John Sergio Grioni was born in 1938, the year Paul Troubetzkoy died, and by the time his lifelong interest in the sculptor began, Troubetzkoy had, as he later wrote, become “a forgotten celebrity”. Already in his student years in Rome, John made an extensive study of the artist, laying the foundation for his tireless promotion of the latter’s work through the numerous articles and publications that were to follow. Unable to finance research on the scale his ambition demanded, he nonetheless continued to assemble documents and gather information on Troubetzkoy from all imaginable sources throughout his life, in later years with the assistance of his partner, Alena Trnkalova, with whom he moved to Bratislava.
John was not alone in developing a passion for sculpture by Troubetzkoy. Early interest from the Sladmore Gallery, one of London’s foremost sculpture dealers, shows that the work had not gone unnoticed.1 Troubetzkoy’s connection with Rembrandt Bugatti ensured that the younger artist’s emergence as the most sought-after sculptor of animal subjects also brought his illustrious forerunner increased attention. A milestone was reached when Alain Lesieutre, the flamboyant Paris dealer, paid a record price for a cast of Troubetzkoy’s masterpiece portrait of Robert de Montesquiou, approaching one million francs.2 This result, achieved as the millennium drew to a close, still ranks as one of the top three recorded for the artist.
Edward Horswell, who took over the Sladmore Gallery from his father, afforded John as much support as he could, encouraging his projects, putting the gallery’s resources at his disposal and helping him with funds to pursue his research. It was thanks to Edward’s generosity that I encountered John for the first time in London on the occasion of the Sladmore Gallery’s 2008 Troubetzkoy exhibition, for which Edward had asked me to write an introduction.3 Edward had invited John to stay in London for a few days and this gave me the opportunity at last to meet this elusive expert. I discovered a man of great charm and culture, like myself of English and Italian parents, fluent in several languages, quick-witted, urbane, elegant, and fiercely uncompromising and independent in his views. He had retained a nostalgia for the world of the “sculptor-prince” that was inevitably at odds with certain aspects of contemporary society.
Sadly, John died suddenly in January 2013, leaving his life’s work unfinished. Alena knew the value of what he had managed to accomplish but was not in a position to continue in John’s footsteps on her own. I travelled to see her and we were able to come to an agreement to preserve all the materials John had assembled, then divided between Bratislava and Rome, where some of his documents had long remained in storage. I thus became custodian of John’s archive for a few years and set about the challenging task of sorting a mass of documents of every description accumulated over more than fifty years in such a way as to make the information they contained accessible. John had always wanted to bring Alena to Paris and I was granted the satisfaction of fulfilling this wish when she accepted my invitation to spend a few days in the city as my guest. I reserved a room for her overlooking the Tuileries Gardens, at a hotel of which I was sure John would have approved.
When I met James Drake, I was struck by his irrepressible enthusiasm for Troubetzkoy (among his many other pursuits) and his determination to restore the sculptor to the position he deserves by making his work more generally known and studied. James believes information should be widely available to the scholarly community and his project to convert documents into digital form would achieve that aim. My own conviction is that a catalogue raisonné establishes a corpus of study, defines an artist’s oeuvre and allows us better than any other tool to grasp its full significance. It is an important step in helping to establish the standard by which we may judge the quality of a bronze sculpture, cast from a model directly fashioned by an artist. A critical catalogue lends visibility and authority to the many years of attentive observation that enable the experienced specialist confidently to distinguish authentic pieces among the astonishing number of late or dubious examples that are ever more prevalent at auction and elsewhere.
The energy and resources James promised to bring persuaded me that John’s legacy would best be served by accepting to sell the materials I had acquired from Alena to the Troubetzkoy Archive Project. Enlightened collectors are now willing to pay high prices for the best examples of the artist’s work, museum curators are showing interest in planning exhibitions to acquaint a wider public with it; the time has come for greater clarity to be brought to the disparate set of objects associated with his name.4 It is hoped that this brief tribute will have made apparent John’s essential part in making all of this possible.
1. Jane Horswell, with her husband founder of the Sladmore Gallery, lists Troubetzkoy alongside Degas, Bugatti, Pompon and Haseltine in the introduction to her 1971 survey Bronze Sculpture of “Les Animaliers”, Woodbridge, Sussex that was to remain the standard reference work on the subject for at least a decade. The Sladmore Gallery was also the principal contributor to an important exhibition on the other side of the Channel in which sculpture by the artist was included: Paris, Galerie Paul Ambroise, Un Siècle de bronzes animaliers: 1875-1975, March – April 1975.
2. Maîtres Pescheteau-Badin, Godeau et Leroy, Maître François de Ricqlès, Estampes et Tableaux Modernes, Sculptures, Art Contemporain, Drouot-Richelieu, Paris, 28 November 1999, lot no.63, sold for a hammer price of 740,000 FRF. The buyer’s premium charged by the auctioneers was 9% plus tax, a far cry from the now common rate of 25% exclusive of tax, but bringing the total price paid to well over 800.000 FRF.
3. London, The Sladmore Gallery, Prince Paul Troubetzkoy: The Belle Epoque Captured in Bronze, 21 May – 27 June 2008.
4. An exhibition to mark the 150th anniversary of Troubetzkoy’s birth was held at the Museo del Paesaggio in Verbania, 26 June – 30 October 2016. The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, held a show of some 80 works from 22 June – 26 August 2018: Скульптор Паоло Трубецкой. A major exhibition with an important section on Troubetzkoy entitled en passant: Impressionism in Sculpture was held at the Städel Museum, Frankfurt, 19 March – 25 October 2020. Organised by Philipp Demandt, Alexander Eiling and Eva Mongi-Vollmer, the show was accompanied by a scholarly catalogue and preceded by a well-attended and thought-provoking colloquium. Restrictions due to the pandemic unfortunately limited its impact.