A Scott Family Who’s Who: The Mystery, Magic, and Scholarship of the Scott-Jacobean Project

George or John?

Identifying the sitters in the NCMA’s Scott family portraits is one of the main goals of the Scott-Jacobean Project. After two and a half years of research, one thing is certain: who these people are is anything but clear. Of the seven NCMA Scott paintings, five identities are in serious question.

The portraits came to the Museum with names attached—ancient inscriptions on the front and decaying labels on the back—with places, death dates, and other details. Unfortunately, very little of this information is original to the painting; much of it was added 100 or more years after the paintings were made, long after the sitters were dead. It’s likely that someone in the Scott family felt the need to put names to these ancestral images, but memory rarely serves portraits well. Karen Hearn informed me of this last year while consulting on the Scott portraits. As former curator of 16th and 17th century art at the Tate Britain, she has found that the identification of subjects in 400-year-old portraits is frequently wrong. Portraits have been mistakenly identified as that of a more popular or infamous relative. A generation or two after a person’s death, there’s no longer anyone living who knew the person, so who’s to know the difference?

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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.

0 to 6: The Experience of Time through Vine

With our exhibition 0 to 60: The Experience of Time through Contemporary Art currently on view, the themes of art and time−and the intersection of the two−have been on our minds lately.

Enter Vine. Vine is a mobile app for making and sharing 6-second videos. It’s a format that makes you conscious of time in a new way. Vine is quick, easy, available, and most important, meshes perfectly with the exhibition theme. Because of the 6-second time limit, you can’t create a Vine without being mindful of time. Time is sliced, stretched, lapsed, lost, and repeated endlessly on Vine–in visual, creative, often artful ways.

Now we want you to get involved. Show us your experience of time through Vine. Hurrying, racing, sauntering, repeating, or utterly static–what does time look like for you? Let us see time through your eyes!

At the end of the project, we’ll select three outstanding Vine videos to be featured on the NCMA Web site. Winners will also receive tickets to a summer outdoor concert and film and a 0 to 60 exhibition catalogue.

Here are the details:

  • Vine must explore the concept of time … however you wish to interpret it. Be creative!
  • To submit a video, tag your Vine #artandtime and share it on Facebook or Twitter.
  • There is no limit on submissions. Share as many Vines as you’d like.
  • The deadline to submit to the contest is Friday, August 2 – so get Vining before you run out of time!

Download Vine from iTunes or Google Play.

Watering the Horses

The more I live with the Museum’s American collection, the more I am intrigued by the curious and inexplicable things I see in the paintings. I’m still puzzling over whatever is in the window of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Cebolla Church. A different sort of puzzle lies at the heart of a picture painted a century before O’Keeffe’s church. At first glance this picture seems innocuous enough: a young man pausing to let two horses drink from a shallow stream. It’s a lazy summer day, the sky tossed with clouds. Watering the Horses must have seemed a bucolic idyll to the New Yorker who bought the painting in 1852. (Let us not forget it was the denizens of crowded, noisy, malodorous cities who were the principal patrons of landscape painters.)  The artist, Junius Brutus Stearns (1810–1885), was a Vermont-born portrait painter who occasionally tried his hand at historical subjects, such as vignettes from the life of George Washington, and rural scenes. Unfortunately, his ambition too often exceeded his talent. Watering the Horses is one of Stearns’s more successful paintings and probably his oddest. And what makes it so successful is precisely its oddity. I am fascinated by the surprising and almost perverse way the artist stages the scene. There are any number of ways he might have depicted a man watering horses. But who in his right mind would pose them with their backs turned to us?  I ask myself: are we being ignored? Shunned? No, the artist would not be so rude to his public. And call it picayune, but I am perplexed why a portrait painter would not show the man’s face. So, is this painting some joke—perhaps a visual pun—that I am just not getting? The setup seems deliberately comical, but is it truly funny?  Should I be smirking? Until I figure it out, I am resigned to being the butt of the artist’s elusive wit.

Image: Junius Brutus Stearns (American, 1810-1885), Watering Horses, 1852, Oil on canvas, 29 x 36 ½ in. (73.7 x 91.4 cm), Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina, 52.9.27

Time for a Walk

It’s an exciting season in the Museum Park. While the beautiful spring weather is a sufficient reason for a walk on the trails, we’ve also got other reasons to celebrate: the grand opening of our new Blue Loop trail and new art as part of our exhibition 0 to 60: The Experience of Time through Contemporary Art.

