The Guy Ladrière Collection of engraved gemstones : intaglios, cameos and rings

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Interview with Guy Ladrière, the Prince of Rings 

I met with Guy Ladrière at Quai Voltaire for an interview about his private collection of glyptics – the ancient art of engraving gems-  which will be exhibited from May 12 to October 1, 2022 in Paris at the École, School of Jewellery Arts.

The Ladrière Collection unites the eye and the exquisite taste of a man, a passionate expert: Guy Ladrière. Remarkable in many ways, his collection embraces a vast geographical area (Asia, Africa and Europe) and covers nearly three millennia of the art of glyptics. Eclectic, it gathers today more than four hundred pieces of which the majority are rings. Except for the most fragile, the collector wears them on his fingers every day.

Today he is wearing a rare ruby intaglio set in a heavy gold ring on his right finger. Touchingly, the engraved gemstone depicts the Virgin Mary carrying the baby Jesus and gazing at him. The image is reminiscent of the gothic sculpture of the Virgin Mary nursing her Child in the Cluny Museum or the Louvre. On the ruby intaglio, the Virgin Mary and Child are closely sheltered by what appears to be an oratory or small chapel.

Virgin Mary and child. Ruby intaglio on a gold ring. With the courtesy of Guy Ladrière. Photo by Didier Loire

For forty years Guy Ladrière has collected intaglios (stones engraved in hollow relief) and cameos (stones which, because they have superimposed layers of different colors, are engraved in relief and respond in miniature proportion to ancient bas-reliefs, monumental Greco-Roman sculptures and medieval polychrome woods).

Rome, early 3rd century AD, Jupiter. Sardonyx cameo on a gold box by Gabriel Morel. Collection Guy Ladrière. Photo Didier Loire

Set on rings, brooches and pins, glyptic art put into image the vast panorama inhabited by the Egyptian, Greek and Roman pantheon gods, populated by Homeric or Ovidian characters, figures of temporal power, sometimes from the Bible, and various animals escaped from the fables of Aesop. When one stops to observe this multitude of details finely engraved by slow abrasion of the stone, one would feel time stop.

16th century, Hercules. Sardonyx cameo, gilt bronze frame. Collection Guy Ladrière. Photo Benjamin Chelly

Engraved stones carry multiple meanings: A distant echo of the beginnings of writing (intaglio, cylinder seal, seal); material witness to commercial exchanges and daily agrarian concerns; a reminder of beliefs and the understanding of the world; a tribute to illustrious men; and finally a luxury object made into an ornament.

Etruria, 5th century BC, Kneeling man. Intaglio on a carnelian scarab, gold mounting. Collection Guy Ladrière. Photo Benjamin Chelly
Sicily, 13th century. Hercules slaying the lion. Sardonyx cameo on an enamelled gold ring. Collection Guy Ladrière. Photo Benjamin Chelly

Starting from his interest in ancient rings, Guy Ladrière felt the desire to build a collection.

From his first acquisitions at Jean-Philippe Mariaud de Serres or at S.J. Phillips in 1976 during the exhibition of the Ralph Harari collection, he relied on one criterion: the quality of the object.

“I buy it because I like it”, he says casually. Figures of Zeus, Aphrodite, Cupid, Mercury, muses and Medusa heads (more than a dozen!) compete for predominance in the Collection with representations of heroic subjects, imperial portraits and animal themes: bulls, felines, galloping horses, eagles, snakes… etc. There is even a cameo in the form of a sardonyx “the Marvel of Lisbon”, a singular rhinoceros which was the second of its kind to be sent from India to Europe in 1577.

Jacopo da Trezzo (ca. 1515-1589). Rhinoceros called the Wonder of Lisbon. Sardonyx cameo. Collection Guy Ladrière. Photo Benjamin Chelly

“I like everything, I’m interested in everything, as long as it’s beautiful”, he says. The collector does not adopt an encyclopaedic or systematic approach but favours the appearance and quality of the object. Thus, Guy Ladrière owns a few Caesars but do not consider it useful to collect the Twelve.

One of the most extraordinary pieces of the Collection is the intaglio with the effigy of Augustus (63 BC -14 AD). A translucent Burmese ruby weighing 15 ct “in the shape of a half bean”, this irregular oval cabochon of a luminous pink-red is deeply engraved, on its flat part, with the profile of the first Roman emperor (whose countertype reveals the left profile).

“Forma fuit eximia et per omnes aetatis gradus uenustissima”. He was extremely handsome and gracious throughout his life, wrote Suetonius in the Life of the Twelve Caesars (II,79). It is undeniable.

