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 raisonée 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!