – blocked by a faction of naval officers, one of whom adopted his ideas in the inferior Dreyer system. Pollen finally had his day in 1925 when the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors ordered that he be paid £30,000 for his contributions to the Dreyer apparatus, which had incorporated ­– if imperfectly – elements of the Argo clock without his knowledge or permission.

Pollen’s younger son, Anthony, himself a distinguished businessman, told the story of his father’s travails in getting his invention accepted by the Royal Navy in The Great Gunnery Scandal (1980). He subsequently refined his opinion of the saga, discovering additional layers of complexity, in a 1985 article for the Naval Review, responding to a review of John Sumida’s The Pollen Papers: The Privately Circulated Printed Works of Arthur Hungerford Pollen 1901-1916 (1984). Professor Sumida, the leading student of AH Pollen’s work in naval gunnery, and author of his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, writes:

Pollen’s instruments in their final forms were in themselves significant scientific and technical achievements. For example, the incorporation of a differential analyser in his gunnery computer … anticipated by nearly twenty years the work in this important area of both D. R. Hartree and Vannevar Bush. In 1910 he devised a rangefinder which could be used even at dusk. This was sold to the Russians, the Royal Navy having refused even to examine it.

In the long years of having his work accepted by the Navy, Pollen was supported by his loyal and warm-hearted wife, Maud (1868-1962), daughter of the businessman and Conservative politician Sir Joseph Lawrence, Bt. They were married in 1898, at the Brompton Oratory, in London, and had two sons, the sculptor Arthur Joseph Lawrence Pollen (1899-1968) and the businessman Anthony Pollen (1900-98), and one daughter, Margaret (1901-05), who died at the age of three.

Pollen’s professional life in the years leading up to the publishing of his Leonardo in 1922, demonstrates the extent to which he was “in the mix” at the junction of business and politics. In June 1917 he embarked on a five-month trip to the United States. The original motive for his journey was a business negotiation to supply gunnery range-finding equi­­pment, of his own design and manufacture, to the US Navy, two months after the United States had joined the First World War on Britain’s side. Before he set off, Pollen was approached by both the Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, and John Buchan, Director of Propaganda in the British Foreign Office, asking that he should publicise, unofficially, the work of the Royal Navy while there and encourage the development of the American navy.

Pollen, in the previous month, had caused a sensation with an article for Land and Water that criticised a naval policy that put bottling up the German Navy in the Baltic Sea ahead of organising convoys to protect merchant shipping against the growing U-Boat menace. The article was initially censored, making its contents (once revealed) all the more potent. Both Balfour and Buchan knew that Pollen’s words, as a noted critic of British naval policy, would have more effect than those of any official representative.

On the train to take ship at Liverpool, Pollen found that he was travelling with Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe, who was on his way to the United States as head of Britain’s War Mission. Pollen had worked for Harmsworth in his Daily Mail years, and had later, as Managing Director of Linotype, supplied the Harmsworth press with typesetting machines that improved production efficiency and helped make the Daily Mail, in particular, a most profitable title.

“A lot of close working with Alfred and quite like old times!” Pollen wrote to his wife, Maud. “I think he wishes to be useful to me here – but will probably forget.”

The old times with Alfred Harmsworth were social as much as businesslike. In a letter of about 1896, Max Beerbohm recounts meeting Arthur Pollen while staying with the Harmsworths at Elmwood, near Broadstairs, in Kent:

They have a charming house – and many, many servants. Furse the painter was there, and a man called Pollen, of the Westminster Gazette, very amusing, and some other people. Stephen Crane was asked but couldn’t go.

“Furse the painter” was Charles Wellington Furse (1868-1904). There is correspondence in the Pollen papers between Furse and Arthur Pollen in which Furse explains, and sketches, his concept for his portrait of Mrs Harmsworth. When Arthur and Maud were married in 1898, the Harmsworths lent them Elmwood for the first part of their honeymoon. In the year of her marriage Maud Pollen had been sculpted (twice) by Charles Furse’s brother John Henry Monsell Furse (1860-1950). She gave one of these busts as a wedding present to her husband. She was painted, again in 1898, in a swagger portrait by Robert Brough (1872-1905), a protégé of John Singer Sargent. Brough had a studio in the same building as Charles Furse, at 33 Tite Street, in Chelsea, and is pictured in the Pollens’ informal family photographs from 1901.

In Washington in 1917, Pollen was accompanied on one of his first lectures – the graduate class at Annapolis naval college – by J Bernard Walker, editor of Scientific American and expert on naval affairs, and the American novelist Winston Churchill (1871-1947, often confused with the celebrated Winston Spencer Churchill, who had recently stood down as First Sea Lord after the Gallipoli debacle, with whom Pollen had had extensive dealings over his gunnery control system in pre-war years). Walker and the the American Churchill held long discussions in Washington about a series of articles on naval tactics in the form of a conversation between Churchill, a former US Navy officer and former editor of the Army and Navy Journal, and Pollen. (In the same year the American Churchill had toured the battlefields of France, the source of his first non-fiction book.)

While in Washington, Pollen was lionised by society hostesses including Mrs Marshall Field (stepmother of his friend Lady Beatty) and Mrs George Vanderbilt. He was also entertained in New York by his old friend Theodore Roosevelt, the former president (“quite unchanged since I knew him first 28 years ago, though a little, though not very much, stouter. Much interested in my diagram of submarine losses”) and in Washington by the future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the US Navy, with whom he dined and played golf at Chevy Chase.