Attributed to Dioscorides, early 1st century AD, The Emperor Augustus. Ruby intaglio. Collection Guy Ladrière. Photo Didier Loire

It is nevertheless surprising to note that on this ruby, the Emperor is represented neither under divine features, nor according to the canons of the Greek ideal; his face is marked by the wrinkles of the naso-labial fold and a nasal hump which accentuates his “aquiline and fine” nose.  The engraving appears to be of authentic precision. From this striking profile emanates an impression of solemnity and grandeur. It is hard to take your eyes off it. It is now considered almost certain that the glyptician who created this masterpiece was a Greek contemporary of Augustus, who lived in Rome in the first century and whose name appears in the pantheon of the most famous glypticians: Dioscorides.

Guy Ladrière remembers how fascinated he was by the sight of the gold ring enhanced with the countertype of the Augustus intaglio worn by the Parisian dealer Michel de Bry. In 1989, the intaglio was for sale at an auction in Paris. Without hesitation, Guy Ladrière snatched the bid. Since then this intaglio, which served as a seal to Augustus and which Suetonius says that “this last seal was the one that the princes – his successors – continued to use” (Life of the Twelve Caesars, II, 50), forms the beating heart of the Ladrière Collection.

There are no major steps in the constitution of the Collection because Guy Ladrière buys at public sales, from established dealers or antique dealers (Codognato, Sam Fogg, S. J. Phillips, Adrien Chenel) at a regular pace. If glyptics remain his favorite field, he also collects hard stone vases and medals. Sometimes he acquires several engraved gems in one go. Thus the four heads of “Medusa” acquired in Milan from the collection of Giovanni Pichler (1734-1791) or Luigi Pichler (1773-1854), rich in treasures.

Medusa. Agate cameo. Pichler family (Milan sale, Sotheby’s, 27 June 2007). With the courtesy of Guy Ladrière. Photo Didier Loire
Medusa. Chalcedony cameo. Pichler family (Milan sale, Sotheby’s, 27 June 2007). With the courtesy of Guy Ladrière. Photo Didier Loire

Naturally, when one traces the historical provenance of the most famous intaglios or cameos, one is struck by the lineage of illustrious collectors who have succeeded one another. Whether in Antiquity, in the medieval West or during the Renaissance, the most beautiful engraved gemstones, those with exceptional technical virtuosity, have been constantly reused because they have always been considered precious, and therefore sought after by great people: sovereigns, aristocrats, high clergy. Without pose or snobbery, with aplomb even, Guy Ladrière admits “it does not influence me when I am told that an object comes from so-and-so”. But of course, the provenance of a piece of great beauty increases the prestige of the object.

Semiramis. Sardonyx cameo on a gold brooch. 16th century. With the courtesy of Guy Ladrière. Photo Didier Loire

Thus, this Renaissance cameo all in volutes with the profile of Semiramis (or allegory of the moon) which belonged to the most important collector of antiquities of the eighteenth century, the Cardinal Alessandro Albani (1692-1779), or this impressive “ring of Fridays” preciously kept by the pious king of France Charles V (1337-1380) and in the oval is inscribed a scene of crucifixion uniting around Christ, the Virgin, St. John and two cherubs leaning on the cross. When Guy Ladrière acquired this important piece, he compared it to the engraved gemstones in the collection of Frederick II Hohenstaufen (1194-1250).

Crucifixion. Sardonyx cameo on a modern gold ring. Paris, 14th century. Guy Ladrière Collection. Photo Benjamin Chelly

Among the engraved stones of the Collection that refer to royalty (Elizabeth I of England, Philip II of Spain) and to the history of France (René d’Anjou, François I, Anne of Austria), I particularly like the cameo in sardonyx on a red background of Louis XIII (1601-1643). The bust, noble, is presented in his right profile. With wavy hair and a laurel crown, a crooked moustache and a pointed goatee, the young king is clasped in a ruff collar, a delicately chiseled armour on which rests a thick ribbon with the Maltese cross, emblem of the Order of the Holy Spirit. The engraving, although academic, is imposing and of great finesse. The cameo is enhanced by the elegance of the setting: four fine pearls at the cardinal points between which alternate old-cut diamonds framed in gold and palmettes motifs. A royal portrait through and through.

Crucifixion. Sardonyx cameo on a modern gold ring. Former collection of Charles V, King of France. With the courtesy of Guy Ladrière. Photo Didier Loire

The “scientific” work is secondary for the collector. Glyptic pieces are rarely dated or signed, and their origin is often difficult to determine. Guy Ladrière, through observation, experience and consulting specialized books as well as assiduous visits over the years to Parisian museums (Cabinet des médailles de la BnF, Musée de Cluny, Louvre) and European museums (British Museum, Museo archeologico di Napoli, Palazzo Pitti, Kunsthistorisches Museum), has acquired great knowledge and rare expertise.

