When Matthew William Peters’ painting was found in a deserted castle in Ireland more than 40 years ago, it had been slashed by vandals, damaged by the sun, worn and was covered with grime. Restored, it will soon hang in the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. Salon tells the tale of how this massive miracle of a painting survived the past 231 years and ended up in Fredericton to once again be viewed in public.
Published Saturday June 25th, 2011 / Telegraph Journal / By Marty Klinkenberg
With the countryside of Ireland as his playground, Graham Gordon spent countless hours exploring abandoned castles in his youth – climbing through jagged panes and strolling past spiralling staircases into the pages of history.
“I was in places where it looked like somebody had gone out for a Sunday evening walk and never came back,” Gordon says. “A number of them were fully furnished to the bed clothes and the dining-room table was still set.
“It was a different kind of world. I didn’t realize how extraordinary it was until much later.”
The son of a collector of paintings, books and other antiquities, Gordon grew up collecting marbles and toy soldiers. He would scour the Smithfield Market in his native Belfast for bits of 35mm film for a hand-crank projector.
A venturer, he sailed across the Atlantic in 1953 to settle in North America, and became a broadcast journalist – but never let his unbridled spirit wane. Years later, in Canada, he published a successful art and antique travellers’ magazine.
“I am just a bloody Irish maverick,” Gordon says, now 77 and about to complete his biggest adventure.
In 1970, fate and opportunity brought Gordon back to Ireland, to a towering Gothic fortress in Tullamore, a market town where troops of the King’s German Legion and a regiment of British light infantry soldiers skirmished during the Napoleonic Wars.
It was there, in Charleville Castle, a sprawling manor where Lord Byron once hosted lavish parties, Gordon discovered one of the most important paintings in British art history: a 1789 masterpiece by Matthew William Peters portraying the christening of Princess Elizabeth as described in the last scene of the last act of William Shakespeare’s last play, Henry VIII. It is a towering moment when the future Queen of England is recognized and baptized, leading to the beginning of the Elizabethan Era and the decline of papal power in Great Britain.
Slashed by vandals, covered in dirt and damaged by the pale sunlight of 160 years, Gordon rescued the canvas on an October day more than 40 years ago, rolling it up and hauling it away from the castle on the back of a farmer’s tractor.
“It was quite simple, really,” Gordon says. “The painting was very amenable to getting the hell out of there. It couldn’t have been easier.”
A priceless relic and touchstone to history, Gordon acquired the painting by handing over about 225 British pounds in traveller’s cheques to the castle’s owner, Maj. Hutton Bury, a descendant of the Earl of Charleville who was mostly worried about his ailing cows.
Next week, at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the painting, formally known as Henry VIII, Act V, Scene 4, will be exhibited for the first time in more than 200 years.
The last time it was on public display was May 18, 1805, when the picture was sold by James Christie, the founder of Christie’s famous auction house.
“This is one of those chance stories that, when you hear it, makes you say, ‘I don’t believe it,'” Gordon, who is travelling to Fredericton from his home in Hamilton, Ont., for the unveiling Thursday, says. “God bless it, it needs to be seen.
“It is an extremely rare and unique painting. It goes far beyond art. When you look around for something comparable, it is damned hard to find anything.”
“I would not be a queen for all the world.” – Henry VIII
One of England’s most successful publishers and greatest entrepreneurs, John Boydell amassed a fortune by selling prints of the death of Maj. Gen. James Wolfe, who was killed on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 while leading the British Army in the Seven Years’ War.
So it was at a dinner party in London in November of 1786 that Boydell proposed to engage the greatest artists of the day to produce paintings of Shakespeare’s works, to be exhibited in a gallery he would build, published in what many historians consider the first coffee-table book and sold in great numbers across Europe.
One of the most remarkable undertakings in the history of British art, Boydell commissioned two series of Shakespeare oil paintings from a group of 34 artists, including Sir Joshua Reynolds, George Romney, Matthew William Peters and Benjamin West, whose 1770 canvas of Wolfe’s death is in the collection at the National Gallery of Canada.
