Mind the Antlers

Sketch of deer antlers


By design, the Photoarchive relies on information submitted by the public (historically, in letters or verbally, and now online) to update and enrich its holdings. Researchers often have been first to alert Library staff to changes of ownership, new attributions, or the loss or destruction of works. In many cases, these informants owned or had access to the original works of art represented in Photoarchive files and to unique family-held data and stories about those works.

In one of these letters, dated June 10, 1954 (transcribed below), Mrs. A. Waldo Jones recounts the slapstick fate and slapdash restoration of a portrait of Mrs. William Irvine (Ann Callender), thought to be by Bass Otis.

This portrait, when it hung at "Creekside," the Delaware County, Pennsylvania home of Mary (Fayssoux) Leiper, fell on an antler and one eye was punched out. It was repaired very poorly by an amateur when it became the property of Mrs. Winslow; he also ruined the original frame by scraping off all the raised gold leaf ivy sprays at the corners of the frame. My mother says it was the prettiest frame she ever saw. Mrs. Shellman's husband liked to tinker with paintings. To his amazement, when he started to clean this portrait, not knowing the eye had once been punched out and repaired, he cleaned the eye completely off. However, he liked to paint, so he painted in a new eye; and then he decided to "rejuvenate" Ann with real lipstick on cheeks and mouth. I think he painted off the ring too. I have no idea who put on the new and different nose, or why; and, in fact, hadn't realized her nose was different from the one in the small photograph. But her look was very strange with all the lipstick. I am delighted with Mr. Denues' restoration work, and only wish I had been on hand to see his work as it progressed. The skin tones are pink and vital and the picture has a freshness about it which I think the other portrait lacks. I do not know what eye had been damaged.

With her letter, Jones enclosed a small photograph of a second version of the portrait, also purportedly made by Bass Otis. A comparison of both canvases illustrates the cartoonish result of overzealous restoration.

Two reproductions of the same half-length portrait of an older woman dressed in a white shawl and bonnet showing the work before and after restoration.

David Edwin (1776–1841), Sketch of Antlers, undated. Pencil on paper, 3 3/4 x 6 1/4 in. Private collection

Attributed to Bass Otis (1784–1861), Mrs. William Irvine (Ann Callender), before and after restoration (left and right, respectively). Oil on canvas. Private collection

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