Curated by Laura C. Woodard, Librarian, Hanson Library at the Birmingham Museum of Art
We don’t typically visit museums to look at the bottoms of objects or the backs of paintings. It’s fair to say that almost no one would recognize the back of a famous work before recognizing the front, the public facing side. But the other side can often give us valuable clues about the provenance of a work of art, where the work has lived, where it’s been displayed, how it was made, from whom the canvas was purchased, for whom the work was created, and in some cases, what is stored inside. The following objects — all from the permanent collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art — hold valuable information. This digital exhibition examines seven pieces including two statues created for worship, a beautiful but utilitarian object created for use at home, and a painting that not only marks a time in one’s life but marks the passage of time with a storybook of labels. Sometimes the treasure of a piece extends to the other side.
Keith Murray (England, born New Zealand, 1892-1981), Vase, 1935-1940, Wedgwood (est. 1759), earthenware (creamware) with Matt Straw glaze, Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; the Buten Wedgwood Collection, gift through the Wedgwood Society of New York, AFI.847.2011.
Keith Murray, architect and ceramic and glass designer, began working on a freelance basis with Wedgwood in 1932. Focusing on shape and form, Murray’s simple Art Deco designs quickly became one of Wedgwood’s most popular. The underside of this vase shows Murray’s original Wedgwood backstamp – a special printed mark created by the factory only for Keith Murray wares. On this piece, you can see the words MATT STRAW which indicates the type of glaze and color. Most Wedgwood objects don’t include this specific information, but it helps us today know how the factory identified this yellow glaze. This vase came from the Buten Museum of Wedgwood and the marks seen between MATT STRAW and the Made in England imprint were made by the Butens. The center line shows 10-15-65 which tells us the date the piece was added to their collection. Lastly, the stamps on the far left and right, E and D, are mostly likely potters marks.
Fun fact: Keith Murray also designed Wedgwood’s current factory building at Barlaston in Staffordshire, England.
Thomas Hart Benton, Windmill
Thomas Hart Benton, Windmill, 1926, oil on canvas and board, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John F. Breyer, 1997.72.
Thomas Hart Benton, painter and muralist from Missouri, contributed greatly to the Regionalists movement. His works often feature life in a small town with the sadness and desolation that often accompanies rural settings. This image of a solitary windmill standing in a field accompanied only by a barn and haystack speaks to his focus on America’s heartland.
A lovely addition to the back of this piece is Benton’s conservation and treatment of the painting written in his own hand. With this inscription we are reminded that oftentimes artists have a continuing relationship with the works they create. Though originally painted in 1926, Benton revisits this work more than 40 years later to provide repairs and further protective measures. This is not an isolated incident as Benton provided similar conservation notes to labels affixed to the back of his painting Persephone.
The inscription on this painting reads:
PAINTED 1926 / OLD VARNISHED REMOVED, DAMAGED AREAS REPAIRED / NOV. 1964. REPARATIONS MADE WITH POLYMER / TEMPERA. THESE COATED WITH WATER VARNISH / (PERMANENT PIGMENTS WSLPV#1 5/2/63) IMPERVIOUS / TO MINERAL SOLVENTS. NEW VARNISH, METH / ACRYLATE. / Thos. H. Benton
It is interesting to consider these notes in reference to the life of the painting itself. Though the treatments Benton employed may not have been obvious, nonetheless, the painting as it existed in 1926 was altered after each instance that Benton performed his conservation work.
Howard Finster (American, 1916-2001), Untitled
Howard Finster (American, 1916-2001), Untitled, 1985, paint on sardine tin lid, Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Gift of Susie and Scott Robertson, AFI.892.2012.
A preacher originally from DeKalb County, Alabama, Howard Finster felt he could save souls by creating sacred art. His passion for making and repairing, slowly but deliberately, led to the creation of what we now know as Paradise Garden, a museum park at his home in North Georgia. This outdoor collection of idiosyncratic buildings, monuments, and folk art altars made from concrete, cast offs, and found objects continues to draw tourists nearly 20 years after his death. This small painting, on the back of a 69 cent Possum brand sardine tin lid, is labeled as having been completed on January 10, 1985 and using Finster’s numbering scheme, was the 4,137th piece he created (seen on the lid as 4000137.) On many of Finster’s pieces you’ll find written messages on the backsides, sometimes his address, sometimes small messages. This piece is no exception as this landscape scene showing figures with arms raised is painted on the underside of a sardine tin lid. For a man who used his art to spread a message, it’s not surprising that he would consider every side of his work to be valuable real estate.