Surrounded by expensive residences, bookshops, a gambling club and a high-class brothel, Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery opened in Pall Mall in London with great fanfare on May 14, 1789.
Upon opening, there were 34 paintings in the collection. Peters’ rendering of the christening of Princess Elizabeth was added the following year. At more than three by four metres when framed, the canvas was the largest Boydell solicited, and the most historically significant.
Accepted among most scholars as Shakespeare’s last major play, Henry VIII was written in 1612 and was being performed a year later at the Bard’s own Globe Theatre when a theatrical cannon misfired and the building burned down.
According to one of the few written accounts, no one was hurt except for a fellow who was burned, his britches put out with a pint of ale.
A friend of John Boydell, Peters was a student of portrait artist Thomas Hudson – also the teacher of Sir Joshua Reynolds – and became an ordained clergyman in 1781, at which point he greatly regretted some early paintings of muses with noticeably ample bosoms.
Later appointed chaplain to the Prince of Wales, Peters produced five paintings in all for Boydell, depicting scenes not only from Henry VIII, but The Merry Wives of Windsor and Much Ado About Nothing.
Like one of Shakespeare’s tragic characters, Boydell’s gallery died an anguished death. Its sales floundered when European trade routes were disrupted by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Financed entirely by Boydell, the gallery and its contents were disposed of in 1805, his heirs recovering a fraction of the 100,000 British pounds he poured into the project.
In its final days, the gallery contained nearly 170 paintings. Henry VIII, Act V, Scene 4 is one of only 45 of the gallery’s works that have been found. The rest have been victims of war, fire, flood, abandonment and abuse. Some art dealers even cut up the biggest murals, finding it more profitable to sell portraits of characters within them than the entire canvas itself.
Against all odds, however, Peters’ dramatic painting of the christening of Princess Elizabeth survived. Purchased by a London art dealer enlisted to help furnish the newly-built castle of Charles Bury, the first Viscount Charleville, Henry VIII, Act V, Scene 4, was shipped to Tullamore, and there it hung in the great dining room in Charleville Castle until Gordon stumbled upon it 165 years later.
Abandoned in 1911 after the death of the fifth Earl of Charleville, the castle sat furnished and uninhabited until 1948, when a local auctioneer was hired to sell its contents. Too big to hang anywhere but in a similarly noble estate, nobody was interested in the dark, old picture. So, in Tullamore it remained to be preyed upon by vandals and time.
“An old man, broken with the storms of state, is come to lay his weary bones among ye. Give him a little earth for charity.” – Henry VIII
Only the third custodian of Peters’ painting in 206 years, Graham Gordon recalls the autumn day in 1970 when he saw it for the first time. Gordon went searching for it after hearing a legend about a huge, lost painting from his younger brother. He travelled to Tullamore, 150 kilometres west of Dublin, to see if it was true.
Navigating up a long driveway covered by a canopy of trees, Gordon arrived at the entrance of an enormous Gothic palace he says looked “custom-designed for Dracula.”
Handed the keys by Maj. Hutton Bury, he entered Charleville Castle, dark and gloomy, walked to the end of a long corridor and opened a door leading to the great dining room.
There, on the far wall, with pale autumn sunlight cutting an angle across its left quadrant, hung the great lost painting, its massive, hand-carved gilded frame bearing the artist’s name and inscribed “King Henry 8 Act 5 Scene 4.”
Covered beneath a century and a half of grime, the canvas was as dark as mahogany, yet still magnificent. The frame was worn on the bottom, from having been dusted by servants’ hands.
“My immediate reaction was, ‘I have no idea what it is, but it’s at great risk here and I think it should be rescued,'” Gordon says. “I had to go along with the voice in my head that was telling me I had to do something about it, even though I didn’t know quite what to do.”
Gathering all of the travellers cheques he had, Gordon offered them to Bury, and the farmer gladly accepted. Farmhands helped lift the painting off the wall and onto the flatbed of a tractor so it could be carted away.
