The John Glassford Art Collection.

In my post John Glassford – Tobacco Lord (1715-1783) Part 2 I touched on his interest in art and his support of the Foulis brothers Art Academy. Further research has shown I understated the number of paintings sold by his executors in 1786 and that he had sold paintings at Christie’s in 1797. I have also identified purchases he made from the same auction house in 1779 and 1783.


February 1779. Sales Catalogue Br-A1186.

March 1779. Sales Catalogue Br-A1199.

Glassford bought nine paintings at these auctions, total cost being £37 2s. Notable artists bought were Albrecht Durer and Artus Quellinus, a scholar of Rubens, his painting being the most expensive purchase at £12 1s.

January/February 1783. Sales Catalogue Br-A1342.

April 1783. Sales Catalogue Br-A1353.

The sixteen paintings he bought at these auctions were most likely the last time he bought art as he died five months later on 27th August. His purchases included work by Jan Brueghel (the elder), William Hogarth, entitled ‘Story from Don Quixote’, and Samuel Scott, this last work costing £20 9s, total cost of the sixteen paintings being £80.16s.

What do these costs (total £117 18s) equate to today? Straight forward RPI changes since 1783 equate to somewhere around £15,000. However that number does not do justice to the true cost of a commodity in 1783. Using that comparison Glassford’s spend amounts to over £1.5m.


May 1797. Sales Catalogue Br-A2231.

In 1797 Glassford sold twelve paintings, realizing £11 2s.

23rd December 1786. Sales Catalogue Br-A1548.

The catalogue associated with this sale included one hundred and twenty five paintings. Clearly I have not been able to identify anywhere near his total purchases, nor when he made his first buy, which is disappointing as some of the artists whose works were sold were, in modern parlance, ‘old masters’ and it would have been interesting and informative to have known from whom he bought the paintings and at what price.

The catalogue included works by Rubens, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Durer, Gainsborough, Breughel, Titian and Canaletto as well as paintings after the style of some of these artists. One Rubens sold for £2 1s., a Rembrandt for £1 15s.

The sale realized £384 2s which today by using the commodity measure would equate to £4.9m.

What these figures don’t show is the probable effect of the appreciation in value of some of the artworks sold in 1786. As an artist’s fame and skill grew and as a consequence demand increased, then what a particular painting sold for would be influenced by the reputation of the artist, its subject matter and rarity. An example perhaps of that is Ruben’s painting of Lot and his Daughters which was sold for £44.9m in 2016.

Glassford’s art collection, along with the properties he bought and his grandiose lifestyle would not have been possible without the exploitation of African slave labour, men women and children. We may be tempted to congratulate him for his apparent erudition and taste, ahead of his time perhaps, but I take the view that his interest in art was as a commodity, which was  used to demonstrate his vast wealth, like all other tobacco merchants, with no regard as to how he achieved that wealth.


1. Getty Provenance Index

2. Measuring Worth website.

Author: harmonyrowbc

Ex aero engineer with a life long passion for Glasgow History

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