Sunday, March 25, 2012
A good proportion of my working life is spent immersed in what we in art museums call “provenance research,” in other words the history of the ownership of individual works of art, usually but not always those in our care. Lately, this work has assumed considerable importance owing to the grim legacy of the Nazis who (apart from the obvious) also systematically stole enormous quantities of cultural property from Jewish families, in due course propelling much of it thence to the postwar international art market, and effectively thus bequeathing to future generations the task of tracing, correctly identifying, and, with luck, restoring it to their surviving descendants. Alas, contrary to certain impressions created by the media, we do not often succeed in bringing about such happy reunions, but in the course of our inquiries we do encounter intriguing people and stories somewhat arbitrarily joined by the common thread of custody and stewardship, sometimes over the course of several centuries.
Unlike people, objects travel light. Today we leave in our wake a ridiculous confetti of telephone records, flight bookings, receipts, tax returns, correspondence, and every conceivable kind of documentation with which our path through life may be plotted with surprising accuracy, often these days for the benefit of British tabloid newspapers. By contrast, it can be exceedingly difficult to establish that such-and-such a picture listed in an old inventory as Portrait of a Woman is one and the same as the painting we are just now attempting to pin on a particular mid-eighteenth-century sale or owner. At times we can be more fortunate, as for example when the line in that old inventory expands helpfully into Portrait of a Woman Wearing Yellow Shoes, and Caressing With Her Left Hand the Wing of a Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo. If not exactly a smoking gun, this at least confines our search to a mercifully small subgroup of pictures in which, say, a Restoration beauty poses with a readily identifiable species of parrot, such that the likelihood of more than one such sitter wearing yellow shoes is no higher than being struck by an asteroid on New Haven Green. In other words I suppose it could happen, but it seems unlikely.
Such random thoughts were this morning prompted by this good replica of The Cottage Door by Thomas Gainsborough, which for about 100 years in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries passed through three generations of the naturalized Huguenot family of Daubuz in Cornwall, in the west country of England: in particular the Reverend John Claude Daubuz, sometime Rector of Creed in the Diocese of Truro, who sits squarely in the middle. The original painting is in the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif.
Mr. Daubuz was the third son of Lewis Charles Daubuz, a mercantile gentleman of ample but not limitless means. John Claude matriculated on May 2, 1821, aged seventeen, and duly went up to Exeter College, Oxford, almost certainly predestined for Holy Orders—having presumably shown no early aptitude for deployment in the Royal Navy, or suitability for an articled clerkship, which at this date were the two other useful trajectories for relatively impecunious younger sons.
After four years, rather longer than usual, and only by the skin of his teeth, young Mr. Daubuz took out his degree, and was in 1828 ordained priest by the Right Reverend George Henry Law, Bishop of Bath and Wells.
In 1836, Mr. Daubuz married Mary Uzella, the daughter of a wealthy banker, William Foster, of Lanwithan Manor, Lostwithiel. On their wedding day Mr. and Mrs. Daubuz signed a deed according to which they became the beneficiaries of a substantial trust established for her benefit by Mr. Foster. That trust was still in a robust state of health almost fifty years later—earning nearly exactly the same modest but rock-solid rate of interest; there were few if any financial bubbles in Victorian Britain. The healthy state of Mrs. Daubuz’s finances, as indeed the robust state of their physical health also, made it possible for Mr. Daubuz to live undisturbed as Rector of Creed from 1829 to 1857, presumably for most of that nearly thirty-year period occupying a tranquil, plain, unpretentious whitewashed Cornish country house—the ne plus ultra of a comfortable Georgian rectory. It is set on a slight rise, surrounded by a mature park and garden. I have seen it.
At this date the Oxford Movement made little impact on the life of the parish of Creed, or the local deanery. Indeed I daresay word of it only occasionally reached the Lord Bishop’s palace in Truro, creating uneasiness. Evidently Mr. Daubuz took the trouble to preach every few years, and at roughly the same intervals presided over what was at that time known as “the Lord’s Supper”—in other words only when successive curates either went missing, died, or were incapacitated by shingles, or the flux.
In between times Mr. Daubuz published nothing; filled no other public office; served on no jury; managed to avoid any obligation arising from a justiceship of the peace or any minor magistracy that might otherwise have required the attention of the local squire and/or parson; scrupulously refrained from becoming directly involved in the affairs of his rapidly multiplying tribe of children, and otherwise lived quietly as a normal English country clergyman of means—from time to time dispensing appropriately modest sums in charity to old soldiers, destitute widows, and the poorest of his tenants, perhaps stimulated in that direction by this very picture.
“St. Creed” (or St. Crida) is a beautiful old parish church, with a distinguished set of seventeenth-century bronze bells.