“It was absolutely amazing the painting was still there, and it only happened because it went right from the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery to Charleville Castle and was then forgotten,” Gordon says. “The painting stayed because it was too damn big, so it just hung there and hung there, just as it had left the hand of Matthew William Peters.”
Gordon shipped the painting to Canada, researched its history, and hired Laszlo Cser, one of the country’s most skilled conservators, to restore it.
Over a period of two years in the late 1980s, Cser repaired the slash marks, cleaned and relined the canvas, put on a new stretcher and painted in one side of Henry VIII’s head where pigment had been lost.
“It was a significant restoration,” Cser, who has restored paintings on Parliament Hill and for the Art Gallery of Ontario, says. “There were small areas of loss, but everything from start to finish about that painting is remarkable. You don’t see much of my hand in there if you can detect it at all.”
A conservator for 36 years, Cser says it ranks among his most memorable assignments.
“The thing of interest is the narrative,” he says. “It is absolutely one of my favourite stories.”
For the last two decades, Gordon stored the painting and retraced its roots.
“The art world is rife with fakes,” he says. “I had to make sure it was real.”
In 1997, while reviewing files at the Art Gallery of Ontario, he found a Boydell Shakespeare Gallery catalogue from 1790 which identified the picture as being No. 52 in the series.
On the bottom of its frame, his painting carries the same number. Gordon’s discovery astounded historians.
When he heard about it, Frederick Burwick, an art history professor at University of California, Los Angeles, was stunned.
“It is an astonishing find,” Burwick, who published a paper on the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery in 1996, says. “Within all of the Boydell paintings there was not a match for it.
“It’s a hugely important piece for a number of reasons. One way to look at it is that it is a remnant of the first real instance of the commercialization of art. Boydell was making great art available to the hoi polloi.
“We are very fortunate to have it. It had been completely written off.”
“If I chance to talk a little wild, forgive me; I had it from my father.” – Henry VIII
As a collector and curator, Terry Graff has travelled the world in pursuit of fine art.
Some trips have been rewarding, like the time he recovered one of the last portraits painted of Sir John A. Macdonald at an auction in New York for the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown.
Other journeys have been unfulfilling trips to hell.
“I have been on wild goose chases where I travelled far and it wasn’t worth it,” Graff, the curator of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, says. “I have travelled great distances to see pieces that turned out to not even be original works.
“There are wins and losses.”
In 2009, Graff was invited to Toronto by Graham Gordon to see Peters’ painting of Henry VIII. After shipping it to Canada, Gordon had the canvas restored, and then placed in storage at Pacart, a company that specializes in the care of treasured works.
On the day he arrived at the firm’s warehouse in Toronto, Graff was excited but wary.
“I really didn’t know what I was going to see, or what shape it was in,” he says.
But when Peters’ formidable canvas was shown to him, the first curator to view it in more than 200 years, Graff was thrilled.
“I was stunned,” Graff says as he stands in a salon at the gallery in New Brunswick where in 1959 Lord Beaverbrook established one of the world’s foremost collections of British art. “It is a really striking image, and the fact it survived while lost for 200 years is quite something.
“We live in a fast-food culture, but this is a historic work and a link to the past. It tells us who we are and where we came from, and gives us a chance to reassess and look back.
“It is wonderful to see something this grand. It is a monumental painting, and an epic story.”
The centrepiece of the exhibit Royal Portraits, the painting will be displayed at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery from Thursday to Jan. 8, 2012. Staged to help celebrate the visit of Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, to Canada, the show includes a 1962 coronation painting by Edward Halliday, a 1936 portrait of King Edward VIII by Walter Richard Sickert, a portrait of Lieutenant Colonel Edmund Nugent by Sir Thomas Gainsborough, and canvases by Reynolds, George Romney and Thomas Hudson.
On the more unusual side, there is also a ceramic wall piece of Prince Charles and Lady Diana where the newlyweds looked pained, a painting by Acadian artist Yvon Gallant in which Charles is recognizable only by his oversized ears, and mixed-media pieces by Charles Pachter.
