Thursday, November 17, 2016

AN ART HISTORIAN'S LONG RELATIONSHIP WITH THE LONG FORGOTTEN GEORGIAN PERIOD ENGLISH PORTRAITIST RICHARD LIVESAY AND THE MYSTERY OF "THE PELHAM CHILDREN"

During my undergraduate years at University of Miami I became quite taken by an enigmatic portrait that was clearly from the English School and dated from the late 18th Century. It depicted 3 youngsters picking and gathering apples off a tree in the sort of  landscape one often espies in the background of similar outdoor portraits by the likes of artists like Thomas Gainsborough. The portrait has been displayed prominently since the early 20th Century in the former house of the American industrialist James Deering. This magical and ravishing house was named Vizcaya. It is located on the water facing Biscayne Bay in Miami, Florida. And some years after James Deering's death in 1925, his family sold it to Miami Dade County which has operated it as a historic house museum since the mid 1950's. Whoever enjoys historic houses, grand interiors, good taste, fine living, historic period furniture and decorative arts, is missing an exhilarating experience if they are in Miami and don't make it a point to visit this house that has charmed and won over the most discerning of European curators and experts in the decorative arts.  Appropriately, this portrait from the age of George III, Jane Austen, and Sarah Siddons, is displayed to good effect and plays a significant role in setting the tone for Vizcaya's Adam Library, a room that pays tribute to the style of the legendary late 18th Century brother architects from Scotland who defined British Neoclassicism, Robert and James Adam. The library is seen below. In the first view of the room the painting under discussion here is in evidence. The next image is a view of the opposite wall to give you a feeling for the room in which it is displayed.  Both are images scanned from Vizcaya postcards sold in the gift shop in the 1980's.





My relationship with the painting and the months of investigation about the artist who executed it was an early research project that I admit was very exciting at the time when I was an enthusiastic undergraduate student of art history and thrilled with a chance to crack such a mystery and possibly solve it.  To any younger readers, I hasten to remind you all this research was conducted without the advantages of the internet. I really had to hit the books and correspond by letter with English and American scholars and curators - some of whom are legends in the world of art history and now dead such as the late Sir Ellis Waterhouse.  The painting depicting the children under the apple tree is seen below in this recent photo I took in 2014 during a visit to the museum.




Details and additional view are also seen below that I took myself during one of my numerous visits.










Today, the identity of both the artist and the young boys with their sister is well known. When I first undertook to establish the identity of the artist in 1980, the museum curatorial staff had continued to officially attribute the painting to the American master John Singleton Copley, though by that time also unofficially admitting this attribution was questionable. John Singleton Copley emigrated from his native Boston on the eve of the American War of Independence to study the masters of the past, learn their techniques and improve his artistic work. As everyone knows, he settled with his family in London where he spent the rest of his life and career and became an painter of some prominence. He was even awarded 2 royal commissions.  However by 1980, this attribution was seriously in doubt. Professor Jules David Prown of Yale University had published his great definitive 2 volume book with catalog raisonĂ©e about Copley in the late 1960's he had dismissed this portrait, misleadingly entitled "The Pelham Children" as a painting by a Copley contemporary active in England in the 1780's. Professor Prown had no doubt this attribution to Copley was simply not sustainable.  When James Deering acquired the painting via his artistic adviser, the mercurial and brilliant Paul Chalfin, the gallery from which it was acquired sold it to him as "The Pelham Children" by John Singleton Copley in 1916. By the way, this New York based gallery had the rather evocative name of The Louis XIV Shop. It has clearly long ceased to operate. At the time of acquisition, to settle Mr. Deering's possible questions as to whether this had been a sound purchase of an authentic Copley, Mr. Chalfin assured his patron that the papers of authenticity furnished by The Louis XIV Shop were quite satisfactory, according to letters in the museum's archives. The papers of authenticity have never been found at Vizcaya to date however.

The composition of the Vizcaya portrait is very possibly inspired by an entry that Thomas Gainsborough, among the major portrait painter of the 1780's, submitted to the Royal Academy's Exhibition of 1787. This is entitled. The Marsham Children and seen below. My thanks to former Vizcaya Curator of Collections, Ms. Laurie Ossman, for bringing this possible compositional source to my attention.