Pollen’s other main naval contacts in Washington were Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the US Navy, and Admiral William Benson, Chief of Naval Operations. His discussions with them culminated with a visit to Edward Mandell House, President Woodrow Wilson’s most trusted confidant and representative in relations with foreign powers, at House’s home in Magnolia, Massachusetts. Pollen, who had previously met House in Britain, at first had to wait while House spoke in private with Lord Northcliffe, but was then asked to join that meeting, before talking to House from lunch until 4pm about Pollen’s proposed naval programme (for the speediest completion of the US programme of destroyer building, and the sending of a US Navy staff delegation to assess British naval strategy), with a view to House briefing President Wilson on the same.

During his six-month stay in the United States, Pollen had to keep multiple motives in balance: getting a hearing for his gunnery system at the highest levels of the US Navy; finding paid work as a lecturer and journalist, based on his reputation as Britain’s leading lay authority on naval affairs; while convincing many of the same naval chiefs that the British had not been negligent in their failure to engage with, and destroy, the German fleet, or indeed to resolve the submarine issue, thus leaving American shipping open to attack.

On 3 August, Pollen wrote to his wife:

The visit has been a great success from the point of view of making a reputation, but it is a reputation among educated people and I cannot become popularly known until I have articles in papers of a very big circulation… Am doing well politically, but not making much more than expenses financially.

Pollen was often frustrated at how slowly the wheels of government turned in Washington, but he received every assistance he could have wanted from the British ambassador, Sir Cecil Spring-Rice (who contrastingly seemed determined to frustrate Northcliffe’s official embassy), and from Spring-Rice’s successor, the Marquess of Reading.

Pollen’s social contacts meant that he regularly found himself dining or staying at house parties with many figures who were able to ease his political or business connections. At the beginning of September 1917 he went to stay with the widowed Mrs George Vanderbilt at Biltmore, in North Carolina, where most of the time was spent not at the big house but at Buck Spring Lodge, high up in the neighbouring mountains. He described the set-up in a letter to his wife on 7 September:

The party consisted of Henry White, Ex-Ambassador to Rome and Paris, at one time Secretary to the Embassy in London, a perfect type of the accomplished man of the world; Duch Beaumont [Henry Cecil Beaumont, 1864-1944], an old friend of mine since 1890, shot to pieces in April 1916 and now retired from the army, formerly married to an American, Miss Fellows [Jessie Leigh Fellows 1855-1916], now a widower, fighting with executors and still more with Somerset House. A very pleasant companion. We went down together from Washington. The other man was Ronald Tree, son of Lady Beatty – but at odds with his mother for he took his father’s side when the wayward Ethel left him. He was in the [USMS] St Paul with me on the journey over, was educated at Winchester, heard my lecture there in 1915, and is now a close friend. A most engaging young man. He is not yet of military age but has joined the flying corps here and is now at work in Boston, rather hating it all, I think, but with a very strong sense of duty.
Besides Mrs Vanderbilt and her daughter, Cornelia – seventeen, still, thank God, a child of nature – were Mrs Sears of Boston [Sarah Choate Sears, 1858-1935], a niece of the late Mr Joseph Choate, excellent company – and a Miss Irving…

The change from Washington to Buck Spring Lodge in temperature was simply startling. I naturally expected it to be hotter and found it nearly Arctic. Like an ass, I had left my thick things behind and shivered until White lent me a thick waistcoat. We had a really delightful four or five days doing little or nothing but wander about, everybody doing exactly what they pleased.

We all left Thursday, and spent the day at Biltmore House before taking the train.
It is really a palace in the style of chateau, built by Hunt… There are half a dozen superb Sargent pictures in the house, very fine tapestry, good china and furniture – the whole thing on an unbelievable scale…. There must be at last fifteen of what house agents call reception rooms.

There is a vast organ in the feudal hall – here hang the tapestries that Francis I used at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. I should have liked to have played the organ but half the works were out of it!

The grounds, park, views etc are all wonderful but it is, I should imagine, the biggest thing in the way of white elephants in America. What Cornelia will do with it when she grows up I cannot imagine. It is 24 hours’ journey from anywhere… We were due in New York on Friday at 1 o’clock… There were breakdowns on the line – which delayed us everywhere.

While on what he described as his “amateur embassy” in the United States, Pollen found himself discussing potential business deals in London on behalf of American companies. On 30 November 1917 he wrote to his wife:

There seems to be a chance of my being retained by a very big commercial interest here, to straighten out a very difficult position which has developed in London. It has to do with war contracts, the amount at issue is enormous and if, first, I am after all retained, and secondly succeed, I may make anything from £15,000 by £20,000 by the job.

Finally, but this is quite secret, Charles Sabin [Chairman of JP Morgan's Guaranty Trust Co] is discussing my undertaking a semi-financial mission for him in England, which may be the beginning of a very valuable connection, and immediately remunerative. There is no question that after the war American finance will figure in the European industrial and commercial world, as it never has done before, and important connections made now may have enormous possibilities.

The success of Pollen’s visit led to his receiving an offer from the British government of a knighthood and salary, should he return to America and continue a propaganda campaign. Pollen declined, arguing that he would be received entirely differently if acting in an official capacity than as an independent commentator.

