Research Fellows Ben Pope and Jake Benson follow the trail of nineteenth-century antiquarian Robert Goff, who left an enigmatic trace of his collecting activity in a manuscript from the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Younger.
In June 1565, Elector August of Saxony (1526–86) had a question, and he turned to his court painter for help. ‘Some confusion’ had arisen over unspecified aspects of heraldry – this could have been a matter of idle curiosity, but it could equally have been central to the status and current political claims of August’s dynasty.
The issue was resolved with the aid of an ‘old armorial’ (a book of coats of arms) which August knew to have been in the possession of Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553), and which was now seeing regular use—probably as a reference collection—in the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515–86). August requested a copy, and after some prevarication Cranach assigned some of his assistants to this task. The surviving correspondence between prince and painter breaks off shortly after Cranach had delivered an initial set of ‘sample’ pages, which met with August’s approval.
We know that Cranach did eventually complete the armorial because many features of the John Rylands Library’s manuscript ‘German MS 2’ match the instructions given by August, whilst the original binding is stamped with the date 1565 and the initials of a bookbinder from Cranach’s home town of Wittenberg. As described in a previous blog, the ‘old armorial’ was almost certainly no haphazard collection of coats of arms. It had its origins in a book designed to exalt the highest-ranking woman in Europe circa 1500: Bianca Maria Sforza (1472–1510), second wife of Emperor Maximilian I (1459–1519).
The Well-Travelled Mr Goff
There is no evidence that August had any knowledge of the old armorial’s background and, in time, his own connection to the Cranach copy was forgotten. The armorial reappears in an auction catalogue dated 7 June 1866, for the sale by Messrs Christie, Manson and Woods of the ‘Collection of Objects of Art and Vertu of the late Robert Goff, Esq.’ It was misleadingly described as a book of genealogy (Stammbuch): ‘a collection of German coats-of-arms, painted in water colours, and dated 1565 – in stamped vellum cover’.
We still cannot ascertain how or even why Robert Goff (1801–66) acquired this manuscript. However, Goff is a worthy addition to the cast of characters associated with the armorial. He had wide-ranging antiquarian interests and is known to have been active in Egypt in 1836–7, where he was apparently a founding member of the Egyptian Society of Cairo in 1836. In 1847 he presented a collection of mainly Egyptian objects to the British Museum. Whilst still in Egypt, Goff met the anti-Corn Law campaigner Richard Cobden, who described him as a ‘raver against Russia’. He also met Alexander Lindsay (1812–80), later 25th Earl of Crawford and 8th Earl of Balcarres, who later wrote that Goff had been on his way to India and China.1
He seems to have travelled further still. In 1852, John Auldjo exhibited at London’s Archaeological Institute ‘seven grotesque masks of terra cotta, from the collection of Robert Goff, Esq., found at the pyramids of San Juan, Teotihuacan, in Mexico’ together with ‘various objects of obsidian, brought by Mr. Goff from the same locality, in 1839’. In 1851, Goff was living in London, at 21 Kensington Gore. At his death his collection consisted mainly of European artworks in ivory and wood, but also included a small collection of Chinese drawings.
Collectors Leave Their Marks
While the circumstances under which Goff obtained German MS 2 remain unclear, he signed the album on folio 1r. Only, for some unknown reason, he inscribed his name in Perso-Arabic script (رابرت گاف) underneath a basmala, an Islamic formula that opens chapters of the Holy Qur’ān. Goff likely also signed his name in Latin script, that someone later crossed out—but if so, then he misidentified the volume as a Stammbuch.
The antiquarian dealer Bernard Quaritch (1819–99) acquired Goff’s Chinese drawings at the sale of his collection on 7 June 1866, and immediately offered them to one of his best customers, Alexander Lindsay. In his reply, Lord Lindsay mentioned his meeting with Goff in Egypt in 1837, and described the drawings as ‘very interesting & much beyond the average of such’.
Neither Quaritch nor Lindsay mentioned the so-called Stammbuch, but it had been listed in the auction catalogue amongst the Chinese drawings and was almost certainly included in Quaritch’s sale to Lindsay since it appears in an 1881 catalogue of his library. It passed into the care of the John Rylands Library through Enriqueta Rylands’ famous purchase of the Crawford Collection in 1901. In 2020 it was exhibited for the first time with attribution to the Cranach workshop at Compton Verney House in Warwickshire, alongside many other works by the owners of the original ‘old armorial’.
With thanks to Stephen Mossman and John Hodgson for their help with the research for this blog.
- An inscription on a Buddhist sutra in the British Library suggests that Goff may already have been to China, in 1834.