SMU gallery gathers clues about portrait of mystery man

Robin Metcalfe, curator of the Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery, as a mystery on his hands. (Photo: Bhreagh MacDonald)

The Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery is close to solving the curious case of the mystery man in the painting.

Last year Richard Homburg, the head of Halifax-based Homburg International Group and a major supporter of Saint Mary’s, donated 81 paintings to the university.

The paintings were part of his personal collection. Fourteen were chosen to be a part of the university’s permanent gallery. One has no signature and the name of the subject is unknown.

It is titled Portrait of Man Holding Book, but it once had another name. Before the mystery man took up residence in the gallery, he was part of Homburg family home. Homburg’s daughter, Shawna Homburg-Beaumont, remembers that she used to call him “Eddie.”

Robin Metcalfe, the director and curator for the gallery, wants to know more about “Eddie.”

Portrait of a Man Holding Book is different than any other piece in the gallery’s permanent collection. It’s of higher calibre than other pieces painted in Halifax during the 19th century.

Metcalfe says he hasn’t received a lot of tips on the identity of the mystery man, but he did receive a valuable clue from Dianne O’Neill, a local art historian and curator for the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

O’Neill told Metcalfe that the man in the painting resembles men from other portraits who were part of the Uniacke family of Halifax during the 19th century. It is hard to ignore the similarity of the men’s long, sharp noses.

Richard John Uniacke was the attorney general of Nova Scotia, a member of Nova Scotia’s legislative assembly and contributed to the creation of King’s College.

His children were notable lawyers and political figures in Halifax, including his son, James Boyle, who was Nova’s Scotia’s first premier.

The Uniacke estate still exists as a provincial museum in Mount Uniacke.

As for the painter, Metcalfe thinks it is unlikely that he or she was from Halifax.

“Generally speaking, the better works of that calibre were done by artists that were not based here, but were trained in Europe or in England and who travelled around and spent a certain amount of time in a certain community,” said Metcalfe. They would do “a sweep of the monied families” and paint portraits.

From these clues, a possible identity of the artist was pieced together.

Nicole MacIntyre studied fine art, including art history of the 19th and 20th centuries, at NSCAD and Cape Breton universities. She examines the painting to gather clues about its origin. (Photo: Bhreagh MacDonald)

Metcalfe thinks that it could have been William Gush, an artist from England who visited Halifax in 1858. He stayed in the area for about four months and earned a living by painting many notable Nova Scotians, including portraits of Sir William Fenwick Williams and Sir John Inglis that still hang in Province House.

He was also commissioned to paint portraits for other members of the Uniacke family.

Nicole MacIntyre, a local artist who studied at NSCAD University, says the artist was highly skilled. She guesses the painting was probably a commissioned portrait.

“This wouldn’t be just a regular man. A political figure maybe …. If he was a nobody they wouldn’t have spent so much time painting him. It would have taken 40 hours at least.”

MacIntyre also points out how “his face looks like a photograph.” She says that even some well-trained painters may not be able to achieve that effect.

Gush had a high level of training. He worked as a copyist at London’s National Gallery from the age of 11, until he achieved success at 20, when his first portrait was chosen to be part of the National Gallery. He also established a successful career of painting portraits for Methodist ministers.

These clues offer a good idea who the painter was and who the subject of the painting could be. But their true identities may remain a mystery.