A Study in Paint

UNC Scott presentations at the NCMA

“There is nothing like firsthand evidence.” —Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet

This summer I have the opportunity to continue the research begun by Perry Hurt, associate conservator at the NCMA, on seven fascinating examples of late Tudor and early Jacobean portraiture that have traditionally been associated with the Scott family of Kent, England. My part in this project began in the fall of 2012 when I participated in Dr. Tania String’s UNC–Chapel Hill graduate seminar The Tudor and Jacobean Portrait: A Theoretical and Practical Investigation. During this seminar students focused research on the NCMA portrait group, made presentations to Museum docents and staff, and interacted with specialists such as Dr. Tarnya Cooper, chief curator and 16th-century curator at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Interest in these portraits has continued to grow, and the NCMA has begun the initial steps of research and conservation in anticipation of an exhibition that will reintroduce these fabulous paintings to the public.

I have been working with the NCMA to reconstruct the provenance, or ownership history, of the portrait group. While this might sound straightforward, it actually requires a great deal of deductive reasoning (think Sherlock Holmes … the Benedict Cumberbatch version, of course!). The lives of these portraits since their creation have had to be pieced together from typewritten letters in the curatorial files, a handful of 19th-century references to the portrait group (the NCMA portraits were first mentioned in 1838!), and the circa 1970 notes of a New York City appraiser.

Another important source of provenance information has been the backs of the portraits … yes, the backs! For instance, the reverse sides of most of the portraits feature the initials of a “T. F. Best,” who has been identified as Thomas Fairfax Best (1786–1849) of Chilston Park, Kent. It was during his ownership that the paintings were given their current frames by the London-based frame maker William Cribb, identified by labels on the backs of the frames as providing a variety of services in addition to framing:

Old Frames Re-gilt, and Glasses Re-polished, and Silvered. / Pictures Cleaned, Lined, and Repaired. / Glasses conveyed to any Part of the Country on Spring Machines / constructed for the sole purpose.

The backs of several of the portrait frames also bear a second label belonging to “Frasers, Depositories & Strong Rooms,” where the portraits were apparently stored in the late 19th century by one of Thomas Fairfax Best’s descendants, a “Mr. [?] Archer.” The precise date and reason for placing these portraits in storage, however, remain a mystery.

I’ll provide updates on this project as I travel to London with Dr. Tania String this summer to investigate the identities of the portrait sitters and artists.

Leah Thomas is a second-year graduate student at UNC–Chapel Hill with a focus on Renaissance portraiture.

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