First, a little background. In 1931, art collector George Garnett presented prominent Hobart surgeon Dr. Victor Ratten with a gift, in thanks for saving the life of his 14 year old daughter Myra.
Appropriately, the gift was a large oil painting of the British nurse Edith Cavell. Nurse Cavell was shot by the Germans in WWI for helping Allied soldiers escape occupied Belgium. There was worldwide outrage and Miss Cavell became a symbol of courage for the Allied cause. Her image was used on recruitment posters in England and France.
From The Mercury, December 19 1931;
As mentioned in the above article, the portrait was by the Australian born artist Stella Marks and dated 1911. This is strange, because at that time Edith Cavell was unknown other than in nursing circles. It was exhibited at an exhibition of war souvenirs by the Tasmanian Returned Servicemen’s League the following year, 1932. No published record of the painting appears after that date. This too seems very odd, given the significant commemorations of WWI in recent years, including the centenary of Nurse Cavell’s death in 1915.
I was aware that in 1985 an auction was held at the home of Dr Ratten’s Son William ‘Barney’ Ratten in Sandy Bay. Barney had inherited his father’s estate, which included some wonderful antiques and collectables. Could the Cavell portrait have been among them? I checked the on-line catalogue of the Tasmanian State Library. I wasn’t even sure what I hoped to find, but by great good luck the auction catalogue was held in their collection. Amazing, but what was the easiest way for me to access it. More importantly, would the Cavell portrait be listed?
I am based in the Blue Mountains of NSW, but fortunately my niece Katey Love, an artist herself, lives in Hobart. Katey kindly photographed the twelve page document and sent it through to me. Where would we be without today’s technology?
Oh, the anticipation, especially seeing those two words on the cover…..Australian Paintings.
In my excitement I didn’t even bother to read the pages in sequential order. The first possibility I spotted was No. 291. on page 10. The item was listed as an early framed portrait, in oil. It sounded right, though definitely not actual proof of existence.
I calmed down and went back to read the catalogue from the beginning……and bingo! There it was, No. 24, with the name of the artist and her subject (though printed as Gavell, not Cavell). How lucky was that?
Is it possible that the painting is hanging in a Hobart home? I would dearly love to know, as would Stella Marks’ grandson Anthony Pettifer, who lives in the UK. Below is a self-portrait by Stella.
The Cavell painting has a silver plate on the frame reading ‘Presented to Dr. V. Ratten as a thank-offering for his skill in saving my daughter’s life, by G.H. Garnett.
There is another twist to this story. Mr Garnett was a talented designer and amateur artist. In 1935 he offered two old masters to the Brisbane Art Gallery, a Tintoretto and a water colour painting by George Morland. The trustees were very suspicious about the authenticity of the works.
There are other instances of Mr Garnett claiming to possess rare and valuable books and paintings. These include the 17thC bible John Bunyon used in Bedord gaol, and a Rembrandt etching. They have never been authenticated.
Here is some more worrying information regarding our Mr Garnett. It was published in the Adelaide Advertiser on August 9, 1945, few months after his death.
‘I met in the city yesterday the widow of George Garnett, formerly of North Moonta. He was one of my most artistic friends, and was never happier than when he was at work with his pen and brush on illuminated letters and texts, particularly in the handsome fourteenth century style.‘
It is entirely possible that the Stella Marks portrait of Edith Cavell was a forgery, executed by Garnett. Anthony Pettifer has a website devoted to his grandmother’s work, but he has no knowledge of the Cavell painting. I hope I am not doing Mr Garnett a disservice, and would be happy to be proved wrong.
By the way, I am writing a biography of Dr Victor Ratten, so any information or memories of him will be greatly appreciated. He was Surgeon Superintendent of The Hobart Hospital from 1917 until 1936, and was still operating there until the late 1950s.