You may have passed the painting hundreds of times. It hangs above the check-out counter in the main hall of the Enoch Pratt Free Library's central branch. Never gave it a second thought. Just some old white guy in a frilly collar staring across the centuries. Probably was important in some way or another.
But Washington portrait artist Annette Polan knows the man well. For her, George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore and proprietary founder of the colony of Maryland, is a living, breathing connection between old England - North Yorkshire County in the 17th century to be precise - and Maryland today.
Polan has been commissioned by a consortium of preservationists to reproduce the portrait, painted by Dutch artist Daniel Mytens in 1625. In May 2001, the copy will be unveiled in England's Kiplin Hall, the Jacobean manor built by Calvert around 1625 on the site of his remote boyhood home.
The commission dovetails with other events key to the long-awaited restoration of Kiplin Hall - financed by Maryland benefactors and a British Millennium Grant - and its renewed recognition as "the birthplace of Maryland." This fall, the Maryland Historical Society will assume the lease on a study center at the estate, previously held by the University of Maryland. In collaboration with Washington College, the society is planning to expand research programs in English history, literature, architecture, landscape architecture and other areas that link England to Maryland and the American experience.
Next May a Maryland delegation, British officials and descendants of the four families that occupied Kiplin Hall will attend a rededication of the estate as a historical museum open to the public. During the ceremony, the life-size Calvert reproduction, an imposing 5-by-7-feet, will be hung on the landing in the manor's stair hall in the company of the Duke of Marlborough and other notables. It is a prime vantage point for tourists curious about the first man to invest in Maryland.
Hanging a portrait of George Calvert had been a concern for "years and years," says David Fogle, former director of the University of Maryland Study Center at Kiplin Hall. When he first started taking students and Maryland tour groups through Kiplin Hall in 1986, questions would inevitably arise about the manor's tangible connections to their home state. Although Calvert had intended it as an ancestral home for his family, neither he nor his descendants had spent much time there. Few clues indicated how they had furnished or run the estate and its surrounding grounds in the north part of the English countryside. Beyond the manor itself, the Calverts, a family that leaned more toward politics than farming, had left little imprint.
Visitors "were always disappointed," says Fogle, vice president of the newly founded Maryland Kiplin Foundation. "There was no evidence in the house of the Maryland connection."
Then during a tour of the Smithsonian Institution exhibition "The Treasure Houses of Britain," Fogle happened upon a portrait of Calvert, identical to the one that hangs in the Pratt. It had been lent to the show by the Countess of Stair, who lives at Bourne Hall in England, and was in far better condition than its Baltimore twin.
"The painting itself was a knockout," Fogle says.
The original Calvert portrait - along with full-length paintings of the five other Lords Baltimore - remain in the Pratt's central hall, all but one a gift in 1940 from Baltimore surgeon Hugh Young who bought them at auction in London. The sixth portrait, that of the second Lord Baltimore, was purchased from William Randolph Hearst by the library board.
Hard to imagine
It had never occurred to Fogle to consider the Baltimore-based Calvert portrait as suitable for reproduction, even though it was considered, along with the others, as an important portrayal of "an entire dynasty of colonial proprietors."
The works "were so difficult to see at that location, I never paid much attention to them," he says.
Bright, clean and vivid, the Calvert painting at the Smithsonian gave Fogle an idea: "What a great thing to have a portrait of the builder of the house in the house."
Fogle, former director of the graduate program in historical preservation and professor of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park, approached a friend. A direct descendant of George Calvert and a Maryland resident, she agreed last year to anonymously donate the money to pay for the reproduction. At first, Polan's role in re-creating the Calvert painting was as a pro-bono adviser to Fogle and others searching for a qualified portrait artist. They pored through portfolios from the Maryland Institute, College of Art and elsewhere, and found "all interpretive portraits," he says.
You really don't want a portrait painter; you want a copyist, Polan told the group. After reviewing her portfolio, they decided "she looked like the one for the job."
At first, Polan, also a teacher at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, might seem an unusual choice as a copyist.
She creates portraits that bristle with interior energy, be they of an affectionate mother and son lounging on a couch, or an official portrait of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, caught in thought on a sturdy chair. Polan, who has exhibited work around the world, has also branched out to create intriguing installations that force viewers to construct their own narratives about her enigmatic subjects.
Captures a likeness
But Polan's imaginative approach to portraiture is equaled by an uncanny ability to re-create a likeness, a talent crucial for this assignment, Fogle says. Working from photographs taken of the Pratt original, she had to see what the artist, drawing from life, saw. It is "dangerous to try and reinterpret" the personality of someone who lived nearly 400 years ago, Fogle says.
Polan, well aware of copying's potential to be deadly dull, found ways to remain engaged in her task. "It has to stay interesting," she says. "I can't zone out."
She traveled to Kiplin Hall, capturing the context of its isolated setting and its historical significance. She studied Calvert and, as she worked, conducted imaginary dialogs with the man, weaving his public and private life into a story that sustained her curiosity.
Calvert is "very much a product of his time," she says. To understand him, "you have to understand the politics, exploration and the blossoming of literature," as well as the era's friction between Protestants and Catholics. Being aware of those tensions inherent in Calvert's life "adds more texture and depth" to the work, she says.
While utterly faithful to the original, Polan has found ways to make the Calvert painting hers. For example, she emphasizes a certain body language to give Calvert heft and presence. With his arm at his hip, "he could be very fey, but he's not. He's solid," she says.
As the portrait nears completion, "he is evolving into a very real person to me," Polan says. Calvert commands the bright Northwest Washington studio attached to her home, an incongruous presence in a space also filled with sketches, photos snipped from magazines and innovative portraits by Polan painted with abstract sweeps of color.
She is saving completion of his face for last. "Delayed gratification," Polan says.
In mid-August, Calvert's face remains blurry, but he is dapper in his dark court costume, recognizable as a member of the king's retinue. He was a "straight arrow," Fogle says, one of very few men of humble origins to rise above his station to the "highest social and economic levels in the land."
Calvert was also a reliable man, loyal to the throne and principled in his belief in religious freedom. Calvert died two months before he was awarded the Maryland charter, presented instead to his son and heir Cecil, the second Lord Baltimore.
When Calvert's portrait hangs for the first time in the home he rarely visited, the long loop linking Kiplin Hall to Maryland's founding will come full circle. And hundreds of years from now, Fogle says, tourists will no longer have to wonder what a remote, 17th-century English manor house has to do with the Free State.