Chris Burton, Exhibitions and Collection Assistant, Orleans House Gallery
My initial scope was to research the attribution for the portrait of Sir Richard Francis Burton, in Arab dress depicted on his pilgrimage to Mecca.
The Burton portrait in question is immensely popular with general visitors, researchers and people engaged with our education programme. Unfortunately, the work lacks a firm artist’s attribution and this is what we set out to investigate over the course of the project.
From initial research using our gallery records, we discovered that the attribution for the painting has been unclear for many years, with different artists names mentioned on the back of the picture, inventory, card index, modes records.
Our main purpose of the research was to find out how the previous attributions had been determined. The portrait in question, part of the Richmond Borough Art Collection, has been on loan from Southwark since 1969 and was originally donated by Isabel Burton to the nation as a gift following the death of her husband Sir Richard Burton. When it came into the Richmond Borough Art Collection it was originally attributed to artist Albert Letchford. Letchford was selected by the Burtons to paint a number of views in their last consular post Trieste. It may well have been assumed that this portrait of Burton was also by Letchford because of this connection. However, in the list which Isabel wrote of the works she donated the picture is listed as being by Borgo Caratti and research undertaken led to the attribution being changed at that time.
We searched through archive material to pinpoint when the attribution had changed from Lechford to Caratti. We found that in Isabel Burton’s inventory of Burtons personal effects (originally donated to the Public Library at Camberwell) there was reference in Penzer bibliography of Burton 1923 which states that Borgo Caratti is the artist of the work, clearly separate from the list of paintings by Letchford and this evidence formed the basis of the reattribution.
However, our research into Borgo Caratti didn’t provide a conclusive answer as it’s unclear which Borgo Caratti it might be and evidence at the Witt Library showed that one Borgo Caratti was an Italian theatre scenery painter with no apparent link to Burton. As part of this research we wanted to explore the different versions of the picture of Burton in Arab dress to try to ascertain its origins and attribution and this led us to research other possible artists that Burton was associated with to see if we could find, or discount, potential artists.
We researched five different artists associated with Burton; Albert Letchford, Louis William Desanges Edward Lear, Thomas Seddon, and librarian and copyist Herbert Oakes Jones. We visited a number of archives to try to establish archival references to our portrait and also to compare the stylistic qualities of aforementioned artists, visiting the Heinz Archive at the National Portrait Gallery, Royal Anthropological Institute, Witt Library as well as investigating original documents and correspondence held at Orleans House Gallery and Richmond Local Studies collection. Whilst we found interesting material relating to the artists, and the history behind this particular image of Burton, we could not find sufficient evidence on whichto to base a re-attribution.
The main outcome of this research is that we are able to confidently say that we know where the name Borgo Caratti came from. We have also amassed a new body of research about the history behind this image which adds context to our records. This will be of benefit, not only to us, but also to the Royal Anthropological Institute, who we will continue to share our research with, as we were confidently able to say that their work was a copy by Herbert Oakes Jones of our (still unattributed) portrait.
Orleans House Gallery holds a collection of Burton’s personal effects, and so finding out more about this portrait will add value and improve the user experience for our Burton Collection. The Burton portrait will play an important part in our Transforming Orleans House project. It will be displayed in a new purpose-built Study Gallery with other artworks, photographs, personal effects and books relating to Sir Richard Burton and more information about the work and artist is important to add to knowledge and understanding of the work and how it is interpreted, displayed and engaged with. There are a number of interesting leads to follow up including the possibility that the costume which accompanied the wax work of Sir Richard Burton which Isabel gave to Madame Tussauds still exists.
Impact on Professional Development
Usually at Orleans House Gallery I help with the technical side of gallery work, installing exhibits and digital interpretation, IT support. During this project I have increased my understanding of the curatorial process outside of exhibition planning, installation and display.
Before undertaking this In Search of Burton project, I had near to no experience in researching. At first, I found it difficult to understand how to choose and utilize different research methods. Through this project I developed a better understanding of different research avenues I could take. I learnt how to research artists’ attributions through both tracing records and observations and comparison of work as well as using archives. This has proved invaluable for this project, and I have been able to put this knowledge into practice.