John Laver, in his 1925 book “Portraits in Oil and Vinegar,” wrote of Sir Walter Russell:
“He might be described as a typical ‘New English” painter, typical, that is, of its earlier, more traditional days, before it had begun to open its gates to some of the more eccentric young men whose work has been seen at its recent exhibitions. He has always been admired by his fellow-artists, but until the success of Mr. Minney, his 1920 Academy picture now in the Tate Gallery, he was scarcely even a name among the philistines.
“It was the philistines’ loss.”
Sir Russell’s Mr. Minney was designated as picture of the year in 1920, I presume, but do not know, by the Royal Academy of the Arts. Who Mr. Minney was has been the object of much speculation:
“The Society for Theatre Research
Letter From Hon. Sec. Judith Hann 1990
A letter from the Society for Theatre Research, c/o The Theatre Museum, 1e Tavistock Street, London WC2E 7PA.
“The committee of the STR was most interested in the picture and we made various attempts to locate the sitter in reference works on stage performers, such as Wearing’s ‘London Theatre Record’ for the 1890’s.
“Alas we have drawn a blank, and if you find any more information we will be happy to investigate further. Part of the problem is that we are dealing here with a man of mature but unspecified age whose stage career might have been either recent or decades ago. He could have been a juvenile phenomenon, a chorus boy, a circus rider, a romantic lead long before 1920, or he might have played heavy fathers or sung comic songs much more recently. He may have had a stage name, too, or had a career in the provinces in an under-documented location.
“If you can pick up any further clues from the press coverage of the picture please pass them on. For example, any indication of whether Mr Minney was a ‘straight’ actor or a music hall artiste would be useful. So far the response to the picture is the only source we have; it is possible that if it aroused a lot of public interest Mr Minney was interviewed, photographed or written up in a chatty way for some non-specialist journal, there used to be much more interest in the Academy than there is now.
“Have you tried ‘Punch’, for instance? Or the ‘Tatler’? Or the ‘London Illustrated News’?'”
I thought, hubristically, that he required a bit of dressing up, and Paul Klee’s “Small Rhythmic Landscape” seemed just the thing.
Not satisfied with a Mr. Minney level of hubris, I decided that Giovanni Bellini’s “Portrait of Fra Teodoro of Urbino as Saint Dominic” (1515) required an update. Joan Mitchell provided the needed je ne sais quoi with her 1981 “Room.”
Ravel’s La Valse, which was first performed on 12 December 1920, seemed an appropriate accompaniment, probably for no reason other than it is a favorite piece of mine.