Saturday, December 04, 2010

Every Picture Tells A Story: Tell Us Another One.

Blog 3 in a series of collaborative posts. This one by Martin Smith, with comments by Richard Tillett.

This is the third episode of our hunt for the gents of Hereford Chess Club, as portrayed in a lost painting of the early 19th Century by "obscure" artist, Thomas Leeming. As we explained in the first episode, our curiosity was aroused by a reproduction of the painting in a book on interior design by Professor Mario Praz, and at this point of the story (see second episode) we have been pointed in the direction of Hereford City Museum and Art Gallery to see the original.

Mario Praz got his image of the painting from the art collection of his friend Ian Greenlees, but it had been sold on in 1991 after Greenlees' death, though we didn't know to whom. The Sotheby's auction catalogue for the sale named the sitters in the picture, and one of them was the artist himself. However, one of the reproductions - we couldn't be certain which - had been printed the wrong way round, so we couldn't be 100% sure who was who.

Sotheby's named the figure third from the left as Leeming. In the Praz volume he is the burly figure playing a move: so he could be the artist, and if he was a chess player, too, that would be highly satisfactory.The detail here shows the board the wrong way round, as ejh commented on our last blog, which suggests that Praz (or more likely, his printers) had inadvertently reversed the image. If so then Leeming is the standing figure at the back, and this is how he would look if we turned him the "right way round".

Painting himself into the picture makes perfect sense: he does a group portrait, and then with a sly touch he pops himself in, the artist as observer. So is this Thomas Leeming, artist and - maybe - kibitzer? Could he, too, have been a member of the Hereford Chess Society?

A reply from Hereford would, by referring to the original, give us the answers we want. But we have plenty to think about while we wait. The Sotheby's catalogue, for example, with the illustration below, says that the picture had been shown in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1818, and names a couple of others Leeming had displayed there at one time or another. If so, maybe Leeming wasn't quite so obscure after all. And the auction guide price they give of £6,000 - £8,000 suggests a picture of some quality, especially at 1991 prices. It actually sold for £7,200 which, allowing for inflation, is about £11,500 in today's money.

The Greenlees/Praz version as sold at Sotheby's in 1991.
(Sotheby's black and white reproduction)
Catherine Willson at Hereford Art Gallery replies. She generously provides lots of useful information including who is in it (yes Leeming is there), that it was shown at the RA Summer Exhibition (we thought so), and to top it all she sends us a reproduction, which is more than we expected (that'll settle matters once and for all).

We can see straightaway that it's the Praz book that has it the wrong way round, and Leeming is third from the left, standing. Sorted.

Thomas Leeming. Hereford Chess Club. 1815.
By kind permission of Hereford Museum and Art Gallery, Herefordshire Heritage Services ©

Pause. "Hang on a minute. There's a dog."

Look again. "OMG. It's a different painting!"
"Hereford" and "Greenlees" - as we start to call them - are not the same thing at all!
We have not just one, but two Leemings.

The more you look, the more you see the differences. Not just the pooch, but also the pictures on the walls. And there's that clutter in the left foreground of "Hereford", which appears to comprise a gentleman's cane, three books and some sort of small box, maybe containing what's left of someone's lunch.

This looks like the Regency equivalent of the bicycle clips, plastic carriers, and briefcases that adorn the floor of Streatham and Brixton Chess Club on match night.

This is getting most confusing: two versions of the same scene? So which came first, "Hereford" or "Greenlees"? Which one was exhibited at the RA in 1818? And if "Hereford" isn't "Greenlees", where is the "Greenlees" now?

To cap it all, if you compare the cast list given in the Sotheby's catalogue and Catherine Willson's notes, the fourth figure from the left (one of the pair playing chess prominently in the centre) is different. "Hereford" has a Samuel Beavan in dour black, but "Greenlees" seen in full colour has a Mr. Buckson in racy red.
So different productions with one change to the dramatis personae. What on earth is Leeming up to? It seems that the more we know about Leeming and the gents of Hereford the more there is to find out.
Maybe the Royal Academy, where one of the versions was exhibited, can help. I'm a Friend of the RA - it's time to put my subscription to work and use the facilities.

And that version in Hereford must be worth a look. So we make an appointment with Catherine Willson to visit. And we'll continue the story on the 15th January in the New Year.

To convert old prices into today's equivalent we used Measuring Worth.
Thanks again to Catherine Willson, Collections Officer: Fine and Decorative Art, at Hereford Museum and Art Gallery for engaging with our obsession.
Every Picture Tells A Story Index
Chess in Art Index


Morgan Daniels said...

I bust a stitch at the dog revelation. Martin & Richard: this is a tremendous series.

Jonathan B said...


Is this really a series penned by the Blog Arts Correspondents? I suspect a body snatching and one, both or some of Martin and Richard have been replaced by some spotty teenager(s)!

ejh said...

Great stuff. What I'm now wondering is - are the Hereford City Art Gallery, having paid their seven grand, going to reckon they've been had?

Martin Smith said...

"I bust a stitch.."
Thanks Morgan...that's more than we might have expected, or wanted..

...and yes Jonathan, "OMG". Didn't you notice that the whole post was written in upspeak.

It's not only the authors who have been confused by the twists and turns of the story: no, ejh, HCAG hadn't been "had", they had one already.