3849 – ‘Haunted’ Victorian Portrait, c. 1840s (American)

Physical description:
A Victorian portrait of a child (gender unknown) standing next to a pot plant. Rendered in charcoal on board, and probably drawn from a photograph, or perhaps a photograph which has been enhanced by charcoal and white crayons.
Museum classification:
Spiritualism
Size:
60 x 80 cm
Information:
A Victorian portrait of a child (gender unknown) standing next to a pot plant. Rendered in charcoal on board, and probably drawn from a photograph, or perhaps a photograph which has been enhanced by charcoal and white crayons.
 
The back shows signs of charcoal use (shading and patches) and is inscribed '300', 'Mrs Kohl'? and '1436 Weistfield'?  This may refer to the original owner, whose details where inscribed there by the framer, photography studio or by the owner themselves.
 
It was donated to the Museum because it was felt to be 'haunted', being at the centre of numerous supernatural phenomena (see below). The picture was donated to the Museum in 2017 by Simon Adamson. The item was acquired by Simon for his friend Katherine Laws, at a charity auction on the Ellen DeGeneres Show (a popular US talk show, which Katherine loved). In the autumn of 2015 Simon got a VIP ticket to the show in Los Angeles. The following is taken from Simon's email explaining the acquisition of the object:
 
"Flash forward to October 2015 and I am sat on the 4th row of the show. The musical act is Carrie Underwood and Will Forte of Saturday Night Live and the Last Man on Earth is on the sofa talking about the upcoming new season. The conversation veers over to a painting he has at his home, this odd painting of a young girl which he says is haunted. As the show progresses they decide to do a charity auction for the painting with all proceeds going to Breast Cancer Research (October is national Breast Cancer awareness month in the USA.) Ellen and Will also say that they will autograph the back of the painting.
 
I decide that the best thing would be if I can somehow win this painting and be able to give one of my best friends the autograph of her idol on the worst thing imaginable. As you can see in the video I win the painting and they autograph it. It’s a hilarious moment and a few days later I package it up and ship it home (it’s just too big to carry around.)
 
When I tell Kat the story she just can’t believe it - it’s crazy right? Well the painting arrives a few days later and she is both amused, a little shocked and horrified at the condition I put on it. To irritate her I say she can have it but she must hang it in a public part of her home for at least a month. It can’t be shut away in a back bedroom or a bathroom and must be somewhere that people who visited can see it. I just liked the idea people would see it on the wall and assume it was a relative or something.
 
So [Katherine] hangs it on her wall by the stairs which you can see when you walk into the home. Her husband ... is not happy about this - he doesn't like it and it creeps him out. Now at this time [Katherine] was working away from home a lot as part of a project, generally being away for 3 nights of the week. In this time a number of things happened including:
 
  • A few strange noises
  • Items in the home moving
  • Chris’ iPhone making white noise on two separate occasions when it was locked and away from anyone - iPhones don’t do that!
 
About 6 months later the painting had come off the wall and was being stored in a spare bedroom between a wardrobe and the wall. One night they are woken by a strange crashing sound, go into the room and find the painting lying on the floor front side up. The distance from the wardrobe was quite great so it wasn’t just that it had slipped out. Somehow it had moved across the room.
 
As funny as it initially was [Katherine] asked me to look after the painting for a bit as Chris just couldn’t have it in the home anymore. The autograph from Ellen was on a separate sheet of paper that was on the back so for her birthday I had this mounted and framed as a memento and got in touch with you guys about donating the painting. This way she still has the autograph of her idol (which was the whole point) and the haunted girl will have a new home where she will be appreciated. Kat and I both think this is a great end to this story.
 
I don’t know the history of the piece, apart from it being owned by Will Forte. I don’t actually know if it is even a painting or some sort of print in an old frame."
 
Video is available of the Ellen Degenerous Show here:
 

 


Analysis

The portrait was probably made during a period when painted portraiture was slowly being eclipsed by photography (c. 1840s). Such portraits, derived from photographs but fashioned to give a 'hand-drawn' aesthetic probably fit into a wider 'cult of sensibility' in which nineteenth century families juxtaposed poetry about love, ephemerality, beauty and melancholic longing with portraits of family members both living and dead. Usually bound together in albums, this large portrait may have occupied a gallery depicting other members of the Kohl family, but beyond this little more can be said of the provenance of the object. Many scholars have written about photographic portraiture as a 'conduit of memory', and the use of photographs in the process of mourning. Some also have written about photographs as foci of melancholia or depression which happens, it is said, when 'mourning goes wrong'. Perhaps the portrait was the focus of 'failed' mourning which charged, stained or imbued the item with energies that caused the phenomena caused above? The rise of spiritualism in the nineteenth century - the belief that the spirits of the dead are willing and able to communicate with the living - also gives a wider context to this object.

For more information on these ideas with reference to English portraiture see Patrizia Di Bello, Women's Albums and Photography in Victorian England: Ladies, Mothers and Flirts, (Routledge: 2016).

Resource:
Object
Materials:
Wooden frame, board with charcoal, photographic transfer?
Copyright ownership:
MWM