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John Ray Pictures

Surely it was my age and the result of total immersion learning, but the year that I turned twelve, I found myself acquiring sense, sense that presented itself as a conscious awareness of what it was to be Southern. It was clear to me that my place and my people were different from what I had known in New Jersey as a second grader. Speech was slower and so was life. Vowels were easy, as were breezes, conversation, supper plans. It was then that I remember paying attention to the fact that some people were graced with double first names, like my buddy Jimmy John. It wasn’t until years later—as I worked to establish myself in the art business—that I encountered John Ray.

Presbyterian College professor Alan King taught me in freshman English that it was perfectly acceptable to Anglicize words from lands unknown if I felt I might otherwise embarrass myself when I spoke. Or maybe I only imagine he told me that. Within the fine art lexicon, the term “genre” (pronounced zhahn-ruh) refers to the subject of a painting, one which shows everyday people doing everyday things. During the novitiate phase of this enterprise, the expression—in both meaning and articulation—was new to me. I am not sure who the individual was, but the first person to utter the word in my presence literally said, “John Ray.” It had to have been someone with Southern beginnings like me, someone with a Jimmy John or two in his past.

I’ve gotten beyond my own early missteps, though, and I hope my remembered friend has, too. Genre is a word that has withered in its speaking by home-schooled Southerners and may be permanently bastardized in our regional vocabulary. Such are the subtleties of art history that have come to me the hard way, much like a coming of age, a growing into it.

This Old South humility gave me a leg up when I ventured north and met those whose ancestors had won the War, those to whom much had been given—be it education or connections or the necessary resources to play this game. Many became fast friends, though with some a prejudice persisted. The advantage has often been mine in conversation with a collector—either from the South or with Southern interests—about a work of art that just might have a place in his holdings. Scores of serious buyers with Jimmy Johns and John Rays in their lives have been treated with discourtesy when beyond their Southern comfort zones.

I believe that our advantage is more often in the buying. It might be fairly said that those who can write the check stand a better chance of having walked among their northern neighbors with greater frequency, growing if not comfortable, then at least familiar enough with that different pace to function as equals in the worlds of commerce and collecting. Plenty of Southerners buy paintings in New York. I do. There are simply more American pictures there than anywhere else. With any luck, the galleries are not aware that what they offer is Southern in the first place.

The simple ability to communicate with those who are part and parcel of the South and just happen to have something to sell has been to this business’s benefit. This sort of edge goes far beyond who can pay the higher price. At times, it is the very price of admission. Charles and Jessie Sinnott were adamant that their magnificent Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson not be sold outside the South. My only competition was the dollar amount Charles calculated as he worked through his estate planning; in that instance, it did come down to the size of the check. There was a couple from McCalla, Alabama who came to me with a small collection of paintings purchased at a yard sale. They found comfort—and I some excellent inventory—in my knowing the best place to get barbeque in Centerville. This is the South, and we have our own brand of insider trading.

James R. Hopkins (1877-1969)
Father and Daughter (The Orange) (1916-17)
Oil on canvas
57 x 34 inches
Signature Details: Lower Left
Owner: Collection of the Greenville County Museum of Art, Greenville, South Carolina
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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