Sides drawn in portraits tussle

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the atrium of Baltimore's main library, the first Lord Baltimore - George Calvert - and his five successors stare down at patrons from full-length oil paintings, dimly lit and hung high above eye level.

They've been there since 1940, when Baltimore surgeon Hugh Hampton Young donated five portraits to the Enoch Pratt Free Library, which acquired the sixth.

But a tug of war is in the making over display of the historic paintings. State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller is eyeing them for a spot in the State House in Annapolis, near a portrait of George Washington and other Colonial and early Republic art. Library and city officials are loath to part with what they see as a Baltimore cultural treasure.

"The issue is where they are best displayed in all of Maryland," Miller, a lawyer and amateur historian, said of the paintings of Maryland's founding family, done by court painters. "They're not appreciated by the public now. They belong in the State House for maximum visibility."

Carla D. Hayden, the Pratt's executive director, and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley say they would prefer a compromise: sending two replicas - of the first two Lords Baltimore - that hang in the formal entrance hallway at Baltimore City Hall.

"They hold the wall well, but the Calverts are not seen by many citizens, just during grand events," O'Malley said of the City Hall reproductions. "I'd be open to that [loan] and glad to work with Senator Miller." The originals, he said, "are seen by a lot of Marylanders at the central library."

The Pratt's set of paintings, done in the 17th and 18th centuries, were assessed three years ago at $600,000, said Pratt spokeswoman Mona Rock. Young's 1940 gift to the Baltimore library came after the set surfaced at Sotheby's auction house and an exhibit at the American Embassy in London in the 1930s.

The series begins with the first Lord Baltimore, born in Yorkshire in the 1580s. The second Lord Baltimore, Cecil Calvert, was noteworthy because he received the colony charter from King Charles I and published a Maryland map in 1635, according to Pratt records. The sixth lord, Frederick Calvert, was a dissolute character who never set foot in the colony and died in 1771.

One portrait artist, Sir Godfrey Kneller, remains well-known today, said David P. Fogle, a retired professor of urban planning at the University of Maryland, who is advising Miller.

"Each painting represents a period of Colonial history," Fogle said. "They should come out from a dark and difficult place."

Miller's quest to bring the paintings to the State House began last summer, after he visited the English ancestral home of the Lords Baltimore, Kiplin Hall. During the trip, Lord John Eden - a direct descendant of the lords pictured at the Pratt - told the Senate president he was unhappy with the way his ancestors are displayed on the Baltimore library walls, saying that the portraits lack clear identification and context.

"We're going to have some British lords and ladies coming here this spring or summer," Miller said, noting that Eden is expected to visit the state this year. He characterized the main Pratt library as an "inappropriate forum" for the portraits.

Elaine Rice Bachman, curator of the state's commission on artistic properties, said the paintings would be a natural fit in the nation's oldest statehouse, which is home to the monumental painting, Washington, Lafayette and Tilghman at Yorktown, by Charles Willson Peale.

In Miller's view, the best setting for the Lords Baltimore would be near the old Senate Chamber.

But it's far from a done deal.

For one thing, the full set of portraits rarely leaves the library. And those who oversee the Pratt like the paintings just where they are on Cathedral Street.

Hayden, referring to her compromise, said, "And that's it."

Former state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Pratt trustee, said Miller's suggestion has not appeared on the board's agenda, adding that a permanent loan might violate restrictions on the gift.

"To accommodate [Miller], we could have a reception at the Pratt," she said. "A nice event for the portraits when the [Eden] family visits."

Hovering over the discussion is the matter of money.

Miller says he is a staunch General Assembly ally of the Pratt, which also serves as the state library resource center. State funding accounts for about half of the library's $32 million annual budget, Pratt officials said.

"I'm the foremost advocate for libraries in the state, and the Enoch Pratt needs a lot of money," Miller said.

"They depend on bond bills from the General Assembly, and we have to work with them in partnership." The bottom line, he said: "We want the pictures. We'll listen to what Dr. Hayden and the [Pratt] board have to say."

In the meantime, Pratt patrons continue to enjoy the portraits as a familiar presence.

"Let them stay where they are," said Freddie McCrea, a 44-year-old Baltimore native, scanning photo Web sites in the library's main hall one recent afternoon. "This is the largest city in the state. More people come here but don't get to the State House.

"You know they're there," McCrea added. "You'd notice if they weren't there."

jamie.stiehm@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
75°