In the years following the end of the First World War, Pollen went regularly to the United States on behalf of business interests with which he was associated. In November 1921, when he embarked on the publishing of this Leonardo drawing he was between trips to the US, on behalf of the Birmingham Small Arms Company (BSA), of which he was a director: in 1921 he was representing Daimler Cars, a BSA subsidiary, while in 1922 he made a wide-ranging tour of the US, as Chairman of Burton and Griffiths, a big machine tool business, also part of BSA.

Pollen’s encounters with naval politics in Britain schooled him in the role of a lone crusader, sure of his beliefs in the face of established opinion. Some of that embattled persona, with Pollen recast in the character of a canny amateur connoisseur, had seeped into the family legend of how he bought his Leonardo Madonna. In this account he had acquired the drawing, for the price of frame and mount, from an unsuspecting dealer for a tiny sum because he recognised the left-handedness of Leonardo in the drawing, something which all others had overlooked. Recent research, including study of Pollen’s correspondence files, and notes, indicates that the truth about the drawing’s purchase is a shade less romantic, but no less intriguing.

The first known record of the Pollen Madonna del Gatto is in a Christie’s auction sale catalogue, for a mixed sale of drawings and miniatures held in London on 6 March 1902. The drawing was the supporting act in Lot 91 to a miniature of “A Spanish lady, in lace ruff and cap, in oils”. It is described by Christie’s as “The Virgin and Child, a small sepia drawing, by L. da Vinci”. Christie’s annotated copy of this catalogue, in the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, records the buyer and price as “Mr Pinto – 16 guineas”. By his own account, written 20 years later, Pollen had no idea of Christie’s attribution to Leonardo, and nor did his rival bidder, Mr Pinto Leitao, a well-known Portuguese financier and collector. According to Pollen he had himself gone along to the viewing because it included (amongst other lots) the “charming possessions” of his acquaintance the late Duchess of Cleveland, a writer and artist and mother of the 5th Earl of Rosebery, Prime Minister in 1894-95.

To my astonishment I found there a sepia drawing, obviously by Leonardo or one of his pupils, included in one lot with a fine early 17th-century miniature, neither drawing or miniature being attributed to any artist. An examination of the drawing convinced me that it was an authentic Leonardo. My two principal reasons being, first, that the subject was the Madonna and Child playing with the cat and, second, that the drawing was self-evidently by a left-handed artist. The conjunction seemed to me final proof of authorship.

Pollen left a bid of 12 guineas, and was outbid by Pinto Leitao. He left the Portuguese collector a note offering him the equivalent of his own, unsuccessful bid, for the drawing alone.

… At 10 o’clock the next morning [Pinto Leitao] walked in with the drawing in an envelope, and said he was glad to oblige me. He was, I think, a little disconcerted, after the transaction was completed, to learn that I thought the drawing belonged to the school of Leonardo, and might indeed be by the Master himself.

Pollen’s account of the transaction, written over 20 years after the event, raises one particular question. How was it that both he and Pinto Leitao appear not to have consulted the Christie’s catalogue, which firmly attributes the drawing to Leonardo da Vinci? Whether they had or not, the big dealers (Duveen and Phillips amongst them) bought heavily at Christie’s that day but seem to have overlooked, or deliberately ignored, the drawing. Perhaps they saw no grounds for the attribution or maybe the drawing’s tiny size ruled it out as a dealer’s picture. Either way, Pollen never doubted it was the work of Leonardo, and first Pinto Leitao and then he acquired the drawing for a remarkably low price.

Encouraged by Hind’s interest in 1921, Pollen made his drawing available to scholars and art journalists. He lent it to the British Museum to be photographed, and compared to their own sketches of the Madonna del Gatto, after which Campbell Dodgson, Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the museum, asked whether Pollen would sell it to the museum, although they could not go beyond £500 without the help of the National Art Collections Fund. Pollen felt that, for a question of £500 or £1000, he would rather give the drawing to the nation. And there the matter rested.

In July 1925 the German art historian Emil Moller came to see the drawing at the Pollens’ London house (shown to him, in less security conscious times, by the housekeeper while the family were away).

I had before seen only the reproduction in L’Arte (Venturi), and in the Vasari Society, and doubted its originality. After the examination my doubts have totally disappeared, and I can assure you according to my intimate knowledge of Leonardo’s work, that your drawing is really an original of the great artist.

Moller included a description of the sketch in his article “An Unpublished Leonardo Drawing” in the December 1925 edition of the Burlington Magazine.

The subject intrigued all who saw it. The cat was presumably a reference to the legend that a cat would come on earth with the Christ child. Some thought the creature a lamb, despite its feline paws, and John Singer Sargent – who had become a firm friend of Pollen’s during one of his transatlantic voyages, and who examined the drawing while dining with the Pollens – thought it a marmoset. Later scholars have suggested that Leonardo ultimately intended the creature to be the Lamb of God. The only known painting that clearly derives from the drawing is a Madonna in the Brera Gallery, Milan, variously attributed to Il Sodoma or other “followers” of Leonardo. In the Brera Madonna, Christ is holding a lamb. But X-ray study of the underpainting has revealed that the creature started life as a cat.