The painter of Vizcaya's portrait was clearly a competent artist. Though admittedly he was not an inspired master of the level of a Gainsborough, a Copley, a Sir Joshua Reynolds or even a Benjamin West, that other admirable American painter who also relocated - even before Copley - to London where he was a resounding success as both a portraitist and (more importantly at the time) a history painter who reached the apex of his career by succeeding Sir Joshua Reynolds as president of the Royal Academy. Not bad for a Quaker youth with no formal training from Philadelphia!  In short, this painting on view in Vizcaya was unquestionably a good representative work of art of the time. However it was obvious it was by the hand of a good artist of the second rank. But what artist? There was no apparent signature. In 1980, at age 20, and full of boundless enthusiasm to decipher this mystery, my objective was to apply art historical research and use my comparative observation of the work of other portrait painters of Georgian Britain to try and reach a conclusion that might establish a plausible attribution...

Then suddenly in 1981, there was an administrative decision to undertake a serious and extensive restoration of the Adam Library on many levels. The portrait was removed from the wall for the first time after having been placed there in the 1910's.  A cleaning and restoration of the canvas was entrusted to Vizcaya's conservator of the time, a swarthy and talented Roman named Emilio Cianfoni. Mr. Cianfoni began his restoration and within weeks something very exciting revealed itself as he began to remove darkened varnish in the lower are of the painting depicting the base of the tree with rocks and grass. He kindly rang me up immediately as he came to the realization that some later over painting he had just removed that was not original to the painting revealed a hidden original signature of the original artist whose name was Richard Livesay with the date of 1787!

It was obvious that the over painted area depicting grass, ground and rocks was a deliberate effort on behalf of an unscrupulous dealer to "upgrade" the painting - now unsigned due to an additional painting - by attributing it to Copley. Investigation put together a plausible sequence of events.  As it turns out, this painting sold as a signed work by Richard Livesay in London, in 1899. That year, at a sale at Christie's in London held on 13 May, this painting was sold as Lot # 99 and described as

"R, Livesay, 1787
Portraits of Anne, Edward and Charles, Children of the Right Hon. Edward Golding, in a landscape climbing a tree and gathering apples, 92 in by 57 in."

We also learn from Christie's archives that the portrait was sold to a buyer named Parsons in the amount of £ 183,15.0.  It would not be amiss to theorize that this portrait would command considerably less in the early 21st Century auction market! 

Also worth nothing was the fact that this sale was also accompanied by the sale of a pendant portrait of the children's mother, Anne who was the wife of Edward Golding. It was offered as Lot # 100 and it sold for £294,0.0 to a buyer named Fischoff. The present whereabouts of this painting is lamentably unknown! 

 Edward Golding was a commissioner of the Treasury and served from November 1803 to May of 1804. He also served as Commissioner of the Board of Control under Lord Lewisham from May of 1801 to July of 1802 and under Lord Castlereagh from July of 1802 until May of 1804. 

This discovery yielded in Christie's archives allows us to learn that after the painting was sold at auction correctly identified in 1899, there followed a nearly 16 year long window of time during which it was deliberately doctored, the signature covered, changed hands, and the painting was almost certainly "upgraded" by attribution to the more important artist John Singleton Copley, to whom The Louis XIV Shop had attributed it.  At the time Paul Chalfin arranged to acquire the painting on behalf of James Deering, the gallery could cite support for it in a scholarly publication published the year before in 1915 about the work of Copley by F. W. Bayley. The book cited the painting as being a portrait of the Pelham Children by the American master.  And an American Art Association auction catalog from 26 - 27 February 1903 could also be cited by the gallery selling this painting to Chalfin on Deering's behalf. In this auction catalog,  the same painting is illustrated and offered as "The Pelham Children" by John Singleton Copley! 

With the identity of the artist and the sitter established, thank to Mr. Cianfoni's superb restoration, I began to roll up my sleeves and research this. I was 21, still in undergraduate school, full of enthusiasm and, looking back on this experience today, am amazed I dug up what I did in a world that had yet to ever imagine the internet!  I lived in the University or Miami library and availed myself of interlibrary loan assistance.  I began a hectic correspondence with curators, scholars and even entered into correspondence with an owner or two of paintings by Richard Livesay. I even had occasion to communicate by letter with the Royal household which was most helpful and pleased to shed light on my inquiries. The most memorable of them was a very cordial ongoing correspondence  with the late Victor Montagu who was formerly the Earl of Sandwich and who had volunteered to renounce his earldom to pursue a career in the House of Commons. He was delightful and most helpful. 

