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A surprise find in the RGSQ archives

23 Jun 2018 5:36 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

The oldest document found in the recent reorganisation of the Society’s archives has nothing to do with geography! It is an 1819 pamphlet produced for the London showing of Benjamin West’s painting Death on the Pale Horse.

 Death on a Pale Horse, B West (Wikimedia Commons)

West was an American-born artist who specialised in scenes developed from biblical text and this painting completed in 1817, used apocalyptic themes from Revelation 6:8 referring to Death, War, Famine and Pestilence. The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts notes on its website that “The biblical narrative of the painting was considered to be so complex that it was originally exhibited with an explanatory pamphlet”. A copy of the 7-page pamphlet (cover shown below) is held by the Society.

The most likely provenance of the pamphlet has been traced to Sir Thomas Mitchell who was assistant then Surveyor-General of New South Wales from 1827 to 1855. After serving at Salamanca in the Peninsular War, Major Mitchell married in Lisbon then took an army pension and returned to London. He had always been keen on art and took the opportunity to hone his skills. It is supposed that he went to the 1819 London showing of Death on the Pale Horse and purchased the pamphlet for sixpence.

In 1946 Mitchell’s grandson, an art dealer, sold a number of Mitchell’s paintings to the Society and, after the Society built the Mitchell monument in Mitchell, he donated a number of his grandfather’s artefacts and documents to the Society. Presumably, the pamphlet was one of those.

To test the significance of the pamphlet, the painting was tracked down to the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) which has a version of the painting but does not mention the pamphlet in its extensive bibliography, suggesting that the pamphlet is extremely rare. The DIA was contacted by email and has requested a digital copy to try to clear up uncertainty about the showings of various versions of the painting. This has been sent. For the time being the document is safely filed away with other Mitchell rarities in new archive boxes while the Society’s archive reorganisation continues.

by Peter Lloyd, RGSQ member and past President, for the Archives Group

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