Blog 5: Voices from the archive / 7 September 2012
In the wildly ornate Magistrates Chambers of the County Sessions Hall at Liverpool is a room lined with filing cabinets containing the records relating to each and every painting in the Walker Art Gallery Collection. This is then, a vast archive since the works in storage greatly outnumber those on display and I’d been somewhat daunted about diving into it. But after my discovery last week of an unattributed painting of James Williamson, the ‘Mole of Edge Hill’, I read through the files of records relating to this work and hit pay dirt.
Inside the buff folder containing documents from the painting’s original bequest along with minutiae such as the history of it’s framing, was a plastic wallet bearing a sticker labelled ‘Enquiries’. This, it turned out, was the archive of all correspondence between the public and the Gallery about this one painting over the last 150 years.
Amongst the various disputes about authorship can be found an exchange between the Gallery’s then-curator (in the 1980s) and a member of the public who had taken a photograph of the left hand corner of the painting and was convinced that it depicted the signature of his Great Great Uncle. I stared closely at the photo, but all I could see was an accidental record of the camera’s own flashlight reflected off the canvas. I couldn’t make out anything that remotely looked like a signature unless the Milky Way had somehow rendered the painting. The Curator, a patient if somewhat pithy type took the same view: "I find it difficult to read the marks as a signature or inscription", before firmly stating that the correspondence was closed.
I was really taken with the tenor and absurdity of this exchange and immediately started fishing out archive folders at random and filleting the ‘Enquiries’ wallets from them. Amazing stuff. Since the Walker has its roots in populist art then over the decades, it transpired, the poor Curators, Keepers and Directors had been at the eye of a storm whipped up by that starved, feral beast of wide renown: ‘the General Public’.
Many of the ‘Enquiries’ for example, relate to the appearance, or otherwise, of long-lost ancestors in the paintings. I can’t make free with names here, but amongst the hopeful was the man who sent in a snapshot of his mother, in her eighties and happily reclined in a deckchair on what appears to be the set for ‘Carry On Camping’, claiming that she was the model for the beautiful peasant girl in one of the more famous Victorian works in the collection. Amazingly, the WAG’s Assistant Curator agreed, ("incidentally, there is no difficulty in recognising the likeness!"), but I got a strong sense that the chap was well into a white-hankie retreat from the daily round of barbs and salvos from the public by the time of this correspondence in the mid-1960s when his retirement, which he mentions in passing, was near.
Then there are the ongoing claims for ownership. In 1966 someone sent in a copy of a receipt for the loan to the WAG of one of the nation’s most inestimable treasures, (a clue: it features our greatest naval hero). This receipt, the correspondent fervently maintained, was scrawled in 1866 (by the look of it at the back of some rat-infested highway tavern), and retained by a distant forebear on his mother’s side, and in his opinion a period of 120 years was sufficiently generous a loan of the painting. He wanted it back. The letter concludes with an intricate list of instructions for its delivery to his flat in London. The Curator was not so amenable this time: ‘we would certainly not seek to return it to you’, he states with that quintessentially English note of polite brutality, ‘since the provenance of your receipt remains utterly unproven.’
(To be Continued…)