At great length, after he relinquished the living of Creed, Mr. and Mrs. Daubuz retired to Killiow House, near Truro. Killiow is now a golf club, but by all accounts it was an exceedingly ancient manor, and the pretty old Georgian house that survives today was wholly transformed during the Regency by Mr. Daubuz’s father. John Claude Daubuz made a plucky effort to introduce pike into one of the artificial ponds he built at Killiow, but they died out soon afterwards. This is a valuable hint towards what was probably Mr. Daubuz’s preferred occupation: fishing. Certainly his only institutional affiliation, apart from the Church of England, seems to have been with the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall, and joining it as an ordinary member may have been a shrewd method of preparing to build his ponds.
Having successfully avoided any form of intellectual stimulus for upwards of fifty years, in peaceful retirement Mr. Daubuz discovered the pleasures of controversialism. His first tract was published locally in Truro by Netherton and Worth in 1879, and was entitled The Origin and Nature of Man: His Fallen State: His Redemption: How Effected, and By Whom. This attracted some attention in the press, specifically a bold response by some bright spark, perhaps an ambitious young clergyman, a self-appointed new broom, to which, after two years of rumination, Mr. Daubuz cautiously replied with A Defence and Explanation of a Treatise on the “Origin and Nature of Man,” that is, “A reply by J. Daubuz to a critique in the newspaper the Rock of his The Origin and Nature of Man,” and, at length adding to these, within only a few months of his death on September 24, 1883, some final Thoughts on the Creation of the World, and the Fall of Man. There was nothing surprising, new, flamboyant, or even particularly scholarly here, except a Mr. Septimus Harding-like goodness, dependability, and a dutiful determination, perhaps, to tow the Lord Bishop’s line.
Old Mrs. Daubuz was still going strong in 1885, when, recently widowed, she appeared in her own right as an entry in Edward Walford’s The County Families of the United Kingdom, though hers is one of many marked with a cross, apparently indicating “that the family to whose name it is prefixed have failed to supply the editor with full and satisfactory information in time for publication.” This is a typical Walford put-down, but may also suggest that Mrs. Daubuz and her family were in fact admirably un-preoccupied by aspirational matters of pedigree.
Now I should hasten to underline that no rational person would hold up Mr. Daubuz as a plausible model for ordained ministry today. His little world is as distant from ours as the county town of Truro is as far from New Haven, Conn. Yet I confess I have grown to like him. He wore no mask, and carried no mantle of high office. He wrote little, most probably said even less, and kept himself to himself. He was certainly not a flashy art collector. He merely inherited this replica of the painting by Gainsborough that led me to Mr. Daubuz in the first place, and in the end, when he expired peacefully at the great age of 78 or 79, he bequeathed it to his eldest son and namesake, along with much of the rest of his estate.
However, in between, Mr. Daubuz lent his picture, together with A Portrait of the Artist as a Beggar by Jan Steen, to the Royal Academy Exhibition of the Works of the Old Masters at Burlington House in Piccadilly, presumably leaving for a period of four or five months two rather conspicuous holes on the flocked walls of his dining room. Having passed into his care unsought, evidently he made sure that the painting was properly looked after—it is today in good if not pristine state—and generously agreed to share his picture with an interested public when, to his infinite surprise, the Royal Academy begged leave to borrow it. Mr. Daubuz rarely traveled up to London, and one can only imagine the bemusement with which he watched his pictures being loaded into the cart, then rattle alarmingly down his drive en route for Falmouth and an insubstantial cutter bound for Gravesend.
By any measure Mr. Daubuz’s footprint was exceedingly light. His achievements were modest; indeed his impact upon his parish, his diocese, and his county were, as far as one can tell, practically zero. Yet it is also true that he did no discernible damage, acquired no enemies, raised no eyebrows, shook no foundations, left his peaceful world essentially as he found it, and passed out of the sight of men without reproach. He maintained his wife’s estate, and did not exploit it other than for the benefit of her heirs, their posterity. It was said that Mr. Daubuz bore a striking physical resemblance to the Duke of Wellington, but unlike His Grace he never had anybody flogged for insubordination, tempting though it may have been to resort to that radical measure when an under-gardener at Killiow was caught swiping one of his beloved pike.
Lately I have observed in quite a different context how ordinary people who lived and died in the distant past have, at times, the knack of swimming from faintness into vivid focus—thanks in this instance to a red beeswax seal bearing the arms of the family of Lewis Charles Daubuz, and a fragile brown scrap of paper with an explanatory note in pen and black ink that is still firmly glued to the back of the stretcher. By and by, despite their obscurity, such men and women may even strike one as extraordinary. Of course, it helps mightily if, once upon a time, you were lucky enough to be guided through the first few decades of your own life by a gentleman as dutiful and unostentatious as the Reverend Mr. Daubuz. Such are the emotional roots of any practicing historian, and, as this Eastertide rapidly approaches, I suspect they help to point us in the right direction.