Medusa. Chalcedony cameo. Pichler family (Milan sale, Sotheby’s, 27 June 2007). With the courtesy of Guy Ladrière. Photo Didier Loire

When he makes an acquisition, he relies on a first idea. After obtaining the piece, he says, “I then study it thoroughly: time, place where it was created, material, subject.” Guy Ladrière surrounds himself with specialists to study his pieces. Reading, deciphering, analyzing, understanding the work of glyptics requires a varied culture. It is not a prerequisite to be a gemologist, art historian, antiquarian or glyptician, but ideally, you should be a little of all of these at the same time! Do ancient sculptures help in the recognition of figures or themes on glyptic works? “It is often the numismatists who recognize the portraits in glyptics » replies Guy Ladrière.

When Guy Ladrière bought the astonishing gold ring engraved with a porcupine, he had an idea of its origin, having knowledge of the personal emblem of Louis XII (1462-1515) (Cf Ecu with the porcupine of Brittany of Louis XII preserved in the Carnavalet museum). However a mysterious motto written in retrograde “temps je attens » (« time I wait”) on the head of the ring and in the ring intrigued him, without being able to guess completely the meaning. A medieval historian friend solved the enigma, exposed by Philippe Malgouyres in his catalogue raisonné. Louis XII longed for his wife Anne of Brittany to give him an heir…

Gold ring with a porcupine with the monogram of Louis XIII. Inscription on the bezel (retrograde): « temps je attens ». With the courtesy of Guy Ladrière. Photo Didier Loire
The same motto is engraved inside the ring on either side of a crossed L.
The tau of Saint Anthony is engraved on the shoulders.

Guy Ladrière often gives thanks to his mentor, Charles Ratton (1895-1986), who was an expert, dealer and collector. “I owe him everything” he says without ambiguity. It was a common passion for the Middle Ages that initially brought them together. Moreover, even today, when we ask Guy Ladrière about a favorite period among all, he admits: the Carolingians. The irony is that “we find ivories and Carolingian manuscripts but no rings”!

The history of art in the twentieth century has especially remembered the name of Charles Ratton for the major role he played with his contemporaries in the knowledge and dissemination of the arts of Africa, the Americas and the Pacific. He is, as Guy Ladrière reminds us, the only dealer to date to whom a public institution, the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, has devoted an exhibition. It was in 2013, under the title: Charles Ratton, the invention of “primitive” arts. For fourteen years, Guy Ladrière worked alongside him, joining forces with him late in life (in 1984). As a “spiritual son”, he acquired Charles Ratton’s archives, his “personal museum” and his office, all of which he keeps intact between the Rive Droite and his Parisian apartment.

Matthieu Pigne, King René of Anjou (1409-1480). Sardonyx cameo on a gold pin, Collection Guy Ladrière. Photo Didier Loire

Enemy of socialites, sometimes gruff when it comes to keeping away the curious, but prolix, benevolent and warm in his inner circle, Guy Ladrière is recognized by his peers who appreciate his “eye”. In 2016, about sixty pieces of the Collection were presented for the first time at the London gallery Sam Fogg, a specialist in the art of the European Middle Ages. The event was accompanied by the publication of a first book, The Guy Ladrière Collection of Gems and Rings, edited by the renowned Diana Scarisbrick, with Claudia Wagner and John Boardman (Philip Wilson Publishers in association with The Beazley Archive, Classical Art Research Centre, University of Oxford, 2016).

Milan, end of the 16th century, Elisabeth I (1533-1603). Grisons agate cameo. Collection Guy Ladrière. Photo Didier Loire

This year, for L’École des Arts Joailliers, Philippe Malgouyres, chief curator of heritage in the art department of the Louvre and curator of the Pierres gravées exhibition, is dedicating an excellent book to the Ladrière Collection published by Mare & Martin under the title Engraved gemstones. Intaglios, cameos and rings from the Guy Ladrière collection. He also co-published with the École a special issue of Cameos and Intaglios: The Art of Engraved Stones – Découvertes Hors-Series Gallimard .

Matteo del Nassaro, François I, circa 1530-1540. Sardonyx cameo, modern gold mounting. Collection Guy Ladrière. Photo Didier Loire

To the eye of the collector are added the crossed views of Philippe Malgouyres and an “engraver-sculptor on hard stones and fine stones”, Nicolas Philippe, within the exhibition orchestrated by l’Ecole, School of Jewelry Arts. These are precious clues that will be offered to visitors who have come to contemplate these unique masterpieces of glyptics, and to learn about an art that has become so rare today.

 

 

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L’École des Arts Joailliers
31, rue Danielle Casanova, 75001 Paris. France.
Tel. + 33 1 70 70 38 40

Exhibition from 12 May to 1 October 2022
Open from Tuesday to Saturday, from 12pm to 7pm
Free admission, by reservation
Reserve your time on www.lecolevancleefarpels.com

Byzantium, 6th-7th century, Eagle seal with monogram, Rock crystal, Collection Guy Ladrière, Photo Benjamin Chelly

 

 

My most affectionate thanks to Christine and Guy Ladrière

 

Medusa. Cameo in sardonyx on a gold brooch. With the courtesy of Guy Ladrière. Photo Didier Loire.