No Leonardo painting of the Madonna del Gatto is known to exist (although some scholars say it may have been one of the paintings referred to in a fragment in one of his manuscripts reading “towards the end of 1478 I started work on two Virgin Marys”), but several experts have noticed the affinity in composition and subject between the British Museum and “Pollen” versions of the Madonna del Gatto and Leonardo’s famous cartoon of the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne. AE Popham, in his The Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci (1946), writes:

These final versions inevitably recall the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne of Leonardo’s maturity. There is a similar if more complicated problem to be solved: the relations of three figures closely united in one group and their compensatory reactions. In the Virgin and Child with a Cat we see the germ of the elaborate contraposto of the later work.

Pollen’s drawing and the others in the Madonna del Gatto series were published together in 1928 by Adolfo Venturi in a volume published by the Commissione Vinciani, covering Leonardo’s drawings 1478-81. Emboldened by the encouragement of Berenson, Venturi and Moller, Pollen looked about for an art historian who might be interested in writing an extended monograph of the Madonna del Gatto drawings.
Pollen first asked his old ally Hind if he would like to undertake the work. Hind declined because of other commitments, and suggested either Roger Fry or WG Constable (later the first director of the Courtauld Institute) as possible authors. He then mentioned Pollen’s project in 1929 to the young Kenneth Clark. Clark was initially most enthusiastic, writing to Hind:

I was most grateful… for your suggestion that I should write a monograph on the young Leonardo. It was very kind of you to think of me in this connection, & the more I think of the idea the more I like it. The Verrocchio-Leonardo question has occupied my mind more than anything else in Italian art, & I have collected a great deal of material bearing on it. I have always supposed that this material would have to remain unused, & you may imagine that I am delighted at a chance of giving the result of much research & reflection a permanent form. I shall look forward to discussing the book with Mr Pollen & I hope he will find me suitable.

The 26-year-old Clark then wrote to his mentor Bernard Berenson asking his advice. Berenson, by Clark’s account, refused to be drawn into the matter. But, Clark wrote to Pollen,

I don’t need him to tell me in so many words that he is much against the project… It is very important for a scholar to have the reputation of independence. It would therefore be impossible for me to write a book which in any way gave the impression of being a puff of your drawing. All I could do would be write an independent book on Leonardo’s drawings which included yours, & I have to ask myself, is a new book on Leonardo’s drawings necessary? Would I be better employed writing such a book than in my other schemes? To both of which questions the answer is No. So I must ask you to excuse me if I say definitely that I am unable to undertake the book.

Clark was careful to qualify his remarks, saying “though this book would have been innocent, it would have suffered for the sins of the guilty…”.

Pollen wrote back saying that the project was not intended to establish the genuine nature of his drawing, which had never been in doubt. And asked Clark to make clear that he, Pollen, had not “attempted to suborn you into unworthy conduct”.

I feel a little strongly in this matter because, as you may know, my father [John Hungerford Pollen] was for some 40 years directly connected with the South Kensington Museum… up to 1895, few if any important purchases were made of furniture, woodwork, or of gold or silver plate, in which he was not consulted. This was so well known that dealers were constantly asking him for certification of genuineness and… these overtures never got past the stage of asking.

Clark replied in mollifying terms:

… you seem to misunderstand some parts of my letter. Please let me make these two points absolutely clear: I am perfectly convinced of the authenticity of your drawing & I have never doubted your complete disinterestedness in wishing to publish it.

The irony of Pollen’s exchange with Clark on this subject is not lost on later generations, as the most persistent dealers in JH Pollen’s case had been the Duveen family. They had gone as far as to offer him a partnership in their business (he turned them down). And it is now known that Berenson, Clark’s mentor, had a long and lucrative arrangement with Sir Joseph Duveen, in which he boosted, by process of authentication, the dealer’s stock. In the year of Clark’s correspondence with Pollen, Duveen was sued in New York by the Hahn family for questioning in 1920 the authenticity (sight unseen) of La Belle Ferronière, a portrait attributed to Leonardo. It was the prize work of the Hahn collection in Kansas City, and known as the “American Leonardo”. Berenson had in turn given his expert opinion on the picture at an examination at the Louvre in 1923, and had this opinion and his commercial relationship with Duveen discussed in the New York Supreme Court in 1929, when it was revealed for the first time that Berenson and other experts had been previously paid for giving advice to the dealer.

Pollen’s polite but uneasy dealings with Kenneth Clark over his Leonardo drawing did not stop there. In August 1935, Pollen wrote to Clark, congratulating him on becoming director of the National Gallery, in London, the previous year, and telling him that he had sent the Pope a copy of Clark’s recently published catalogue of the Leonardo Drawings in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle (a commission that Clark had received in 1929, the year that he declined Pollen’s offer of writing a monograph on Leonardo’s Madonna del Gatto):

I knew that His Holiness, while Archbishop of Milan, had been known to be a great admirer of the greatest of the Italian masters and it occurred to me that, as one of the two private persons owning an original work by him, it would be appropriate if I presented a copy of your masterly volume to him for the Vatican Library.

Clark’s answered without delay:

Many thanks for your letter and your kind congratulations upon my present job. I much look forward to hearing your revolutionary proposals with regard to the Gallery.

I cannot help receiving the news that you have presented two volumes of my Leonardo Catalogue to the Vatican Library with mixed feelings. I was naturally aware that his Holiness had been not only an admirer but a scholar of Leonardo, and it was one of my chief wishes that I should have the honour of presenting him with a copy of the Catalogue myself. I had hoped to have one specially bound and to take it with me to Italy when next I was there. I quite understand your motives in presenting the book yourself, but I wish that before doing so you had consulted me, since it was after all very natural that I should wish to reserve this privilege for myself. However, since it has been done in this way, let me thank you for doing it and for sending me a copy of his Holiness’s letter. I much appreciate the terms in which he speaks of my Catalogue.

