Residents of Devonport, on the north-west coast of Tasmania, once had an opportunity to pick up an old master; a portrait by French artist Nicolas de Largillière (1656-1746)
THE SELLER – MR GARNETT
Offering the painting at auction was Yorkshire born George H. Garnett. He was a well travelled artist, designer, and dealer in antiques. Circa 1930 he moved to Tasmania from South Australia, settling in Bellerive.
In 1933, as the Great Depression tightened its grip, Mr Garnett decided to move back to the mainland with his wife and daughter. He had been spending time in Devonport, studying Aboriginal rock carvings at Mersey Bluff. This may be why he chose to auction part of his antique collection in a small coastal town rather than in Hobart. The advertisement shown below appeared amid those for fat cattle, rabbit skins and cow hides! 😎
You will notice that I have highlighted one item, the portrait of a French nobleman by Largilevre [sic] The correct spelling is actually Largillière. It was given no particular prominence in the ad. Just how many items were sold that day we will never know. However, the French nobleman was ignored by the residents of Devonport.
Below is a self-portrait of the artist.
The following year the portrait reappeared, now extolled as a long lost masterpiece. It was purchased by the Art Gallery of Western Australia. George Garnett was now living in Perth. I can’t help wondering how he suddenly recognized its value.
The story of how Mr Garnett acquired the painting is intriguing. He claimed to have purchased it from Mary Woollnough, daughter of Tasmanian Anglican minister and politician the Rev. Joseph Boss Woollnough. Originally it was said to have belonged the Empress Eugenie, who lived in exile in England following the fall of Napoleon III. According to George Garnett, when she died in 1920 her artworks were auctioned by the London auction house Christies and it was then that the Rev. Woollnough purchased the Largillière portrait. There are two problems with this story. Firstly, the Rev. Woollnough had died tree years earlier, in 1917. Secondly, there is no record of him having visited the UK since arriving in Hobart in 1883.
Following on from my research, the acting curator of the W.A. Art Gallery recently spent some time investigating the provenance of the painting. Amongst the acquisition documentation she found an interesting letter from Mary Woollnough, written at the time the Largillière was purchased. Articles about the Gallery’s coup had appeared in newspapers around the country, and back in Tasmania Miss Woollnough had spotted one. She complained that Mr Garnett told her it was worth very little, and paid her accordingly. She asked for his address in Perth, so that she could take the matter up with him. Whether she had any success is a mystery, as is the question of how her father came to own the old master in the first place. Investigations continue. Reflecting its confusing provenance, the painting is now listed by the gallery as ‘attributed’ to Largillière.
The painting is not on public display and unfortunately there is no image of it available at the moment. However, here is a similar portrait by the artist. It remains the only example of his work in the Gallery’s collection.
FOR INFORMATION ON THE W.A. ART GALLERY, CLICK HERE.