Rare Caribbean watercolors surface

Employees at Drayton Hall, a 1740s plantation turned museum in Charleston, S.C., opened the mail one day to find a photograph of a watercolor they had never seen. It showed their own Palladian brick building, surrounded by low colonnades they did not recognize. The image, dated 1765 on the back, came with no cover letter or even a return address. Alongside the envelope’s postmark from Winchester, Va., the sender had just scrawled “Back in the Day.” Since the picture arrived in 2007, the museum has managed to track down its owner, identify the painter and find possible buried traces of the house’s missing columns. The sleuthing required calls and visits with skeptical postal workers and some hours fanning out across a subdivision. “We went around knocking on all these doors,” said George McDaniel, Drayton Hall’s executive director, who, with Carter C. Hudgins, the museum’s director of preservation, has written an article about the search in the summer issue of The Magazine Antiques. Inspired by the watercolor, archaeologists soon dug into the museum’s lawn, where 18th-century foundation marks indeed suggested that the 1765 drawing of a U-shaped colonnade was accurate. To examine the watercolor, the staff set about contacting everyone who lived in the area of the Winchester postmark’s nine-digit ZIP code. For privacy reasons, postal officials would not supply details, so Mr. McDaniel mustered a search team last year.

They trolled the neighborhood, handing out Drayton Hall brochures and copies of the watercolor. A few days later, one neighbor showed the paperwork to Jim Lockard, a heating and cooling contractor who was the watercolor’s owner. Mr. Lockard contacted the museum, identified himself and explained that he never meant to set off a manhunt. In a recent interview, he explained that he had just been surfing for Web information about a dozen watercolors he had inherited from his grandparents. He typed in the handwritten caption from one image, “Drayton Hall,” and realized that the plantation still stood. He called the site on a Sunday afternoon to tell them about his discovery, but a volunteer answering the phone refused to believe him. (The volunteer, Mr. McDaniel said, no longer works there.) So Mr. Lockard sent the package anonymously, just on a whim.

He has since shown museum staff members his entire collection of 18th-century watercolors. Mostly in the same artist’s hand, they depict American and Caribbean landscapes and buildings. One bears the initials “P.E.D.,” which Mr. McDaniel’s team has traced to Pierre Eugène Du Simitière. A Swiss-born painter, Du Simitière traveled in the West Indies and settled in Philadelphia just before the American Revolution. He is best known for helping Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams choose the design for the Great Seal and currency, with a radiant eye in a floating triangle. (He later designed state seals for New Jersey and Delaware.) Mr. Lockard’s ancestors, prosperous Philadelphia merchants, may have bought the paintings from the artist. Mr. Lockard has begun sharing the collection with various scholars. His watercolor of Belmont Mansion in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park is set to appear in a book about that city’s park system by the Wesleyan University art historian Elizabeth Milroy. In January, he is planning to lend the Drayton Hall scene to a Charleston artifacts exhibition at the Winter Antiques Show in New York.

He has sent the paintings for repairs and cleaning to Pamela J. Young, a paper conservator in Williamsburg, Va. She has gently bathed the Drayton Hall scene, taking particular care to keep the green lawn from fading, and is removing adhesive tape residue from two Jamaican landscapes. The rag paper has held up relatively well, she said, partly because Mr. Lockard’s family largely kept the works in drawers or files at hand rather than boxed up in storage. “They weren’t in the attic or basement,” she said, “which always has the potential for disaster.”

For the original report go to http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/16/arts/design/16antiques.html

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