In 1931, Dr Victor Ratten performed life-saving surgery on 14 year old Myra Garnett at the Royal Hobart Hospital. Some weeks later the girl’s grateful father presented Dr Ratten with a generous and most appropriate gift.
George Garnett was a British born art connoisseur and collector. His gift was a large oil painting of Edith Cavell, the British nurse shot by the Germans in 1915 for her part in assisting hundreds of Allied soldiers to escape from occupied Belgium.
Cavell had been matron of a clinic at St Gilles Hospital in Brussels before the war, which became a Red Cross hospital at the outbreak of hostilities. Fittingly, Dr Ratten paid tribute to the nursing staff at the Hobart Hospital when accepting the gift.
On December 19, 1931 The Mercury published an article about the painting. There was small silver plate on the frame with the inscription; Presented to Dr V. Ratten, as a thank-offering for his skill in saving my daughter’s life, by G.H. Garnett.
The artist was reported as Stella Jarvis Marks and the large oil painting was dated 1911. It seems Jarvis was a misreading, and that the artist was Australian born Stella Lewis Marks (1887-1985). Marks went on to become a highly respected portrait painter, especially when she began to specialize in miniatures, with members of the British royal family among her subjects.
During my research of the missing painting I made contact with Anthony Pettifer, Stella Marks’ grandson. He was unaware of its existence, but is just as intrigued by the story as I am.
The strange thing is that Edith Cavell was not well known in 1911, apart from within the nursing field. So what led Stella to choose her as a subject? The only possible connection that Anthony can find is through the Anglican church. At the time Stella’s uncle, Julius Lewis, was Sub-Dean of Armidale in New South Wales. Edith’s father, who died in 1910, had been an Anglican vicar. Edith was an accomplished amateur artist, so it’s possible there was an introduction. Yes, a very tenuous link!
THE PORTRAIT ON PUBLIC DISPLAY
In May 1932 an exhibition of WWI souvenirs was held in Hobart. With the Great Depression continuing, the object was to raise funds for the jobless, many of whom were ex-servicemen. When the call went out for exhibits, George Garnett mentioned the Cavell portrait and arrangements were made to borrow it from Dr Ratten. The portrait created great interest;
One of the most admired and talked about exhibits at the recent War Souvenir Exhibition held at the headquarters of the R.S.S.I.L.A. was an oil painting of Edith Cavell. Possibly it was almost the most valuable , because it is said to be only oil painting of the famous nurse in existence.
There was also a comment that the War Museum in London had wanted to acquire the work.
Is Miss Cavell’s portrait hanging among the large pictures on the right? If so, this may be the closest we will ever come to seeing it. I can find no mention of it after 1932.
Dr Ratten died in 1962, bequeathing his estate to his son, William. Following William’s death in 1984 an auction was held at which many of Dr Ratten’s antiques and collectibles were sold. I wonder whether someone purchased the Stella Marks portrait of Edith Cavell that day?
If you would like to read more about Stella Marks and her work, visit Anthony’s website.
Hear an ABC interview on the lost portrait.
STOP PRESS! THE PAINTING WAS DEFINITELY OFFERED AT AUCTION IN 1985 DETAILS HERE