Authenticating “Lady Margaret”
Photos and profile by Sloan Brewster
That momentous day was in January 2000, and Grayson was at the Stamford Antique Center looking at a painting that peeked at him from behind another.
“He has an eye. He spotted her from a long way away,” Caroline Grayson*, Mike’s wife, said. “He spotted her face, and I knew something was up because he inhaled deeply and started running toward her. He knew.”
What Mike, a collector of 19th century British portraiture, knew – or at least suspected – was that the painting was special, possibly the work of one of the masters.
“I’m very familiar with all the British portrait painters,” he said.
Sitting at the top of that list of painters are four notable names: Thomas Gainsborough, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Henry Raeburn, and Sir Thomas Lawrence.
Mike pulled back the top painting to reveal an oil on canvas which the art dealer had purchased from Sotheby’s in New York City. The large painting depicted a young woman wearing a feathered cap, a white satin shawl wrapping her shoulders and torso, her fingers grasping the tiny hand of a child. Mike and Caroline purchased it, an unusual decision for the art lovers who usually get authenticated pieces from auction houses such as Christies and Sotheby’s. But not only had Mike fallen in love with the stunning work, he recognized touches reminiscent of Lawrence’s hand and felt certain it was he who had painted the young woman.
“Look at the brushstrokes,” he said, gazing up at the painting hanging in his living room between two others.
Exquisitely detailed, the painting shares an intimate moment between the woman and child, while at the same time conveying an unspoken longing. The work is alive and engaging, the expressions keen, the bodies though still, seem somehow in perpetual movement.
The portrayal of textiles also weaves a story. One can almost believe the coverlet draped over the young woman’s shoulders is floating off the canvas, tempting the viewer to reach out and caress the fine fibers.
Rifling through the pages of a book of Lawrence’s artwork, Mike pointed out that same feature in the folds of gowns on painting after painting. He pointed to Lawrence’s portrayal of Isabella Wolf.
“Again, look at the satin,” he said. “He loves using the satin and the softness of her face.”
“Lady Margaret,” which Mike and Caroline have dubbed the young woman in their painting, shares a similar facial softness, resonant in Lawrence’s other works.
The hat with feathers is also a repeating fixture in Lawrence’s art. Mike pointed to a painting of Lady Peel by Lawrence, who is also wearing a black hat bedecked with feathers. Contemplative expressions are captured on the faces of both women.“They’re very pensive, deep in thought,” Caroline said.
Tasseled red drapery hanging behind Lady Margaret is another telltale feature used by Lawrence, who often added a hazy sky and lines of trees behind the curtains, conveying the sense the sitter was at a window or somehow inside and outside at once.
Mike and Caroline compared the child in the painting with Lawrence’s The Calmady Children. The color and lines in the lips, the redness of the cheeks, the angles at which the children are posed, all share a likeness. In painting after painting there were undeniable similarities.
“The expression on (Lady Margaret’s) face, the way he renders the fabric, the gaze,” Mike said. “I mean it just seems consistent with Lawrence.”
With no signature, it can be difficult to uncover the truth behind the painter’s identity. Portrait painters did not, as a rule sign their work, Mike related. The back of the painting, however, revealed an inscription with a file number from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
“Lawrence,” it reads. “Bequest to the Museum of Fine Arts by Mrs. Robert D. Evans.”
So began the Graysons’ quest to unravel the mystery.“It read ‘Lawrence,’” Mike said.“The next day I called the museum.
Mike found out that at the time of the bequest, the painting was attributed to Lawrence and entitled, Portrait of Lady Margaret, Daughter of the Earl of Kinnoul. In a letter dated March 20, 2000, Alexandra Ames Lawrence, research assistant at the museum, informed Jim that in 1949, the attribution was changed to Robert Edmonstone. In 1951, the title was changed to A Lady and Child “on the basis of research on the 9th, 10th and 11th Earls of Kinnoul, none of whom had a daughter named Margaret.” Then in 1978, the attribution was again changed to Andrew Geddes, “based upon scholarly opinion,” the letter reads. The painting was deaccessioned from the museum’s collection in 1992.
Mike does not buy the reattribution and is convinced Lawrence is responsible for the painting. He’s further convinced by an episode of BBC Fake or Fortune, which investigated and determined that the museum attributed in error two John Constable paintings. He believes the story could directly parallel that of his painting.
Mike has been in contact with The National Gallery of British Art in London for its opinion on the painting, but in a letter dated February 29, 2000, Anne Starkey of the curator’s office, informed him the museum has a policy of not authenticating paintings in private collections.
Correspondence with Cassandra Albinson, Acting Senior Curator of Paintings and Sculpture and Acting Head of the Department at Yale Center for British Art, also turned up a dead end, as Albinson has been too busy to inspect the painting, Mike said.
Grayson started collecting art in 1993. In his collection, which spans three homes, he has examples of nineteenth century British, Czech French, Italian, Dutch and a Russian art, a Pablo Picasso lithograph, and a work by Salvador Dali. He also has tapestries and sculptures. What’s more, he also paints.
“Mike does more than collect art, he paints it as well,” said Caroline. “He did it during his stressful times; That’s when he paints the best actually. When he’s happy, he doesn’t do it.”
Despite impasses in their endeavors to authenticate Lady Margaret, Mike and Caroline surge onward with their pursuit. Their next plan is to hire someone to take down the painting, which has hung in the same spot for 20 years and pack it neatly into a crate so they can bring it to London.
“We want to get on Fake or Fortune,” Mike said. “That’s our next goal.”
*The names of the collectors in this story have been changed to ensure their security.