A massive painting rescued from Charleville Castle in 1970 and subsequently restored has finally gone on show in Canada in time for the current Royal visit. The painting entitled ‘Henry VIII, Act V, Scene 4’ (c. 1789) by Matthew William Peters is on loan to a New Brunswick gallery, forming part of a ‘Royal Portraits’ exhibition.
Art collector Graham Gordon, who is Irish born and emigrated to North America in 1953, bought the painting from Major Hutton Bury for £225 in travellers cheques in 1970. Gordon had heard about the castle and the painting from his brother. Slashed by vandals, covered in dirt and damaged by the pale sunlight of 160 years, Gordon rescued the canvas on an October day more than 40 years ago, rolling it up and hauling it away from the castle on the back of a farmer’s tractor.
Charleville Castle, described in the Canadian press as “a sprawling manor where Lord Byron once hosted lavish parties,” was home to “one of the most important paintings in British art history” for many years. The 1789 masterpiece by Matthew William Peters portrays the christening of Princess Elizabeth as described in the last scene of the last act of William Shakespeare’s last play, Henry VIII. It is a towering moment when the future Queen of England is recognized and baptized, leading to the beginning of the Elizabethan Era and the decline of papal power in Great Britain.
The “priceless relic and touchstone to history,” was acquired by Gordon by handing over traveller’s cheques to the castle’s owner, Maj. Hutton Bury (a descendant of the Earl of Charleville) “who was mostly worried about his ailing cows.”
This week, at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, New Brunswick the painting went on exhibition for the first time in more than 200 years. The last time it was on public display was May 18, 1805, when the picture was sold by James Christie, the founder of Christie’s famous auction house. The dramatic, large-scale piece is one of 46 confirmed survivors from the 169 Boydell Shakespeare Gallery originals. It’s on loan to the gallery .
When Gordon found the painting, it was mounted on the castle’s great dining room wall and deteriorating, he says, from many years of neglect. “(The canvas) was the colour of dark mahogany. It had been slashed by vandals,” he said, noting in spite of the painting’s gradual decline that the main parts of the piece remained relatively untouched.
Gordon said he took pains to ensure the painting wasn’t over-restored, pointing to creases that remain in the canvas and a slight alligator-skin look in certain sections of the massive portrait. “Those qualities speak for its history, for its journey, in a very interesting way,” he said.
He said it’s difficult to estimate how much the painting is now worth because large-scale pieces of this nature are considered less desirable to many private collectors these days. Some art dealers would rather cut the piece into sections, culling several portraits from the main scene and selling them off individually. But Gordon said he can’t see going down that road, adding it’s been his dream to share the piece with art lovers.
“I made myself a pledge that I would return it to the public world because it must never be lost again,” he said.