Suitably mollified, Pollen hurried to apologise: “I really do hope that you will not abandon your plan on account of my very inconsiderate officiousness,” he wrote, asking the Clarks to dine the following week. “I will try to make you forgive, if not forget my offence, under the dazzle of my Great Idea!”

Nearly forty years later, with Pollen long dead, Clark published in his autobiography a highly coloured account of his first dealings with Pollen and his Leonardo, one that was most disobliging to the drawing’s owner. Pollen’s younger son, Anthony, armed with his father’s correspondence files, wrote to The Tablet (where Clark’s book had been reviewed by Sir John Rothenstein), quoting Clark’s apologetic note from 1929 when he finally withdrew from writing a monograph – “I am perfectly convinced of the authenticity of your drawing, and I have never doubted your complete disinterestedness in wishing to publish it” – and wondering why Clark “should now give the story a twist so discreditable both to himself and to Arthur Pollen”.

Pollen’s Leonardo was never publicly exhibited in his lifetime, much as he would have liked it to have been. In 1929, Hind suggested that it should be included in the Italian exhibition at Burlington House the following year. One of the exhibition committee, AE Popham, said, according to Hind, that “they felt a little afraid of its small size on the walls”. In January 1930 Pollen was mildly put out to find that the committee hesitated to show it except as “attributed to Leonardo”, two years after the drawing had been published by the Commissione Vinciani. Not least because eight of the committee of ten had never set eyes on the drawing. He would, he said, be very happy to have the picture in the exhibition on those terms so long as the list of those who accepted the attribution (Sir Claude Phillips, Adolfo Venturi, AM Hind, Bernard Berenson and others) was included in the catalogue.

Having deflected the British Museum’s interest in acquiring the drawing in 1922, Pollen approached the Metropolitan Museum in New York in October 1932, at the depth of the Great Depression, to see whether they would like to buy it. HE Winlock, Director of the Metropolitan, took a wary interest:

We are very much interested in your Leonardo drawing although I cannot assure you that we would be possible purchasers. We have had so many opportunities to buy things recently that our funds are practically exhausted.

None the less, Winlock asked Pollen his price. “I am greatly embarrassed at naming the price I ought to ask,” Pollen replied,

During the last few years Watteau drawings have changed hands in England at £2,000 and £3,000 each, and of course the number of these in private hands is considerable. I have twice sought advice from dealers as to the right price to ask, and one advised £6,000 and the other £1,200. The discrepancy between the two makes it difficult to say where reason lies… I imagine I should not, in any event, accept less than $15,000.

The correspondence with Winlock and the Metropolitan Museum does not appear to have gone much further.

AH Pollen kept a meticulous file of letters and articles relating to his drawing from 1921 to his death in 1937, and considered preparing a monograph himself on his drawing and the related drawings of the Madonna del Gatto. Before this the only known documentary evidence of the drawing is the Christie’s sale catalogue from 1902 and the stamp at the bottom left of the drawing (a Maltese Cross in a Circle) indicating that it was once part of the Count Moritz von Fries collection. Fries (1777-1826), the imperial banker in Vienna, was the richest man in that city, a great collector and bibliophile, a friend of Franz Schubert, a generous patron to Ludwig van Beethoven, and dedicatee of that composer’s 7th Symphony and his “Spring” Sonata for piano and violin. At its height, the Fries collection ran to 16,000 books (mostly large, illustrated works of the 18th century), 300 paintings and 100,000 drawings.

Fries was bankrupted in 1824 (his fortunes had never recovered from the disruption wrought by the Napoleonic wars), and moved to Paris. The sale of his possessions was spread over four years, and sale rooms in Vienna, Paris and Amsterdam. Amongst thousands of lots – engravings, paintings and furniture – there were numerous albums of drawings and engravings sold in Amsterdam in June 1824. The Madonna del Gatto from Fries’s collection was not framed at the time of its sale in 1902 (Mr Pinto Leitao delivered the drawing in an envelope to AH Pollen, who later bought an ornate Louis XVI frame – costing five times what he paid for the drawing – which appears to have been still attached to the drawing at the Paris and New York retrospectives in 2003), something that reinforces the supposition that it had been an album, or cabinet, drawing in the Fries era, and not framed until the 20th century.

When Christie’s sold the drawing in 1902 they placed it in a mixed lot that included the possessions of the late Duchess of Cleveland. If the drawing came from the Duchess’s collection (Sotheby’s firmly listed “Duchess of Cleveland collection” in the drawing’s provenance when it was sold at auction in London in 1963, perhaps guided by a mark or note on the back of the picture), and if she and her daughter and heir Lady Mary Hope attributed it to Leonardo, then this adds greatly to the interest of its provenance. Both the duchess’s husbands, Lord Dalmeny and the Duke of Cleveland, had means as collectors. As did her father, Philip Stanhope, the 4th Earl Stanhope. Lord Stanhope was German-educated, lived much of his life on the continent, and acted as an agent to German princelings, a role that might well have brought him into the ambit of the Fries family.

