The Return of the Prodigal Painting(s)

I’d guess that few people look at Appendix III in the back of William L. Pressly, Catalogue of Paintings in the Folger Shakespeare Library (Yale University Press, 1993). Appendix III is unillustrated, not very detailed, and rather depressing: it’s the list of paintings that are no longer part of the Folger collection. In all, sixty-three paintings were de-accessioned between 1961 and 1964. Most had been purchased for the library by Mr. and Mrs. Folger themselves.

De-accessioning is an ethical minefield. For some institutions, it could be a necessary sacrifice whereby selling one extraordinarily valuable item can fund an endowment to pay the rent and keep the lights on, thus preserving the rest of the collection. Less controversially, de-accessioning can place out-of-scope material in a suitable home. The paintings de-accessioned by the Folger in the early 1960s fell into a different category, one that might be called intellectual short-sightedness today: despite being Shakespearean, the paintings seemed irrelevant. They fell victim to an intellectual milieu that valued printed and written words, not visual evidence, as primary sources. As the Folger’s current Collection Development Policy makes clear, this is no longer the case. 

The American Shakespeare Festival Theatre and Academy (ASFTA) in Stratford, Connecticut, purchased well over half of the de-accessioned paintings by reimbursing the library for the original purchase price.1 Although ASTFA had no permanent display space at the time, one was planned, and it was assumed the paintings would always stay together where they could be seen by visitors. Unfortunately, the optimism was short-lived. ASTFA fell on hard times, and its collection went to auction in 1976.2

As a result of the auction, some of the paintings are now preserved in other institutional collections. The Yale Center for British Art acquired Jacques and the Wounded Stag, painted for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery in 1790 and purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Folger in 1926, one of six Folger paintings that Yale purchased at the ASTFA sale.  Shakespeare Reading by American artist William Page (1811–1885) returned to Washington, and can now be found at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Most of the paintings, however, disappeared into private collections and can no longer be traced.

As you might have guessed from the title of this blog post, the story doesn’t end there. In August, a painting of Act 1, Scene III from Othello, attributed to British artist William Hamilton (1751–1801), appeared on the website of Skinner Auctioneers & Appraisers in Boston. The auction catalog entry made no mention of its provenance, but a close-up of the neatly-typed sticker on the back of the painting removed any doubt:

Sticker reading "Case 1838. Hamilton, Wm. Scene from Othello. Purchased from E. Parsons, Sept. 1928"

Folger Shakespeare Library label on the back of Skinner Auction sale 2609B, lot 316.

Similar stickers can be found on almost all paintings purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Folger. The “case number” identifies which of the hundreds of packing crates stored in warehouses around New York city held the painting between its purchase and the opening of the library.

Painting of Othello, act 1, scene 3

William Hamilton. Brabantio’s Accusation against Othello, Othello, act 1, scene 3. Late 18th century. Oil on panel, 48.3 x 61.9 cm (19 x 24 3/8 in.)

The painting is number D29 in Appendix III of the Catalogue of Paintings in the Folger Shakespeare Library, where it is identified as “‘Brabantio’s Accusation against Othello,’ Othello, act 1, scene 3, sold to ASTFA Feb. 1962.”  I’m happy to report that the Folger was the high bidder at the auction, which took place on September 7. It’s a bit galling to have to re-purchase something that had previously spent thirty-eight years in the collection, but it would have been worse to have lost it again. And to save you the trouble of having to look up auction results, it was purchased for $200 in 1928, and re-purchased in 2012 for $4,500.3

Something extraordinary happened between when I decided to blog about the re-acquired painting and today. On October 6, a second Folger painting from the 1976 ASTFA sale turned up at auction. This one had been owned since then by American actor, director, and educator Michael Howard. Dated 1810, it is a startling example of American folk art:

American folk-art style painting of Garrick as King Lear

George Francis. Mr. Garrick in the Character of King Lear,1810. Oil on canvas, 45.7 x 58.4 cm (18 x 23 in.)

The artist, George Francis (1790–1893), clearly used James McArdell’s engraving of Benjamin Wilson’s Mr. Garrick in the Character of King Lear as his model:

Engraving of

James McArdell after Benjamin Wilson. Mr. Garrick in the Character of King Lear. 1761. Mezzotint engraving.

The Folger was the high bidder, so the painting is coming back home. It will once again be the only example of an “American primitive” in the library’s collection. But for how long? It would never be de-accessioned again, but in time, I expect that “only example” will be replaced by “first example” as the art collection continues to grow.

 

  1. Almost all had been purchased between 1905 and 1929, but the inflation rate of approximately 70% was not taken into account. []
  2. Shakespeareana: paintings, watercolors, drawings, ceramics and tapestries; the property of the American Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford, Connecticut; exhibition from Friday, January 9, 1976 to 3 p.m. Wednesday, January 14, 1976 … public auction Thursday, January 15, 1976 at 2:00 p.m. New York: Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1976. []
  3. According to the US Consumer Price Index, something purchased for $200 in 1928 would cost $2,694.49 in 2012. In other words, the painting beat inflation. []

Author: Erin Blake

ERIN BLAKE is Interim Head of Collection Information Services and Cataloging at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and also the Folger's Curator of Art & Special Collections, a remit that covers prints, drawings, photographs, paintings, porcelain figurines, playbills, Shakespeare souvenirs, and anything else that isn't a printed book or manuscript. She teaches History of Printed Book Illustration in the West at Rare Book School, and is chief editor of Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (Graphics).

3 Comments

  1. This is a wonderful post about wonderful news–thanks, Erin!

  2. Wow, I love that George Francis painting! I’ll look forward to seeing it and to having it be joined by more of its kind.

  3. Interesting that both works were sold by Skinner. The folk art piece is gorgeous, makes one wonder how it could have been let go in the first place!

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