My favourite painting: Marcus Agius

'I was fortunate to be present in New York in 1987 at the auction where the painting achieved its then world-record price of $53.9 million'

Marcus Agius says:

Given my passion for plants, choosing a painting of irises is perhaps not surprising. Flowers notwithstanding, I have a particular sentimental attachment to this glorious painting. Having just acted for the new purchaser of Sotheby’s, I was fortunate to be present in New York in 1987 at the auction where the painting achieved its then world-record price of $53.9 million [£29.5m]. The reaction of the members of the selling family was a sight to behold! In addition, van Gogh painted Irises when he was living in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where my family and I happily spend our summer holidays.

Marcus Agius, former group chairman of Barclays, is chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

John McEwen comments on Irises:

On May 8, 1889, van Gogh voluntarily entered the Saint-Paul de Mausole asylum at Saint-Rémy, following
episodes of self-mutilation (including of his ear, by then healed) that had put him into hospital. In the first week, he began this painting of a clump of irises. As he wrote to Theo, his ever-supportive younger brother: ‘I have only seen the garden and what I can look at through
my window.’

That he painted the clump as a slice of life, rather than the picked arrangement or single botanical specimen of detached Western convention, shows the influence of Japanese art, which became all the rage when that country once again opened its borders to the outside world after more than two centuries of isolation.

One of his reasons for painting in Provence was ‘wishing to see a different light, thinking that to look at nature under a brighter sky might give us a better idea of the Japanese way of feeling and drawing’.

Theo, a high-flyer at the Paris headquarters of the international art dealers Goupil & Cie, successfully submitted 10 of Vincent’s paintings for the forthcoming Salon des Indépendants. He wrote on March 19, 1890: ‘Your paintings are well placed… Many people came up to ask me to give you their compliments.’ Of Irises he wrote: ‘It strikes the eye from afar… a beautiful study full of air and life.’

Vincent killed himself in July. He was on the verge of success in the world’s art capital, having started from scratch at home in Holland only nine years before.

My Favourite Painting: Barry Humphries

Barry Humphries chooses his favourite painting for Country Life.