Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Story from the Archives

Back when my friend Old Ken Digby was writing his blog, he had an occasional feature. There, he would tell stories based on his findings in archives. Funny places, archives. Filled with strange people and stranger objects from the past. Well, here's a tale that may interest you along those lines and it's one that comes from the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh.

In the third week of June 1926, a furor broke in London as the third Aga Khan offered Sir John Rutherford £100,000 for a racehorse named Solario. Sir John's answer? No dice! Meanwhile, in the fashionable West End auction house of Agnew and Sons, a picture by Joshua Reynolds of Lady Frances Scott was turning heads. After catching a glimpse of Lady Frances, so one breathy review put it, “I had eyes for little else.” This reviewer simply could not contain himself, likening the sitter to another of Reynolds's smoldering subjects, Kitty Fisher. “She herself," so we learn, "was not completely without venality, since she acquired and spent 12,000 pounds in one particular year. She was said by a contemporary writer to have died ‘a victim of cosmetic.’” How, how!

Now, as hot air rises, all of this frantic excitement was making waves up in Scotland. In fact, James L. Caw of the National Gallery of Scotland was very interested in snatching this much-ballyhooed picture from the London touts and installing it in his museum's collection. But, naturally, he wanted to know more about it. Who could he trust in the cut-throat art market where duplicitous double dealing was the name of the game? Apparently with the picture on loan from Agnew and Sons, Caw penned a letter to his pal James Milner, Director of the National Portrait Gallery in London. Then, he received the following letter, dated June 22nd, 1926:

Dear Mr. Caw:

I enclose a copy of all the entries in Graves & Cronin [that is, A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, P.R.A., ed. A. Graves and W.V. Cronin (London, 1899)] concerning Lady Frances Scott.

 Mr. Milner is laid up in bed. He had been sitting up until the early hours of the morning over his work, and travelling a good deal, and he broke down a week ago on his return from a busy tour. His doctor will not allow him to leave his house for another week.

When I saw him last night I told him of your letter and he suggested that, if it is necessary to get other opinions, you might send a photograph of the painting to any one or all of the following (1) the Director of the National Gallery (2) the Editor of the Burlington Magazine (3) himself. He does not know of any better authorities on Reynolds. If the heavy cost of a personal inspection by an ‘expert’ is to be borne, he believes No. 2 would undertake it. He presumes the picture is in Edinburgh.

We have a photograph of the group at Blair Drummond. I enclose a slight and harried tracing to indicate the position of Lady Frances.

Yours sincerely,

C. Kingsley Adams


As you will have guessed by now, the picture posted above is a photograph (made in Scotland) of that tracing (made in London), itself made from a photograph (probably made in Scotland) of a painting then in Scotland, but originally made in London. What was the point of sending this "slight and harried" tracing from London back to Scotland at the behest of the bed-ridden gallery director and self-proclaimed Reynolds expert? Was it supposed to assist in identifying the sitter? Legitimating the provenance of the picture? Simply adding luster of association to a potential purchase? Whatever is the reason, I thought you'd enjoy this story.


Sanford Sanchez

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