February 8, 2008

A Painting by Edith Louise Horton

While taking a walk by Summers Park in Orangeburg, just around the corner of my home, I came across the usual pile of debris on the corner from neighbors’ impeccably groomed lawn. I would sometimes salvage house and yard plants from this little pile so I always slowed my pace when passing this spot to have a cursory inspection. On this particular day, the little pile yielded an unexpected treasure. On top of the grass clippings and pruned branches there was a large Victorian mirror in an ebony frame and a painting coated with heavy layers of dust. The ebony frame around the mirror had some substantial chunks missing from it so I decided not to salvage that right away. The painting was in a heavy decorated frame which was also damaged. But the painting - a charming study of grapes and peaches was intact. So I carefully pried the canvas out of the frame and inspected the back. It was painted on a high grade Belgian linen so it was done by someone who had enough training to be cognizant of materials.
I took the painting home, thinking initially of using the canvas to paint over - like Chaim Soutine used to do with nineteenth century paintings in Paris in the 1930's and 40's. But after inspecting the surface carefully, I noticed that it was signed and dated. I couldn’t quite make out the signature but the date was 1901. So I put the work away and then told my husband about my discovery and about the lovely but damaged frame and mirror that was there as well. Although we weren’t certain how we would repair the frames, we agreed that they would be worth going back for. So I headed back out to retrieve them only to find that my hesitation of a mere twenty minutes cost me those treasures - someone had already snapped them up! So the old adage, “he who hesitates is lost” is not for nought.
As an artist, the real prize to me was that little canvas from 1901, which stayed in the corner of my bedroom for months before I decided to take a second look. I checked the red letters of a signature and could finally make them out. It was signed Louise Horton. Curious, I did a google search on the name and came up with a surprisingly detailed genealogy of the Horton family dating back to the seventeenth century. The family had apparently come to American soil quite early on and settled in North Carolina. There were fascinating pictures of generations of this family. One in particular caught my eye. It was Edith Louise Horton, 1879 - 1903. There she was, in a plaid dress and an enormous stylish hat. This fit the 1901 time frame of the painting as did the name. I felt a certain kinship with the woman artist who made this little gem at the turn of the last century. It was a kinship tinged with sadness to discover that she had painted it just a mere two years before she died at the age of twenty four. Death from childbirth perhaps? It was not uncommon back then and it was too early for the great flu pandemic. It was sad to think of a lovely young woman passing away so young. It was sad as well to have found her painting on top of a rubbish heap in Orangeburg. It actually started me thinking in melancholy terms about how my own work might end up in dusty corners of forgotten attics and basements or sold off for a few dollars at yard sales. I suppose that is what inspired me to try to locate a descendant of Edith Louise Horton who might honor her memory.

I found a descendant in James McColl, who was a great great grand nephew of Edith Louise Horton now living and working as a history teacher in North Carolina. We corresponded for a short time by e-mail and when he asked if he could have the painting I agreed to part with it.
Everyone I spoke to about my find and my determination to restore it to its rightful heir thought that I was stupid for doing so. But sentiment and a sense of obligation won out over common sense. “But you found it and it is yours!” one artist protested. “How much are you going to charge him for it?” was an oft repeated question. “He’s going to pay you for it, right?” said others. Although there were those who said that it seemed, “generous” or “very good of me” to do this no one felt that what I was doing was “right” or “ethical.” One artist offered this possibility, “When he comes to your home to pick up the painting, maybe he’ll buy one of yours.” I replied that I had no such expectation. Is it a sign of our overweening market mentality that every human transaction must have a commercial value, or am I just hopelessly out of sync as a business person and citizen of the United States? I wondered that as I protested to all my detractors that asking for monetary compensation for my find felt like asking to be paid for returning someone’s wallet, albeit a valuable in this case one hundred and seven years removed from the original owner.

So when the appointed time came to part with my painting, I arranged a little tea and snack as I sat down with James McColl, who had traveled down from North Carolina for the transaction. He brought books of genealogical history replete with brown toned photographs of women in mutton chop sleeved dresses with narrow waists. I was curious about Edith Louise Horton’s untimely death and to my surprise found out that she had not died in childbirth and in fact had never married. Family history had it that she had died of a heart condition. I was also interested in where the young artist had acquired a knowledge of art materials and techniques. Although the painting is not a master work, there are elements of design, color and a knowledge of optics (the colors of the peach are reflected in the nearby grapes) that belies some kind of professional training. The closest we could come to figuring that out was that Edith had an aunt her went to art school in New York - unusual for a woman in the nineteenth century who may have taught her. There were other rather strong women in this family - a factory owner to name one. And there were political intrigues as well - like Edith’s grandfather who was about to acquire the governship of South Carolina on the basis of the black vote during Reconstruction before he was mysteriously shot!

The young woman painter, Edith Louise Horton, came from an interesting family and left the world too early to make her own mark upon it, leaving unanswered questions about her aspirations and what might have happened had she lived to realize them. Had she wanted to follow in her aunt's footsteps and travel to New York to become an artist? Is that why she didn't marry? I’ve posted her painting here today along with an image of her great great grand nephew pointing to her photograph. Payment is a piece of history understood and the knowledge that an obscure woman’s creative work is kept by someone who has a personal attachment to it.

We never did figure out how her painting came to be on that pile of grass on a sunny day at Summer's Park in Orangeburg. That remains a mystery.

1 comment:

harriett said...

Oh, splendid story!! We artists should hope someone as kind as you will come along and rescue our efforts from the trash heap, if that's where they end up.