Arthur Hungerford Pollen died in 1937 after a short illness. His elder son, Arthur Joseph Lawrence Pollen, took on the care of his beloved drawing, and lent it to the great Milan exhibition of Leonardo’s work in 1939. (Sotheby’s noted when they sold the drawing in 1963 that the Milan accession number marked on the back of the frame, 42, differed from that in the catalogue, 44.)

Other British lenders – the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal Collection at Windsor, and Chatsworth – took varying positions to ensure the safety of their drawings. In March 1939, before any drawings had been lent to Milan, Eric Maclagan of the Victoria and Albert Museum wrote to the royal librarian, Owen Morshead, asking to be informed if the king decided to reconsider his decision to lend 19 drawings in the light of the international situation. Mors­head in turn wrote to Sir Alexander Hardinge, private secretary to King George VI, suggesting that the loan be made only for the first month, and that the drawings be returned to Windsor before July 1939 on the pretext that the International Congress of the History of Art was visiting Windsor that month. The King agreed.

At Chatsworth the 10th Duke of Devonshire lent a Leonardo drawing of Leda and the Swan and a Boltraffio painting. On 19 September 1939, 16 days after the outbreak of war in Europe, Dr Tancred Borenius, Commissioner for the Leonardo exhibition in London, wrote to Francis Thompson, the librarian at Chatsworth:

The present intention is to keep the Exhibition open until the end of the month, as originally contemplated. Thereafter the normal procedure will be to transfer the loans, properly packed and secured, to an underground vault in the Castello Sforzesco at Milan which offers the fullest guarantees imaginable for the security of these loans.

Should, however, owners wish to have their loans immediately returned to England, this can be arranged for: but obviously the transport across France and the Channel is a slow one under present circumstances and offers many war risks. Hence I personally incline to the opinion that the Chatsworth loans are safest where they now are – in a neutral country, taken care of and secured in every way.

The duke opted to have his pictures stored in Milan, and they were safely returned to Chatsworth on 5 November 1946, over a year after the end of hostilities. Arthur Pollen’s younger brother Anthony recorded, in the first draft of the postscript to his book The Great Gunnery Scandal (a section that was edited out in the published book), that his brother had taken the same option as Chatsworth, and that the Pollen madonna was duly returned in perfect condition after the war.

It was lent a second time, in 1950-51, to a loan exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, the last time it was shown in public until the Paris and New York shows of 2003.

When the drawing was taken on by Arthur JL Pollen (1899-1968), and his wife, Daphne Baring (1904-86), the drawing acquired an extra dimension. Arthur and Daphne Pollen were, like his parents, devout Catholics (she a convert), and both were also practising artists, much concerned with the representation of Christian iconography in general and Catholic church art in particular. They had both studied at the Slade School in London immediately after the First World War, and had married in 1926. For Arthur and Daphne Pollen, the Leonardo became the most notable religious icon (by dint of its authorship and irresistible beauty) in a collection where Catholic subject matter was much to the fore both in their work, and in the work of others.

Both generations of Pollens surrounded themselves, like the Duchess of Cleveland, with “charming possessions”, including examples of the work of JH Pollen, family portraits by Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Alphonse Legros and Ambrose McEvoy, pieces of English pottery and Delftware, and a few Old Masters and English landscapes. To these Arthur and Daphne Pollen added works by artist friends, including Mary Potter, Alison Debenham and David Jones, and pieces of their own art.

Arthur and Daphne Pollen’s social circle included some of the leading connoisseurs of the day including Sir John Rothenstein, Sir Anthony Blunt and Sir Brinsley Ford, and these men seemed to have discussed questions of attribution freely with the Pollens. Brinsley Ford disallowed a Richard Wilson landscape (a painting which certainly pales in comparison with the masterpieces in Ford’s own collection of the artist’s work). Blunt in turn demoted a family Poussin, but in 1946 told Daphne’s brother-in-law Guy Liddell that a “copy of Raphael” predellum panel, that Daphne Pollen had inherited from her parents, was by Raphael himself. None of these connoisseurs ever questioned the authenticity of the family Leonardo.

Arthur JL Pollen had made a name in the Twenties and Thirties as a portrait sculptor and as a member of the London Group, where he showed his more abstracted and more stylised work. In 1930 he was among the artists featured in the group’s open-air sculpture show in the Selfridge’s roof garden which included a nine-inch head in cast concrete by Henry Moore (who became a lifelong friend of Pollen’s) and Barbara Hepworth’s “Woman: Half Figure”. In the later 1930s, with multiple commissions relating to the canonisation of St Thomas More and St John Fisher, and an altar to St Therese of Lisieux at the Brompton Oratory, he turned increasingly, and consciously, to religious matter. For the next 30 years, up to his death in 1968, his most regular subjects were the crucifixion or the Madonna and Child. One example of the latter, in Skerries limestone, was included in the 1948 London County Council open-air sculpture exhibition in Battersea Park and is now placed in the Lady Chapel at Worth Abbey, in Sussex.

Daphne Pollen sometimes modelled for her husband either as Our Lady (including a seated Madonna from the early 1930s) or as a female saint (St Therese for the Brompton Oratory, St Barbara for a memorial to Barbara Chaplin at Wissendine, in Leicestershire). On other occasions they collaborated on Marian figures, including some china Madonna and Child groups from the mid-1930s, modelled in clay by Arthur Pollen and painted in glaze and enamels by Daphne. She would sometimes paint the finished figures of Arthur’s depiction of saints, including a large St Thomas More in wood for the Church of St Anselm & St Cecilia, Kingsway, in central London, or the figures of More and St Thomas Fisher for the Urquhart Memorial Chapel at Campion Hall, Oxford.

