Solomon Alexander Hart watercolour
A watercolour by Solomon Alexander Hart that sold for £5000 at Tennants and was bought by the Ben Uri Gallery and Museum.

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Consigned by a private client in the north east, the signed 15.5 x 10.75in (40 x 28cm) picture of four figures engaged in Talmudic discussion was estimated at £200-300.

While the pitch may have been in keeping with the relatively small number of watercolours by the artist that have sold at auction in the last 20 years, this picture was identified as one of the earliest known original depictions of the interior of a synagogue in Britain.

At the sale on April 27, it drew determined bidding before it was knocked down at £5000 to London’s Ben Uri Gallery and Museum.

The gallery’s chairman David Glasser, who was bidding on the phone himself, told ATG he would have gone to eight times this level. He said he regarded Hart as the pre-eminent Jewish artist of his day and that this work had importance as a piece of religious, historical and artistic history.

He believes the picture relates to a larger work from 1838 in which the artist painted a similar architectural background in the same pallet, although with differences to the foreground.

“We place it from 1837-1838, most likely showing the Polish Synagogue, then sighted in Gun Yard off Houndsditch in the East End of London,” said Glasser. “Solomon Hart was the first Jewish artist to become a RA in 1840 and opened the door for many Jewish and immigrant artists to follow.”

According to records, the Polish Synagogue in Houndsditch was one of the three congregations established in London in the 18th century but closed sometime before 1870. While prints showing the Synagogue from before 1837 are known to exist, this is now the earliest recorded original view of the building’s interior.

Elected to the RA

Hart was the son of a Jewish goldsmith from Plymouth who came to London in 1820. He learnt his trade “colouring theatrical prints and copying old masters on ivory” before becoming an established artist painting mainly historical scenes and portraits. He became an associate of the RA in 1836 before being elected as a full member in 1840. Hart went on to become a teacher at the RA in 1855 and later the institution’s librarian.

His works are rare on the market, although a record was set in March 2018 for the painting The Proposal of the Jews to Ferdinand and Isabella which sold for $190,000 (£137,380) at Kestenbaum & Company in New York.

The current sale represents a record for a watercolour by Hart, according to the Art Sales Index.

In light of the Ben Uri Gallery’s decision last year to reposition itself to the art of immigrants of all faiths and, in so doing, sell around 500 works, Glasser said: “This acquisition is a perfect example of the benefit to our museum of de-accessioning works rarely, if ever, seen [by the public] and qualitatively improving the collection with works which are clearly pre-eminent in their field.’”

The sale at Tennants followed another work on paper of a Jewish subject bringing strong interest in the UK regions last month when the Simeon Solomon (1840-1905) drawing Carrying the Torah made £6800 at Sworders.

The buyer’s premium at Tennants was 24% including VAT.