Monday, January 19, 2015

Oscar Harmon Barrett: The Importance of Provenance

Oscar Harmon Barrett was a well known and highly respected Producer of Pantomime in Victorian England, he was also a very talented artist and musician. I have a landscape painting of his on my wall.
I've had this painting for 42 years and I never tire of it. Its a watercolor painted in North Devon England in 1925, titled 'On The Lymn (Lynn)'

I was still in my teens when I first traveled to England, that is where I bought my second painting, then my 3rd, 4th and so on.. I was hooked!
Most of my early collection has been of  English Watercolors from the turn of the century. Many pieces were works on paper, framed under glass. I would remove the works from the frames and even if I kept the glass and frame, I would always replace the mat board and backing. Making sure to replace with only acid free paper and mats.
Often I'd find nuggets of information hidden out of view on the back of the art or behind the original mat board, on the face of the art, but out of view. Of course this information would then be added onto the back of any new backing board or paper.

This is how I came to own the original Oscar Barrett painting 'On the Lynn'. I was hiking around the English countryside and it was during a time when people did not appreciate the watercolor. The antique shop owners would tell me how everyone wanted oils, the watercolor was out of favor at the time. It would be 40 years before I could find out who Oscar Barrett was.. thank you Google and thank you to his great grand daughter Hope Barrett for writing the e-book 'Discovering Oscar'.

 The Provenance of a Painting.
Not all artists sign their paintings on the front, some sign on the back, some add information such as location and date if its a landscape. I've even seen time of day and number of piece as well as title. As an artist develops and learns the information they provide may change over time, even the signature itself, I've seen symbols, initials, and full on signature first middle and last name included. How and what and sometimes where an artist signs is all part of the signature, though not always consistent.
The sooner an emerging artist can nail down their signature the better. Better I say for the collector, and for the legacy of the artist.
Signature is a big deal, unless you as an artist are happy to have your paintings cataloged as "by unknown".. I didn't think so.
Firstly Provenance is the origin of the work, and then it's about the history of ownership. I see it also as pieces to a puzzle. Evidence of it's history.
I am not that collector who needs to worry about forgeries and high dollar gains or loses. My collection is about being surrounded by beautiful paintings by artists who've left a legacy of their talents. The signature and any additional information gleaned from a previous owner is to be passed on, insuring that the connection between art and artist remains.
That's the beginning of the provenance. Making a notation, a documentation as best you can, for the next person in line. This adds to the richness of the experience of collecting. Talk to any collector, and they love to talk about the art.
You buy a painting from a living artist, you are a patron and a collector. A simple thing that you can do, is copy down any information that is on the back of the piece, and when you have the piece framed have the framer glue that information to the back of the frames backing paper. I recommend you also include where and when you purchased the painting. Never write on the back of the art work or modify it in any way, unless it is your own work, hands off.
If I have news clippings about the artist, a review, or card for a gallery show, I put it in a clear sleeve or envelope with the artists name attached to the back of the frame. This is my way of making sure the art has a documented history. I also sign and date my notes. I think of myself as a steward of these 'one of a kind' treasures.
The provenance can add value and interest, it can add to the story behind the piece, the artist and in the case of a landscape, the place.

When I first purchased Oscar Barrett's landscape painting, I only knew it was painted by O.B. Not until I removed the frame could I see all the information he had provided, just below the image.
It would be another 40 years before I could find any more information about him. Now I have photos of the artist, stories and historical facts. When I recently re-framed this piece I had the new mat cut to reveal Oscars handwritten notes.

I hope this was helpful to you. If you have original art, remember that it's the only one there is. It is in your stewardship to preserve and conserve for future generations.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Insightful...i like the personal touch in seeing the "artist's hand" with the hand-written information on the edge....Great post!