A member of the Order of Canada most famous for cheeky renderings of royals, Pachter has several works in the exhibit, including one where William and Kate are being greeted by a moose, and another that pokes fun of the infamous hat Princess Beatrice wore on the lovebirds’ wedding day.
“I adore my country, but I am also critical of it,” Pachter, who studied at the Sorbonne and has a studio in Toronto and paints in summer out of a former ice house on Lake Simcoe, says. “The whole point of my work is about us needing the fairy-tale image to have something to relate to.
“We live in this fabulous huge land mass, but the only connection we can make to fame is to somewhere else, and I think that’s rather sad.
“America was born on individualism. America got Elizabeth Taylor, we got Elizabeth Windsor.”
Peters’ long-lost canvas of the christening of Princess Elizabeth is the highlight of the eclectic display. From top to bottom it covers nearly one wall of the Beaverbrook’s British Gallery; it is so large that it had to be installed first and then had its still-original frame, nearly as big as a prize-fighting ring, rebuilt around it.
“It is very dramatic,” Graff says. “Whenever you see a painting this large, you become immersed and interact with it. When you stand up against it, it’s almost like you are in the painting.
“It is larger than life.”
Displayed beside a miniature portrait of Queen Elizabeth done by Nicholas Hilliard in 1595, Henry VIII, Act. V, Scene 4 is presently on loan to the gallery, which is considering adding it to its permanent collection.
Commissioned in 1788 for 420 British pounds and bought for the Earl of Charleville at the gallery auction in 1805 for 23 pounds two shillings, it is worth substantially more now.
How much, however, is open to debate.
Gordon had the painting appraised in 1990 by one of Canada’s longest enduring auction houses, Phillips-Ward Price, and the estimate came in at more than $2.4 million.
As recently as May of 2006, Sotheby’s auctioned off a fragment of a painting from the Boydell Shakespeare collection, and it brought 982,000 pounds – more than $2.2 million. That picture by James Barry, King Lear Weeping Over the Dead Body of Cordelia, hangs in the Tate in London.
Yet other paintings from the Boydell collection have not met with great success on the auction block, despite being culturally rich and unique in the history of British art.
An appraiser at Art Experts, an authentication firm with offices in Canada and the United States, said this week that few paintings by Peters have come on the market in recent years. Those that have frequently have not found buyers. But provenance and historic importance elevate the value of a painting, the appraiser said, and those would certainly be factors in favour of Henry VIII.
In 1979, $480,000 was paid for a large canvas produced for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery now in the collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Burwick, the UCLA professor, believes that painting by Benjamin West, called King Lear in the Storm, is worth four times as much now.
He isn’t certain Peters’ painting would raise as much, but suggests the story behind the discovery of the painting – as well as the story of the painting itself – increases its value.
None of which is lost on Graff.
“If Graham hadn’t rescued the painting, it might have just disintegrated,” the curator says. “If art dealers had been able to get their hands on it, they probably would have cut it up into pieces. They would have cut off Henry’s head.
“It is a big deal to see this in the public realm after 200 years.”
On Thursday, Gordon will travel from the Greater Toronto Area, where he has lived most of the last 50 years, to introduce the painting. At noon before a spellbound audience, he will talk about his unusual discovery, an icon from a remarkable chapter of British art.
“The Boydell era covers an extremely important time, a turning point in history, and this painting is the most historically important of all the Boydell Shakespeare pieces,” Gordon says. “It really needs to be properly honoured and in the right type of institution.”
The New Brunswick gallery is waiting for appraisals to come in and, if they are favourable, will try to find a benefactor willing to help make the acquisition. Gordon, however, has already made up his mind.
“I want it tucked away comfortably as part of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery’s collection,” he says. “The Beaverbrook has the greatest collection of British art anywhere.
“I know Henry and his entourage would be well treated there.”
Marty Klinkenberg is the senior writer at the Telegraph-Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.