Here to Help: A Detective Story from our Enquiries Service
Posted on 25 July 2020
The RSA Collections Department receives a steady string of public enquiries. These can range from help authenticating an artwork to helping locate the present whereabouts of a portrait of an ancestor. Very often they relate to works which may have featured in previous RSA Annual Exhibitions.
The Academy is pleased to provide such information as part of its service as an Accredited Collection and a Recognised Collection of National Significance. We recognise the importance of sharing our knowledge, and in return in gaining new knowledge and information which helps correct data, or expand our own knowledge and understanding, particularly about Academicians and their work.
In this blog, Collections Team member Robin Rodger recounts a particularly satisfying enquiry received exactly one year before Lockdown commenced.
IS THIS THE BAPTISTRY IN FLORENCE?
The post of March 2019 brought with it a card from a lady who had spent some time in Edinburgh where she and her husband had married, but now resided in the South of England. She wrote of a picture which she and her husband had purchased to mark their residence in the Scottish capital. It was signed Elizabeth Blackadder and depicted the decorative face of a church building.
Having recently visited an exhibition featuring some early works painted in Florence by Dame Elizabeth Blackadder RSA (b.1931), one of the Academy’s most senior and longest-standing members, the enquirer was moved to note similarities with her own picture, and posed the question; “I wondered if it also was a picture of the Baptistry?”
In order to be able to assess the validity of the query, the Collections Team contacted the enquirer to request further information.
It transpired that the picture was a painting in watercolour and gouache with pencil under-drawing. Importantly the Collections Team was also sent a printout of a scanned image of the work itself.
On a positive note, comparison of the pencil signature at bottom left with that on works by Dame Elizabeth in the Academy’s own Collection, coupled with the style, treatment, and subject matter all pointed to it being a genuine work by her.
Dame Elizabeth Blackadder RSA RA, Orchidaceae Paphiopedilum sanderianum, etching and spit bitten aquatint on two copper plates, 1991-3. RSA collections (Gifted by Dame Elizabeth Blackadder to commemorate the presidency of Ian Mackenzie Smith)
On a less positive front, it did not take long to dismiss the subject of the picture as being that particular distinctive Florentine landmark which the enquirer had suggested it might be. But not wishing to send such a terminal response, the challenge was now to try to identify just which of the thousands of lovely old churches in Italy this was.
BACK TO BASE
Our first port of call was to look back through the titles of all the paintings which Dame Elizabeth had exhibited at the RSA Annual Exhibitions, since her first appearance there back in 1955, and to extrapolate those which featured a church in the title.
Where the building mentioned was not immediately recognised by the Collections staff, the name was fed into the search engine and images of the façade were called up.
It didn’t take long before we had identified the building depicted as being the church of San Martino in Lucca. This was the title of a work exhibited by Dame Elizabeth in the RSA Annual Exhibition of 1957 (cat.575).
By Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19652837
The church is also known as Lucca Cathedral and was consecrated in 1070, though the present appearance with its polychrome-marble-covered facade dates to the 1200s. The present building abuts to the earlier bell-tower from the 4th Century cathedral, which renders the façade asymmetrical.
The next port of call was to check the Sales Register for the 1957 Annual Exhibition. This drew a blank, the picture having remained unsold by the time the exhibition closed on the 4th of August.
It was then on to the Academy’s rich reference library. Commenced with the founding of the Academy in 1826, the Library was significantly developed from the 1850s, and continues to be regularly added to.
Biographies of Elizabeth Blackadder shed further light on the background to her picture of S.Martino, Lucca.
Duncan Macmillan HRSA, Elizabeth Blackadder (London: Scolar Press, 1999)
In 1954 Dame Elizabeth was awarded a Carnegie Travel Scholarship by the RSA. This enabled her to travel to Italy for the first time. Her travels also took her to Greece and to the former Yugoslavia. The following year she was awarded an Andrew Grant post-graduate Travel Award by Edinburgh College of Art. This took her back to Italy for a 9-month stay centred in Florence. She did however venture further afield, and amongst the surrounding towns and cities which she visited, was Lucca.
So with a degree of confidence the Collections Team could now express an opinion that the enquirer’s picture was an original work by Dame Elizabeth Blackadder, that it was watercolour and gouache with pencil under-drawing, depicted the façade of S.Martino in Lucca, and was executed about 1955, either en plein air in Lucca, or more possibly was worked up from sketches made there, following her return to Scotland. Result!
But things got even better. The image was ringing bells. Another book was retrieved from the Library stack, and hey presto!
The picture which the enquirer and her husband had purchased was, quite probably the original which inspired one of a small number of limited edition colour lithographic prints of the same subject, which were made by Dame Elizabeth and printed and published by Harley Brothers, an Edinburgh firm of commercial printers which was seeking to diversify in order to save itself in the late 1950s.
With the financial support of the Scottish Committee of the Arts Council of Great Britain, Harleys embarked on an ambitious scheme whereby leading contemporary British artists were engaged in the production of original lithographs. This was about a decade before the Edinburgh Printmakers Workshop was established in the City, and marked an important, if little-known chapter in the history of the development of the graphic arts in Scotland.
And so a vague initial enquiry turned up an important picture, much to the delight of the enquirer and her husband who kindly allowed us to use their story, and to reproduce their picture here.
The Academy already holds an impression of Harlequin, another of Dame Elizabeth’s collaborative productions with Harley Brothers from 1958, as well as examples by Sir Robin Phillipson PPRSA, Anne Redpath RSA, William Wilson RSA, and Robert Sinclair Thomson ARSA. Perhaps one day they might be joined by Dame Elizabeth’s original sketch, and an impression of the resultant lithograph.
Dame Elizabeth Blackadder RSA RA, Harlequin, lithographic print on paper (printed by Harley Brothers Ltd), 1958. RSA Collections (Creative Scotland gift 2011)
The Harley Brothers Archive was acquired by the Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow. https://www.gla.ac.uk/hunterian/collections/searchourcollections/