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The Art in My Office: An Eclectic Mix of Beauty, Sternness, and Sophistication


In 2011, the Virginia Historical Society started offering a new program: behind the scenes tours. Each month, VHS staff take special guests through locked doors, into security-monitored stairwells, around climate-controlled storage rooms, and into working spaces, such as the conservation lab and the Mellon Rare Book Room. These tours offer a glimpse into the non-public parts of the building, but they also give VHS staff the opportunity to show off some items in the collection that aren’t currently—or may have never been—on display in the museum galleries. (Remember, the VHS has MILLIONS of items in the collection. We can’t have them all on display.) Each tour focuses on a different area in Virginia’s past, from Virginia Indians to Civil War love stories, from shipboard disasters to tales of murder and mayhem.

This oil-on-fabric painting features a farmhouse in Southwest Virginia with a white board fence in the lower right corner. Trees, fields, and a ridge of blue mountains are in the background. The painting has a wood frame painted black with applied painted wood flowers and leaves. The entire composition is in a country/folk art style. The painting is signed in the lower right corner “W.C. COLEMAN.” Coleman was an artist from Pennington Gap, Virginia (Lee County), who lived and worked in the Roanoke and Pattonville areas in the 1930’s. (1996.40.1)

The July 10, 2012, behind the scenes tour focuses on art in staff offices. Here’s a job perk about working at the VHS: you get to choose from various items in the collection to hang on your office wall. Real live (ok, not live), sometimes several-hundred-year-old artwork that would normally be in storage where no one could see it except a few museum curators and collections staff gets to see real, live (in this case actually live) people day in and day out.

Recently Andy Talkov, VHS head of program development, came wandering into my office looking at the art on my walls as he prepares for the behind the scenes tour. I’ll be honest, my first thought was “please don’t pick my art. I don’t have time to clean my office!!” Plus, I didn’t really think my artwork was that interesting. But, then he asked me why I chose each piece, and it made me think about my reactions to the art when I saw each item for the first time.

I have a painted mountain scene directly in front of my desk that I look at daily. It was in my office when I came to the society more than five years ago. It’s very nice—almost with a folk-art feel to it—and I love the mountains, so I left it where it was. There is also a medium-sized painting of a small waterfall flowing into a little creek surrounded by trees full of green leaves. Again, this piece was in my office when I arrived, so it remained.

This small painting on panel by C.B. Ogden, titled “A Rare Backyard,” is signed and dated “Sept 1887.” The painting depicts a woodland scene with a small creek running through the trees. It is part of the Lora Robins Collection of Virginia Art at the Virginia Historical Society. (1996.69.2)

For the longest time I didn’t add any art. I was too busy learning how to do my job for the first year that I didn’t go through the locked storage areas to choose new pieces to add to my walls. Finally, after I kept getting comments from coworkers about how bare my walls were, I made time.

It didn’t take me long to pick the paintings I wanted for the three remaining walls in my office. I had several hundred to choose from, but I quickly determined the ones I liked best. I didn’t choose the portraits because of the people who were depicted, because of the time period, or because of the region in Virginia they were from; I simply decided on the portraits I thought were most interesting.

Constance Cary Harrison (featured in the portrait to my right as I sit at my computer) is a voluptuous, middle-aged redhead. Her skin is more tan than I would expect for a redhead. I often wonder if she is from a Scottish or Irish family. Her portrait is painted from the side, offering a profile view of her round, rosy face. She is wearing a plain black dress and has on no jewelry. The portrait stops mid-torso, so her arms and hands are not visible. The background of the painting is a plain brownish color that gets lighter around the edges close to the dull gold frame. The artist has added thick brush strokes to give the background and dress a heavy textured feeling.Harrison’s facial expression makes me think she is determined and confident. She strikes me as a sophisticated woman who would let her unhappy feelings of being kept in a dark storage room be known, but she would do so in a proper, almost manipulating, manner.

