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 young daughter. 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. The 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.
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. 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 Petiffer, who lives in the UK. Until I contacted him recently Anthony was unaware that the portrait existed.
The 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.