In addition, Daphne Pollen’s two largest finished works were of religious subjects: a mural of Christ Healing the Sick (1923-33) for All Hallows, East India Dock Road (it was destroyed by enemy bombing in 1942); and a group portrait of The Forty English Martyrs (1968), commissioned by the General Postulation for the canonisation of the martyrs, widely reproduced, and exhibited in Rome in 1970 at the time of the canonisation. The original now hangs at Stonor Park, in Oxfordshire.

The subject of the Madonna and Child was closely allied to Arthur and Daphne Pollen’s concern for religious art and their daily liturgical observance, which included Marian devotion as one of its main pillars. It was also tied into the prevailing concept of the Catholic mother, much emphasised as it was in writing and preaching of the mid-20th century, when large Catholic families were encouraged by theologians and hierarchy alike. While Arthur placed Our Lady and the Christ child at the heart of his artistic output, Daphne was much engaged on the role of the Catholic mother as educator, matriarch and champion of the family. Besides her work for Catholic charities and discussion groups, she was closely involved in the founding of two independent Catholic schools in London (St Philip’s, Wetherby Place, in 1936, and More House, Cromwell Road, in 1953, when she, Elizabeth Longford and a group of Catholic parents asked the Canonesses of St Augustine to open a London day school for their daughters).

At Lambay, the Pollens’ island home north of Dublin, Daphne took particular care of the Chapel of Our Lady of the Visitation, which had been remodelled as part of a large programme of works carried out by the architect Edwin Lutyens for Daphne Pollen’s parents, Maude and Cecil Baring, between 1910 and 1934. Daphne Pollen fought a long battle with the local hierarchy to have permission to reserve the Blessed Sacrament in the chapel and invited priests to stay for holiday in order to provide mass for the island’s small resident population and to supplement the periodic visits of the local parish priest.

As part of the restoration of the chapel, Lutyens had moved the statue of Our Lady from the building’s pediment and replaced it with a plain stone cross. In 1954, the Pollens were glad when the statue was returned to the top of the chapel pediment at the instigation of her brother Rupert Baring, 4th Lord Revelstoke. Daphne Pollen wrote in her diary:

Rupert has had the statue of Our Lady, wh was over the chapel door inside the porch, restored to its original position on the old chapel on top of the gable (now pediment) & it was hoisted up with ladders by 6 men & put in place today. Everyone delighted & R most of all. All the initiative came from him. Now Our Lady dominates the island once more – its focal point & a landmark for the fishermen – all in the Marian Year too. Nice.

Daphne had known of the Pollen Leonardo at least two years before her marriage to Arthur. Her future father-in-law gave her family a reproduction of the drawing as a Christmas card when they found themselves on the same ship in the Mediterranean in December 1923. Arthur Hungerford Pollen was travelling to India on a business trip and found himself on the train to Marseille, and thereafter on ship to Port Said, with Daphne, her father Cecil Baring, sister Calypso, brother Rupert and Elizabeth Fisk, the redoubtable Baring family nurse. (The Barings too were on their way to India, to join ship in Port Said with Edwin Lutyens, and visit New Delhi, where he was creating a new imperial capital, and with it Viceregal Lodge, one of the greatest of all 20th-century buildings.)

AH Pollen was very aware that Daphne and his son Arthur were set on being married (and Daphne determined on becoming a Catholic), and likewise that Daphne’s agnostic father objected to his daughter countenancing either conversion or marriage to a Catholic. And that he had asked his daughter that she stop seeing Catholic friends and not correspond with AJ Pollen during her trip to India.
AH Pollen, a cradle Catholic, knew how tactfully he must play his hand, as did Cecil Baring’s convert Catholic siblings, Maurice Baring and the Countess of Kenmare.

Cecil Baring and his children were still mourning the death the previous year of his wife Maude Lorillard, a warm-hearted, outspoken American beauty. As Daphne later recalled in I Remember I Remember (1984), her memoir of her parents, Maude Baring had acted as the family bridge of communication. When AH Pollen encountered them en voyage, and met Daphne’s siblings for the first time, he was not only won over by their charm and intelligence as a group, but noticed the extent to which the 19-year-old Daphne had assumed the role of mother to her younger sister and brother, and of how her father, a first-rate Classical scholar and formidable figure in the City of London, gave off a sense of strain, in his great bereavement. Pollen wrote to his wife:

B[aring] softens much on acquaintance ­– but oddly stiff and shy still. D[aphne], of course, like an angel guardian of an impish beauty of a sister, a delightful brother, and this odd strained father. The nurse the great support of the whole edifice.

On Christmas Day, AH Pollen wrote, he went down late to breakfast “with M[adonna] del Gatto for B. Very successful.” This was the collotype reproduction made by Emery Walker and mounted by him on a printed surround, with the legend “Leonardo da Vinci: La Vergine del Gatto” set in italic script on a scrolled label.