Tibetan, Sakyamuni (Earth Touching Mudra)
Tibetan, Sakyamuni (Earth Touching Mudra), 18th century, gilt copper alloy, The Weldon Collection, T.2014.397.
Buddhist texts have written ‘Buddhas who have been, are, and will be, are more numerous than the grains of sand on the banks of the Ganges’ (The Gods of Northern Buddhism). Sakyamuni, one of the names of the historical Buddha, is portrayed here in gilt copper with an earth touching mudra. This representation of the fourth Manushi Buddha shows him, as is common, wearing monastic garments with only his right shoulder and breast bare, and with elongated earlobes. Additionally we see an urna, a concave dot on Sakyamuni’s forehead which originally would have contained a gem, and the protuberance on the skull, ushnisha, thought to be the vessel for his divine mind.
On the underside of the piece is an inscribed floral design, or a visvavajra. This is a ritual implement that is incised on the base to create an “unshakable foundation” that honors the deity who is invited/compelled to inhabit the sculpture. The visvavajra symbol also seals sacred consecratory contents, like written prayers, incense, precious and semi-precious materials and small relics inside the hollow sculpture.
George Romney (England, 1734-1802), Wilson Gale-Braddyll
George Romney (England, 1734-1802), Wilson Gale-Braddyll, 1776, oil on canvas, Gift of Martee Woodward Webb, 1959.119.
The subject of this portrait, Wilson Gale-Bradyll, was High Sheriff of Lancashire in 1778, Member of Parliament for Lancaster from 1780-1784 and for Carlisle in 1790, colonel of the 3rd Royal Lancashire, or Prince Regent’s Own, Regiment of Militia in 1803, and Groom of the Bedchamber to the Prince Regent in 1812. Painted by George Romney, the backside of this painting is embellished with numerous labels and markings that show its travels through time.
At the top center is a slightly ripped label from James Bourlet & Sons, Fine Art Packers & Frame Makers. 34493 is presumably an identification or inventory number.
Along the bottom stretcher bar is a typed label which reads:
GEORGE ROMNEY (1734-1802.) / 44. Wilson Braddyll. / Painted in 1776 / Wilson Gale, of Conishead Priory, succeeded to the estate of his cousin, Thomas Braddyll, and took the surname and arms of Braddyll, August 15, 1776; he was made Groom of the Bedchamber to His Majesty, Colonel of the 3rd Royal Lancastershire or Princess’s Own Regiment of Militia and died in 1818. / Collections: T. R. G. Braddyll; / Herbert Braddyll, Eastcourt, Oxton, Cheshire; / Walter Lippincott, Philadelphia. / See: H. Ward and W. Roberts, “Romney,” 1904, p. 17, / No. 1. / Canvas, 30 x 25 inches.
Interestingly, Lancashire is misprinted as Lancastershire and “Prince Regent’s Own” is misprinted as “Princess’s Own.” It appears the above description is taken directly from an M. Knoedler & Co. catalog, Summer Exhibition of English Pictures, from 1959, to which we can attribute these misspellings. To the right of this description is a label from Thomas Agnew & Sons, a fine arts dealer in London. According to the provenance research in Alex Kidson’s book George Romney: A Complete Catalogue of His Paintings, this painting came to Mrs. Martee Woodward from Thomas Agnew & Sons. Mrs. Woodward donated the painting to the Birmingham Museum of Art in 1959.
Finally, aside from the Romney label toward the top and the black crayon mark of 7830, in the center of the frame are affixed two labels: one for T.R.G. Braddyll, Thomas Richmond-Gale-Braddyll, the son of Wilson Gale-Braddyll, and the other, slightly higher, is a modest label for Wilson [Braddyl].