Two new installations may be spotted by sharp-eyed trekkers. First are three images by Maryland-based artist Dan Bailey for our popular Park Pictures series. As you may remember, our Pictures are three “billboards” installed along the paved walking trails, commissioned by the Museum and changing regularly, to encourage visitors to explore the art in the Park. For his images, as well as for his indoor mural in 0 to 60, Bailey chronicled the human activity on the NCMA campus over several months. He rigged a low-altitude weather balloon with a camera set to take a photograph of the grounds below every few seconds. The artist visited multiple times in the past year, capturing shadows, seasonal differences, and other time shifts. The final product is a digital collage combined with satellite photographs of the Museum grounds. It is a fascinating compression of a particular place at various points in time, joined into one single image.

A second installation is Tom Shields’s Forest for the Chairs, in which the artist literally brings his materials—found and discarded furniture, particularly wooden chairs—back to their source. By attaching the chairs to trees in the Park, he accepts that time and weather will affect their appearance and eventual stability. The bio-degradation of the chairs, part of Shields’s plan, is the final step in the lives of these chairs. Once functional and decorative, these seats are now simply memories, or imitations, of their former selves. Time rules here: its passage will determine the length of the art’s life.

0 to 60: The Experience of Time through Contemporary Art remains on view through August 11. Bailey’s billboards are on view through the fall, and Shields’s installation will be with us for the foreseeable future.

These works, made possible by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, are part of an ongoing series of outdoor art projects, Art Has No Boundaries, commissioned by the NCMA to encourage visitors to actively explore the Museum Park.

Image: Tom Shields, Forest for the Chairs, 2013, found chairs, dimensions variable

Hearst’s Other Castle

Sir William Pepperrell (1746-1816) and His Family

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.

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Harpo’s Benton

When Thomas Hart Benton’s Spring on the Missouri was first shown in a Chicago art gallery in 1946, it caught the eye of a visiting Hollywood celebrity. As Art Digest reported the next day (coincidentally April Fool’s Day): “The first purchase from the Benton show … was made by Harpo Marx, who stopped off at Associated American Artists to do a little gallery gazing…”

I came across the Art Digest article in our file on the painting, and was surprised that little had been written on Harpo as an art collector. I had always loved the Marx Brothers (and highly recommend “Duck Soup” (1933) to the readers of this blog), but had never thought of any of them as the “gallery gazing” type. My curiosity was sparked, and I set out to find out more about Harpo’s collection. Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking to Harpo’s son, Bill Marx, about his father’s interest in art.

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My Time in 0 to 60

When I first visited 0 to 60: The Experience of Time through Contemporary Art as it was being installed, it was a spare group of seemingly incongruent works. It was impossible yet to understand their conversation. I was struck by Lisa Hoke’s organic wall covering, emerging from itself in radiating curls and waves. Kyoung Ae Cho‘s woven pieces, made from silk from corn stalks, were lovely and meditative and focused.

Walking into the installation the following week was a surprise and a joy. Most of the pieces had arrived, and the works were beginning to speak to one another and to me. On my third visit, the exhibition was open to the public, and the show’s message was fully realized.

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0 to 60: Art and Timelapse

Artist Lisa Hoke installed a site-specific work of art over the course of ten days for the exhibition 0 to 60: The Experience of Time through Contemporary Art.

Saint-Gaudens Bronze Reinstalled

Home is the sailor, home from the sea … and the poet returned to the gallery.

In the summer of 1997, I was invited by Norman and Judith Topper to visit their home at Fearrington Village. Originally from New York, the Toppers had embraced the Triangle and especially the Museum. Both were dedicated, enthusiastic docents at the NCMA. They invited me over that August morning to talk about their art collection and specifically if there was anything of interest to the Museum.

Their collection was modest, mostly European and Japanese prints and Chinese export porcelain. While not for us, they would be welcome in the collections of several local museums, and I gave the Toppers names and phone numbers of the curators. However, there was one item that I very much coveted. Leaning on a shelf was a bronze portrait medallion of the Scottish poet Robert Louis Stevenson by the American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. That was a keeper! The Toppers happily offered to leave the portrait to the Museum in their wills. The next day Norman called to say that he and Judith had changed their minds: they wanted to donate the portrait right away. In such moments curators are allowed to be giddy. Read More »