Enjoying a ‘Who do you think you are?’ moment in the NPG’s Heinz archive by Miranda Stearn
Queen Caroline has proudly surveyed the Octagon Room at Orleans House Gallery since we opened 40 years ago. Given our dynamic exhibition programme, she’s the only part of the Richmond Borough Art Collection that you are guaranteed to see every time you visit. We love to share stories about the occasion in 1729 when she came to dinner and dined on venison, chicken with peaches and capons with oysters. But, embarassingly, we’ve never been able to tell our visitors who painted her. The collection catalogue says one thing (Allan Ramsay, c. 1727), the in-room interpretation suggests another (Heroman van der Mijn, c. 1728), and in our recent publications we’ve admitted our uncertainty and gone for simply ‘unknown artist, c. 1730’. We set ourselves the challenge of trying to find out.
It was with this mission in mind that, on a snowy morning, I found myself in the Heinz archive with Mark our Curator, creative apprentice Chris (right), and Susan and Caroline two of our curatorial volunteers. We spent the morning going through the boxes of images organised by sitter, starting with Caroline and then going on to her son William (who also appears in our portrait). I’m not sure what I hoped to find – perhaps another version of our portrait. It turned out, however, that the only image that looked anything like ours, was ours.
After lunch, we turned to the drawers of index cards listing known images of each sitter. One caught my eye: a card for a painting of Caroline and William, attributed to Ramsay. This looked promising. Even more intriguing was the fact that the attribution had been crossed out and ‘Heroman van der Mijn’ added in its place. Here were the two names that had been linked to our painting on one index card! The card referred to a Sotheby’s sale catalogue from 1938 – a sale of the contents of Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire. The NPG had the catalogue, fortunately with a list of who purchased each lot at the front. The listing fitted the dimensions and desciption of our painting, and when we turned to the front, a ‘Mrs Ionides’ was listed as the buyer. Nellie Ionides was our founder donor. Here was the confirmation that this was indeed ‘our’ Queen Caroline.
Suddenly we felt a little like we were on TV’s ‘Who do you think you are?’. We had gone from knowing basically nothing about our painting to knowing exactly where it had been purchased. This led to a number of lines of enquiry: correspondence from the 1960s in the NPG archive about the painting, concluding that Van der Mijn rather than Ramsay was the artist; and the possibility of looking into the family papers of the Lees of Hartwell to find out more about the people who owned the painting and their connections to the Hanoverian royals (thanks to the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies).
If you want to know where our investigations lead, you’ll have to come along to the exhibition we’re hoping to hold.