Hester Bateman (English, 1708-1794), Creamer
Hester Bateman (English, 1708-1794), Creamer, 1777-1778, silver, Gift of Catherine Collins, 1965.10.
This creamer was made by Hester Bateman, one of England’s greatest silversmiths. Bateman inherited the family business after losing her husband to consumption in 1760. Her efforts helped it become one of the largest and most prolific workshops in London. Her clean Neoclassical style, sparing in decoration, appealed to her own sensibilities but also meant she could produce high quality goods of lower cost than those silversmiths producing heavily decorated, ornate pieces.
The marks found on the undersides of British silver pieces are familiar to many though the meaning of the marks may not be. With some exceptions, from the year 1300, silver had to bear an official mark before it could be sold, this to ensure the quantity of silver in a piece and also to make certain that silver makers paid their taxes. In London, silver was stamped with a leopard’s head, sometimes wearing a crown, to indicate it had been made in London and met a high standard. In Edinburgh, this symbol was a castle and in Ireland, a harp. Some sixty years later, a maker’s mark was added. The lion “passant,” or walking, was added to denote the sterling standard of purity. A letter indicating the year of manufacture, varying between upper and lowercase with various fonts, was probably added during the reign of Edward IV (1471-1483). The date letter indicates production between May of one year and May of the next.
Here you see four marks: the “b” on the far left tells the year of manufacture as 1777-1778, followed by the leopard’s crowned head, then the lion passant, and finally Hester Bateman’s maker’s mark (to the far right and upside-down.)
The stickers on the bottom of the creamer tell us the accession number of the piece – 1965.10 – indicating that the creamer was the tenth object to enter the collection in 1965, and also that the piece was given a protective lacquer coating to prevent tarnishing in September of 2013.
Tibetan, Amitāyus, Buddha of Limitless Life
Tibetan, Amitāyus, Buddha of Limitless Life, 18th -19th century, gilt copper alloy, The Weldon Collection, T.2014.405.
Amitāyus, is a celestial buddha according to Mahayana Buddhism scripture. Literally called Buddha of “Limitless Life,” Amitāyus presides over the Western Paradise (Sukhavati). Seen on the bottom of this Tibetan sculpture is the following English text:
A finely beaten gilt copper image of the Bodhisattva Amitāyus (Bestower of Longevity) seated in Dhyanasana on a double lotus base holding an ambrosia vase in his lap. He wears a five leaved crown and is surrounded by a mandorla of scrolling leaves. This image belonged to a portable shrine. Whereas most bronzes contain the ashes of a holy lama, in this case the relic consists of the ashes of a much venerated used thanka.* Tibet. 19th century.
* a thanka is a Tibetan Buddhist painting that usually depicts a buddhist deity or mandala
Though we don’t know the author of this label, it appears to be a sales description. After an examination of the handwriting, the sepia-toned ink, and the age of the paper, it seems to have been pasted to the sculpture in the late 19th/early 20th century, most likely prior to the 1930s.
Bradbury, Frederick. British and Irish Silver Assay Office Marks, 1544-1950: Old Sheffield Plate Makers’ Marks, 1743-1860. Sheffield: J.W. Northend, 1950.
Finster, Howard, and Tom Patterson. Howard Finster, Stranger from Another World: Man of Visions Now on This Earth. New York: Abbeville Press, 1989.
Getty, Alice. The Gods of Northern Buddhism: Their History and Iconography. New York: Dover Publications, 1988.
Johnson, Stephen, and E. George. Perrott. Keith Murray: Designer. Bath, England: Gemini, 2006.
Kidson, Alex. George Romney. A Complete Catalogue of His Paintings. 3 Vols. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.
Mazow, Leo G., and Thomas Hart Benton. Thomas Hart Benton and the American Sound. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012.
Peacock, Robert, and Annibel Jenkins. Paradise Garden: a Trip through Howard Finster’s Visionary World. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996.
Shure, David S. Hester Bateman: Queen of English Silversmiths. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960.
Ward, Thomas Humphry, William Roberts, and George Romney. Romney: a Biographical and Critical Essay, with a Catalogue raisonné of His Works. 2 volumes. Thos. Agnew & Sons: London, 1904.