The question: Who was Richard Livesay whose self portrait we see below? 



According to Bryan's Dictionary of Painters and Engravers, Livesay was born in the middle of the 18th Century. He is first cited as having been a lodger of William Hogarth's widow in Leicester Fields.  He later became a pupil of the legendary Benjamin West.  As West was on very good terms with King George III, it's possible (though not certain) that he may have had some influence in procuring for Livesay a position as drawing master to the King's children. George III also commissioned this work from him depicting the reception of his future daughter in law, Frederica, Princess Royal of Prussia, to his son the Duke of York seen below. It is in the Royal Collection.




While in Windsor, Livesay made quite a niche for himself as a painter of small - mostly bust length - portraits of students at Eton. One is seen below represents these intimate, evocative, but hardly consummate works of George III period portraiture. It depicts the young Francis Gervais. 




 Livesay was also engaged to paint portraits of Etonians dressed in a picturesque costume for a very colourful and archaic festival held at Eton until the middle of the reign of Queen Victoria known as Montem. Montem is believed to have been initially held in 1581. It was held annually. But by Livesay's time of residence in Eton, it had become the custom to hold it less often and it was held very 3 years. Part of this festival's features was a procession to Salt Hill along which route, young Etonians acted as "servitors" or "runners" and accompanied by "salt-bearers" in whimsical costumes. It was in the costume of a salt bearer that the young George Montagu, afterward 5th Earl of Sandwich, posed for Livesay in 1790.  We see him decked out in his salt-bearer's costume with a plumed hat, white coat and stockings and a pink kilt. In the background, is Eton College Chapel. It is signed and dated clearly "R. Livesay, 1790". We see it below. It is still in the possession of the current Earl of Sandwich.





The portrait of George Montagu is Livesay at his best. His style was clearly influenced by the painterly style of Gainsborough and sense of theatre  of Sir Joshua Reynolds on some occasions to an extent. It was very representative of the period, infused with some charm, but not greatness. 

Livesay painted some other notable subjects like this full length portrait of James Caulfield, the Earl of Charlement. It can be seen in the National Gallery, London. It is seen below. We see the influence of Reynolds with the column and fluttering red drapery to create what the time believed to be essential in the execution of a painting of a highly socially positioned patron. 




Livesay eventually relocated to Portsea where he took up another appointment as drawing master to the Royal Naval College.  It was while there he painted other portraits of naval officers such as this one seen below of George Murray. 




Another notable group portrait from these years is this one depicting Captain Richard Grindall (1750-1820) and his family. It is seen below and is in the collection of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, UK. I hasten to point out that in this well executed group family portrait, Livesay has demonstrated an admirable handling of painting the very busy and colourful pattern of the carpet.




However while there, Livesay seems to have had a hand in more ambitious panoramic scenes depicting naval reviews such as this one depicting one such event in which the Worcester Regiment was reviewed by Major-General Whitelocke. It is seen below. 



In 1800, he was commissioned by the Marquis of Salisbury to undertake the painting recording an occasion when George III came to visit Hatfield House, his country seat,  to take part in a military review of which Livesay has left posterity this delightful record. It is seen below and in still at Hatfield House in England.




One thing worth noting about the portrait of the Golding Children is that it is among the few portraits by Richard Livesay that seem to have been executed on the scale of life. Most of his portraits are small and quite intimate in scale. This one below is a more typical example. It is a portrait of the 21 year old Lord Morpeth. It is dated 1794 and it is currently being offered for sale in November of 2016 when this blog was published by an eBay seller with a provenance from Lady Reading, followed by the Miles Wynn Cato Gallery and measures only 9.50 x 8.25 inches. 






Richard Livesay was not a giant of his time. But he did move in very high artistic circles and enjoyed the patronage of the most influential and powerful men of his country and age. To be under the patronage of the King himself was certainly something of which this little known master of the second rank should have been justifiably proud.  Today, Livesay has been nearly forgotten. His portraits fetch modest sums at auction compared to works by Reynolds, Romney, Gainsborough and other portraitists of that circle in the Royal Academy of the day. However he does deserve his day and a hearing. I hope I've been able to accord him the recognition and respect he merits for having very charmingly recorded the gentlemen and ladies of the age of Jane Austen!