Earlier in the year, Daphne had sent her father from Florence, where she was painting with ex-Slade friends, an extraordinary Credo, 5,000 words long, explaining her wish to become a Catholic. The wide terms of reference, directness of observation, and precocious powers of analysis demonstrated in this document would have been admirable in a doctoral student of theology 10 years her senior. They are all the more remarkable for a female teenager of her generation, admittedly one who had been given an excellent schooling at home by her parents and tutors, and then in art by the formidable Henry Tonks at the Slade School, from which she had graduated at the age of 16. In the document she describes a powerful moment of revelation, after which she had become completely convinced of her desire to become a Catholic. And this moment of discovery was intensely tied up for her with the love of a mother for her child:

I had been torturing myself about how to tell you all day & finally sat down in the studio to think it over. I tried to crystalize my thoughts & put into words what I did believe. I sat there for about an hour thinking hard, very much awake (I remember v. well the effect of light on the chimney-pots opposite & noting mechanically their tone against the sky) sitting on the edge of rather a hard chair. Quite suddenly & quite unexpectedly something happened which has never happened to me before or since or anything in the least like it. I can’t explain it at all. Some force seemed to take possession of me & fill my whole being with a sense of terrific happiness & a great thrill seemed to go thro’ me. Besides that I was acutely aware of the presence of Mummy. Quite definitely. Exactly as if she had picked me up & kissed me. I didn’t see anything or hear anything or feel anything & my eyes were open & I was in full possession of all my senses. A new part of me seemed to fill up with excitement & it lasted about 1/2 a minute.

Directly the “force” left me I was reduced to so uncontrollable and prolonged a fit of crying that I locked myself in for fear of being discovered. I was intensely happy & knew in my inmost being that I had been for one moment directly conscious of the presence of God…

That it was not the result of auto-suggestion is, I think, clear, because it took me utterly by surprise & came entirely from without. I was thinking about Xtian doctrines in the most calm, matter or fact way when it happened. That I loathe the v. idea of “Spiritualism” & all Conan Doylish humbug you know very well. Anyhow, in that short half minute I was “converted” & “faith” was given me, & everything I have done since has only been to satisfy my reason of what I know in my heart to be true.

Two years later, Daphne Baring’s father gave his consent to her marriage to Arthur Pollen. She was received into the Catholic Church, and they were married at the high altar of Westminster Cathedral. They had two sons and four daughters, all of whom inherited their parents’ artistic talents. They faced a great moral dilemma, as Catholic parents, during the Second World War, in deciding whether to send their children to safety in the United States, in June 1940, when a German invasion was a very present danger. Arthur’s brother, Anthony, and his wife Biddie had recently sent their daughter Anne across the Atlantic. Daphne Pollen’s sister Calypso Liddell was already in the United States with all her children and Daphne’s uncle Pierre Lorillard V and his wife Ruth Hill were in New York, as alternative sources of family shelter. Arthur consulted the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Arthur Hinsley, and Fr Vincent McNabb, the visionary Dominican preacher and counsellor who had received Daphne into the church in 1926. Both said, from the moral and doctrinal point of view, that it was the duty of Catholic parents to keep their families with them at this time of crisis. And the Pollens, relieved, followed this advice.

Both their sons, the architect Francis Pollen and the stained-glass artist Patrick Pollen, worked regularly on religious subjects. Francis’s masterpiece in church architecture, Worth Abbey, in Sussex, is home to two sculptures by his father: a crucifix (over the high altar) and a Madonna and Child in Skerries limestone in the Lady chapel. His brother, Patrick, created tabernacle doors for a side chapel at the abbey. Patrick, the last protégé of the Irish artist Evie Hone, created stained glass for numerous churches in Ireland, England and the United States from the 1950s to the 1990s. His largest single commission was for the new Catholic cathedral in Johannesburg, 32 windows, covering 5,500 square feet, completed in 1959.

Daphne Pollen kept the Leonardo drawing of Mother and Child (protected against the light by a heavy cloth covering) on her desk at their various London houses (57 Onslow Square 1938-52; 14 Thurloe Square 1952-58; 9 Chelsea Square 1958-63). When they left London for extended periods (at Lambay, or at Mells, in Somerset, where they rented Selwood House from their friend Katharine Asquith in 1948-50) the drawing was usually placed in an old tin locker in the basement as a place least likely to attract the attention of would-be burglars.

The Pollens sold their Madonna del Gatto at Sotheby’s, in London, on 21 May 1963. Daphne Pollen noted in her diary:

Sale at Sotheby’s of drawings including the family Leonardo. Lucy [their daughter Lucy Jebb] came with us & prevented us from having strokes as the bidding rose swiftly with only one ugly pause at about £10,000 to £19,000.

Two of the Pollens’ cousins – Arthur’s niece Anne, and their cousin Peregrine Pollen – worked at Sotheby’s at the time, and both enjoyed the reflected glory of being connected with the sale. Sotheby’s head of publicity calculated that the sale price made it the most valuable Old Master drawing, per square inch, sold to date.

The buyer was the Swiss collector and bibliophile Martin Bodmer. After his death in 1971, his collection was run as a foundation, at Coligny, Geneva. In 1998 the foundation’s trustees sold a Michelangelo drawing to start an acquisitions fund to strengthen the core collection of fine examples of the written and printed word. In 2002 the president of the Bodmer Foundation revealed that the private sale in 1999 “of a beautiful Leonardo drawing, Madonna with the Cat, [has] led to two exceptional acquisitions. The heavily revised first proofs of Du Côté du Chez Swann by Marcel Proust, with lengthy autograph passages… and the love letters of Rainer Maria Rilke… as well as autograph poems and printed material.”

When the drawing was exhibited in New York and Paris in 2003 it was listed as being part of a “Private Collection, New York”.

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