In a recent post, I wrote about Thomas Hart Benton’s Spring on the Missouri (1945) and the painting’s original owner Harpo Marx. Harpo was one of several Hollywood stars interested in work by living American artists. Gene Kelly, Burgess Meredith, Henry Fonda, Vincent Price, and Paul Newman all collected American art and lent paintings to exhibitions. So, I began to wonder: what other Hollywood connections do we have in our American galleries at the NCMA?
My search first took me to Citizen Kane (1941)—“the greatest movie of all time” according to the American Film Institute. Directed by and starring Orson Welles, the film follows a group of reporters as they try to discover the meaning of newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane’s dying word: Rosebud.
The character of Charles Foster Kane was modeled on real-life publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, and his fictional estate in the film, Xanadu, was based on Hearst’s “Enchanted Hill” in San Simeon, California. As described in the film, Kane’s Xanadu held: “A collection of everything, so big that it can never be catalogued or appraised. Enough for ten museums. The loot of the world.”
In real life, the “Enchanted Hill” was not Hearst’s only estate. In 1925, when the stones of other palaces were being assembled around the concrete and steel framework in California, Hearst made another purchase—St. Donat’s Castle in the Vale of Glamorgan in Wales. The castle came complete with eight hundred years of history, medieval tombs, a moat, a portcullis, dungeons, and its own ghost (who was said to wail on stormy nights).
Hearst quickly set out to bedeck his Welsh retreat in English aristocratic style, buying antiques and art objects on a massive scale. Among the purchases was John Singleton Copley’s Sir William Pepperrell (1746-1816) and His Family (1778)—now a favorite in our American galleries.
Painted in 1778 for the exiled American Tory Sir William Pepperrell, the large portrait was inherited by one of Sir William’s daughters who married into the aristocratic Palmer family of Leicestershire. For more than a century it had hung in the staircase at Wanlip Hall, the family’s country seat. In 1933, when the great house was pulled down to make way for a suburban development, the contents were sold in a local auction. There—in a story that could have come from the Antiques Roadshow—the Copley reportedly sold for only three pounds! The picture was quickly snapped up by a London art dealer, who then sold it to one of Hearst’s agents, no doubt for a handsome profit.
In Hearst’s haunted castle, the painting seems oddly fitting. Sir William Pepperrell had been one of the wealthiest men in New England, but was forced into exile during the Revolution for his loyalty to the British crown. Lady Pepperrell passed away shortly after the birth of their only son, and was posthumously “resurrected” with the family in this portrait. Hearst hung the picture in the castle’s library over the Banqueting Hall, where it would be visible through the arches at the end of the Armory.
Viewing St. Donat’s in its full Hearstian splendor, George Bernard Shaw supposedly said, “This is what God would have built if he had the money.” Not only were the objects that Hearst acquired extraordinary, but the scale on which he amassed them was unprecedented. An article in Fortune magazine in 1935 called him “quantitatively the world’s Number One collector of objects d’art,” and his obituary in the New York Times claimed that he had accounted for 25% of the world’s art market activity during the 1920s and 1930s.
Curiously, Hearst spent only a few months at St. Donat’s Castle. During World War II the castle was requisitioned by the British War Office, and for a time housed soldiers who had been wounded in Normandy. After the war, the aging Hearst decided to sell his neglected Welsh estate. (The castle is now a private college.) The furnishings, including art, were sold. A London dealer bought The Pepperrell Family, then sold it to a dealer in New York who sold it to the North Carolina Museum of Art.
Today, many museums have works from the Hearst Collection. At least two other paintings at the NCMA—Buy a Posy (ca. 1881) by John George Brown and Portrait of a Man in Armor (1563) by a follower of Giovanni Battista Moroni—were once owned by the real Citizen Kane.
Laura Fravel, GSK Curatorial Fellow