Saving a portrait of U.S. history

Painting: Benefactor wanted after British lord puts price tag on work lent to U.S. since 1968.

March 02, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Lord Dalmeny is frightfully sorry. Nothing personal. It's just that he needs the money.

The problem is that what's at stake here is one of the most famous portraits of American history, Gilbert Stuart's full-length painting of George Washington, which has been on loan from his family's collection to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington since 1968.

If his lordship doesn't get the asking price of $20 million from the gallery by April 1, he's set to sell the oil painting on the open market.

"I'd love to be in a position where I could hand away pictures worth $20 million to America or any other country," he says. "I'm afraid I can't. If the picture were to leave my possession, it would have to be bought."

The tale of the 33-year-old lord and his painting is getting a good airing now that the clock is running on a piece of American history.

Marc Pachter, director of the National Portrait Gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, is confident that a benefactor will be found to "save" the work for the United States.

"We have been getting some very interesting inquiries," Pachter says. "I can't divulge them. At this moment I am convinced we will get the money in time."

"For an individual, this is as close to a chance of an immortal linkage to a fundamental document of our republic," he says. "No individual can be given credit for saving the Constitution, the Bill of Rights or the Declaration of Independence. But the original statement of George Washington done from life is a vital document. One individual or perhaps a group can come together and have their name attached to it for all time."

And everyone will be relieved, including Lord Dalmeny, who says he has received inquiries about the painting from two Americans, but who is sticking with his deal to give the National Portrait Gallery the first chance to purchase the work.

Besides, Lord Dalmeny says he wants the painting to remain at the museum. "He belongs in Washington. They named it after him," he says.

At the moment, the National Portrait Gallery is closed for restoration until 2004, but the work can currently be seen in the American Presidency exhibition at the Museum of American History in Washington.

"To be perfectly honest with you, I've never thought of having it back in my possession," Lord Dalmeny says of the painting. "It wouldn't make sense to bring it back to Britain. It's very difficult to live with. It's very, very large. He would not fit in our house in Scotland. I don't think it would be right. He ought to be in America."

Lord Dalmeny, Harry to his friends, works at Sotheby's so he knows a thing or two about what paintings fetch. He says the National Portrait Gallery's ambitious restoration program made it "sensible" to raise the issue of what to do with the portrait.

Lord Dalmeny is also an aristocrat with expensive tastes. He was recently described by the Sunday Times of London as "an enthusiastic countryman who was once knocked out when a pheasant he shot fell on his head."

The newspaper noted his love of sledding down the icy Cresta run in Switzerland and commented "his loud snowsuits in the family's primrose yellow colors earn him regular appearances in society gossip columns."

Selling the painting will ensure Lord Dalmeny has a strong asset base to deal with such future tasks as supporting his family's 19th-century ancestral home in Scotland and broadening the family's asset base.

"It's a large house with a wonderful art collection," he says. "It is built on sand, sliding into the sea."

"I don't anticipate giving up my day job," he adds.

Stuart's famed work has been in his family since the 19th century, and his father, the present Earl of Rosebery, gave him the painting in the 1990s.

The family's possession is the stuff of American and British history.

According to Pachter, the work was commissioned in 1796 by Pennsylvania Sen. William Bingham, who gave it as a gift to William Petty, second Earl of Shelburne and first Marquis of Lansdowne. Petty supported American independence.

"He received the portrait in 1797, and it was reported in the London papers when it came," Pachter says.

To Pachter, the image of Washington, standing with his right arm thrust out, is the image of a confident leader of a new nation.

"This puts him fully in command of the presidency," he says. "It is a full narrative. That's why textbooks, embassies and state houses want the full one. He commands the authority that gave this new nation stability. We were untried. We needed to believe in this George Washington."

Pachter says the work was bought by an American banker based in London and later passed through several other London families during the 19th century before being purchased by Lord Dalmeny's great-grandfather, Lord Rosebery, who became prime minister in 1894.

Lord Dalmeny says his great-grandfather often honed his speeches at a London home in Berkley Square, where the imposing portrait of Washington and a Napoleon painting by Jacques-Louis David were kept.

"He would use them as the chorus," he says. "They would stand behind him."

If not for the family's foresight, the Washington painting might have been lost to the ages.

"Rather fortunately, just before the Second World War, they emptied the [London] house and moved everything out," Lord Dalmeny says. "Then, it got bombed in 1940. Had they not moved it out, the painting would have been gone."

A British family saved it once.

Now it's up to somebody else to save the painting for America.

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