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Over the Boufay

Paintings have to have a place to hang. The fact that one has simply “run out” of wall space is a feeble excuse, but I understand. Not everyone has art bins built into their basements, though I have known many who do. The South has had a long fascination with household inventories—those precisely documented indexes of domestic goods, both humble and high, so treasured today by house museums and whole-town restorations like Colonial Williamsburg and the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. On the rarest of occasions, we find ourselves not matching chests and cupboards by number, be they walnut or mahogany, but paintings by general content description. The late Southern historian Winston Broadfoot often provided those inventories for us.

In 2006, we sent our then-gallery director Daria Atwell to meet a gentleman in Virginia who, over a series of phone calls, had described what I imagined to be another version of the Virginia Museum’s A Virginny Breakdown by John Adams Elder (the painting he sold us, it would turn out, was in fact the earlier version). He and I had worked out the price in advance, but he had not mentioned the handful of other paintings he owned, several by the same John Adams Elder, nor the written 1927 inventory in which these canvases were itemized by the executor tasked with cataloguing the estate. 

Painting titles are often apocryphal, and, like other dealers and historians, I have made up more than my share. The only (and widely agreed upon) rule for this practice is that the assigned title must describe the story the picture tells. In the case of the Elder canvas, the census taker simply called it The Family, a fair enough exercise in nomenclature. A Virginny Breakdown is obviously a more expressive title, connecting a Southern artistic tradition—the depiction of African American children dancing and making music—with the proffered vignette. Certainly, The Family suggests home and hearth, a sentimental and palatable theme. However, I have found, over the last thirty-odd years, that active scenes and active titles generate much more enthusiasm from clients. 

Not only did this Virginia gentleman have a handful of other canvases that we enthusiastically purchased, he also had in his possession—and now in ours—the original receipt for his ancestor’s purchase of the same. This receipt included the first sale—from Elder to forebear—of the artist’s The Battle of the Crater, owned by the Commonwealth Club in Richmond, Virginia. Such clubs are likely repositories for paintings of local interest, often acquired or given in honor of some distinguished member. The Detroit Athletic Club has a stellar collection built in just this fashion. I saw Elder’s signal canvas for the first time when Maria Tabb, Ginna Christian, and Wiley Wheat asked me to join them for dinner at the Commonwealth Club in the late 1970s. They were all about the prints by Mark Catesby that I was selling then, and I was all about the wonders of Virginia high society. To a number, each of the ladies placed an order for “to-mah-toes,” extra syllables courtesy of their Old Dominion upbringing. When the waiter turned to me for my preference, I chose not to “Anglicize” as Alan King had suggested and request “to-may-toes;” I selected the far safer asparagus instead.

In late summer of 2009—a season noted in the Lowcountry for its lack of hurricane activity—John Cuthbert called to share his discovery and scholarly exploration of a painting of Virginia’s Natural Bridge by Jacob Caleb Ward. John is one of those exceptional art historians who can see through the centuries and sift and sort and segregate with a clarity not afforded the rest of us. Nancy Rivard Shaw has filled this role for our gallery over the years—brilliant in her research and writing, adding value and heft to the art that has come through our doors. Other scholars have shared their talents as well; Roberta Sokolitz, Valerie Leeds, Alex Moore, and Estill Curtis Pennington deserve special mention.

While making his rounds through the antique shops that dot the New Hampshire countryside around his summer home, John came across a painting inauspiciously tagged as an English Landscape. An expert in American art, John did not need a fact checker to understand that the Natural Bridge, so clearly depicted, was in Virginia, not Britannia. His purchase and subsequent study of the painting eventually resulted in the identification of the painter—an attribution made certain by so many tell-tale signs, though the panel bore no name. The physical evidence that was revealed, however, was a penciled verso inscription disclosing the location in which the painting had hung. In other words, the painting sported its own, self-contained inventory: “Over Boufay.” The “boo-fay” is exactly what my grandmother, Sweetheart, would have named what we call a sideboard today. Just as the unknown person who named The Family had recorded a moment in time, someone—perhaps the same individual or maybe the painting’s original owner—had left us a treasure map, elucidating not the scene or its subject, but declaring its position of household prominence: “Over Boufay.” Paintings have to have a place hang.

Jacob Caleb Ward (1809-1891)
View of the Natural Bridge, Virginia (1835)
Oil on board
23 1/2 x 32 1/16 inches
Signature Details: On verso
Owner: The Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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