In early July, a team of art conservators from the Yale Center for British Art packed up Cecil Calvert, Second Lord Baltimore, and took him back to New Haven, Conn., to be part of an exhibit called Great British Paintings from American Collections: Holbein to Hockney. The show will be at Yale from Sept. 26 to Dec. 30, after which it shows at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., from Feb. 3 to May 5, 2002.
Cecil Calvert's portrait was singled out by the Yalies because it really is a great painting, displaying technical mastery and psychological depth. The artist, Gerard Soest, captured a rugged face, tight lips, and a sharp glance to one side; the nobleman looks tough and wary, but tired. Under a long velvety coat, he wears what we might call a dress, with gold embroidery rendered in great detail and authentic light. Unlike the other five portraits, Soest's masterpiece features two smaller figures that give the picture both balance and interest. Stepping in from the left, a black servant gazes down at a small child, who gestures at a map of Maryland. Sixty years ago, when scholars debated the age of the picture, the map and the lord's clothing--in a style that, experts say, had a very short vogue--were key in dating the painting to about 1670. The child, long thought to be Cecil's son Charles, the third lord, was in fact Cecil's grandson, who died in his teens. (Cecil's wife, by the way, was Anne Arundell. She died at the age of 34.)
It seems fitting that Cecil Calvert's portrait is the standout of the group. Although the first Lord Baltimore, George Calvert, arranged for the royal "patent," or grant, to the lands around the Chesapeake Bay, he died in 1632, two months before the paperwork was finalized. Cecil, who never actually visited the New World, inherited Maryland at the age of 26, and for the rest of his life he struggled to keep his grip on the new colony and--more nobly--to preserve it as a haven for Christians of every denomination. It was Cecil Calvert who dispatched the Ark and the Dove to establish the beachhead at St. Mary's City, under the governance of his brother Leonard, for whom nearby Leonardtown is named.
The likeness of George Calvert is no great record of character, but it's a fine icon of imperial England. George comes off as a suave, worldly, self-confident chap, dressed in swashbuckling style with a black cape, a golden sword, and a black Zorro hat. In spite of being a defiant Catholic, the urbane and adventurous George was a favorite of the Protestant King James, whom he served as secretary of state. After retiring from public life, George Calvert traveled to Newfoundland and Virginia before asking King James' successor, Charles I, to give him the parcel dubbed Terrae Mariae.
The later lords are weakly rendered. The portrait of Cecil's son, Charles, the third lord, looks like a caricature of pomposity, with an oversized wig and swinish features. Benedict, the fourth lord, strikes an unnatural, effeminate pose. Charles, the fifth, appears stuck-up and impatient (and the painting looks downright unfinished). Last of all comes Frederick, the final lord, who died in 1771 at the age of 40. His pink suit is loaded with florid detail, but it's depicted with all the depth and weight of a paper doll. Still, the smooth, conceited face in the painting matches historian William Wilson's description of Frederick Calvert, as written in a tart essay that ran in the August 1967 edition of American Heritage magazine: "weak, querulous, and something of a fool"--as his father, Charles, was reputed to be--"and vicious as well." Frederick bequeathed colonial Maryland to his illegitimate son, Henry Harford, who was 9 years old when he inherited; hence, the county to Baltimore's northeast was literally named after a little bastard.
All six paintings wound up in the possession of the aristocratic Eden family, descendants of Maryland's last colonial governor, Sir Robert Eden, and Lady Caroline Calvert Eden, Frederick Calvert's sister. After the Edens auctioned them off in 1933, Cecil's portrait was snapped up by the flamboyant American publisher William Randolph Hearst--who, whatever else anyone might say about him, had a good eye. The rest, after some unrecorded vicissitudes, were bought by a Baltimorean, Dr. Hugh Hampton Young. In 1940, Young offered to donate them to the Pratt if the library would buy Cecil's portrait from Hearst. Hearst parted with the painting for $8,750, and the family was reunited.
Painted by six different artists over nearly 150 years, the portraits seem to reflect what historian Wilson said about the six lords themselves: "progressively, generation by generation, men of decreasing vitality and intelligence." Pretty much what we red-blooded Yanks have always suspected about British nobility, isn't it?
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