Sally Cary (in the artwork to my left while sitting at my desk) is a beautiful young woman. She is wearing a low-cut orange dress with white trim around the neckline and sleeves and a piece of dark green fabric around her hips. Her curly brown hair is pulled back and her lips are a bright but deep pink. She looks happy and at peace with her situation and surroundings. But, what is most interesting to me about Cary is that she is standing on a balcony (or porch) with large evergreen-looking trees in the background. Judging by the color of the mostly hidden sky, it is nearly dusk. And positioned perfectly

This portrait in oils of Constance Cary Harrison (1843-1920) was painted by Alice Pike Barney in the late 19th century. Harrison was married to Burton Harrison, a lawyer and American democratic politician. She was a prolific American writer and author of “Recollections Grave and Gay” (c. 1911). Harrison and two of her cousins were known as the “Cary Invincibles;” the three sewed the first examples of the Confederate Battle Flag during the Civil War. (1959.32)

between Cary’s pointer finger and thumb on her left hand is a pale pink rose picked while in full bloom. The rose doesn’t look like it could have come from any of the foliage depicted in the background of the painting. The pose was obviously very deliberate and to me seems very weird, but not cold or stiff.Cary seems slightly whimsical, and because of her youthful delicate beauty, her portrait should have never been allowed to be placed in storage out of the public’s eye.

And last, but certainly not least, is Eliza H. Shipp Burton. Ms. Burton (I wouldn’t dare refer to her without the salutation) is placed directly behind my desk chair on my back office wall. I don’t see her as much because most of the day I have my back to her, but she’s there. I know she is because I can feel her looking at me, watching me to make sure I’m doing the work I’m supposed to be doing.

This early twentieth century painting, an oil on canvas, by Duncan Smith features Sally Cary Fairfax (1730-1811). Fairfax was the wife of George William Fairfax (1729–1787), a prominent member of the landed gentry of late colonial Virginia. She is reported as being the woman George Washington was in love with just before his marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis. (1990.5.2)

The portrait has more muted colors than that of Cary’s or Harrison’s … except for a bright blue and white bonnet covering Ms. Burton’s hair. The head piece is tied with a big blue bow under her chin. It stands out against the conservative dark brown dress she is wearing and the lighter brown rocking chair in which she is sitting. The background of the painting is a plain, flat grayish-brown. Her lips are thin and light pink, her skin is pale, her cheeks are rosy, and her eyes are big and blue. The eyelashes are painted so exactly and precisely that it makes me wonder if the artist concentrated on that detail for a specific reason. And, Ms. Burton has only one hand showing; her right hand is resting across her lap and holding a medium-sized hand fan that looks like it was made out of a reed-like material. Her pinky is sticking up ever so much and is slightly crooked at the tip. (It reminds me of my grandfather’s pinky that was reattached crookedly when he cut the tip off at a saw mill when he was young.) The position of her hand, arm, and the fan is awkward to me, but more interestingly, it makes me wonder why someone would have a portrait painted of themselves holding a (in today’s standards cheap) fan.

Most of the visitors to my office, including coworkers, don’t agree with my choice to have Ms. Burton in my office. They feel her expression is stern and that she could reach out and smack me with that fan if I act up. But I don’t feel she is mean looking; she is just pensive and disciplined. Ms. Burton is happy to be out of storage and overseeing all work that needs to be accomplished in my busy eight-hour-a-day, forty-hour-a-week schedule.

This portrait in oils of Elizabeth H. Shipp Burton (1804-1862) was painted by John Toole (1815-1860) in 1841. Burton was the wife of Benjamin Burton of Rock Hill, Virginia, in Madison County. (1971.29)

The images on the VHS website of each of these paintings doesn’t do them justice. I think Andy has my office on the list of stops during the behind the scenes tour on July 10. I highly encourage you to sign up so you can see these interesting pieces of art in person. I’ll try to make time to clean my office up a bit before you come.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Leslie Griffin permalink
    09/23/2012 12:22 pm

    Thanks for your article – Eliza H Shipp Burton is a distant relation! I love your interpretation of her countenance. Always amazing to put a face with a name – thanks for getting her out of storage! BTW, her cousin Emma Grant Shipp Truman is Harry S Truman’s great-grandmother. Leslie Griffin


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