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Artistic Detective Work: Finding the elusive work of Giddings Hyde Ballou

Artistic Detective Work: Finding the elusive work of Giddings Hyde Ballou – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – July 2003

By: C. L. Sebrell

Until Ellen St. Sure became an art sleuth, the portraits of Giddings Hyde Ballou were a mystery. Ballou never signed his works, and his paintings were never catalogued. His work was all but forgotten to everyone save a few who owned his paintings. He and his memory were all but lost to history until St. Sure came along and launched an incredible one-woman search for the artist’s legacy.

St. Sure’s path crossed the shadows cast by Ballou’s past six or seven years ago when she came across a reference to him in a manuscript of a memoir written by Sarah Augusta Mayo, who was born in Brewster, Mass., in 1830. In the memoir, Mayo describes her Cape Cod town, her family, and a “Mr. Ballou,” a portrait painter from Medford, Mass., who had come to the seaside to improve his precarious health.

Ballou, it turns out, had painted quite a few members of the Brewster society, but St. Sure was given only a few clues. In Mayo’s writings, she never gave the artist’s first name, and she did not say who, exactly, in town had sat for the portraitist. The conundrum was made more complex by the fact that Ballou’s name had been misspelled in an early transcript as “Ballen.” This typographical error committed by a typist so long ago, sent St. Sure to dead end after dead end in census records, until one day she stumbled on an archive of old papers. “I came on a reference to a ‘wandering’ painter named Ballou who had also worked for a time in Brewster — and realized that the name Ballen might be a misreading of Ballou,” St. Sure writes in her introduction to a catalogue that will accompany the first exhibition of Ballou’s collected works in history.

Giddings Hyde Ballou’s works, which have been scattered in homes and galleries across the country, will be on display at the Brewster Ladies’ Library, in Brewster, Mass., from August 12 through September 6. This significant exhibit represents the culmination of St. Sure’s lengthy and arduous search for the work of this accomplished but forgotten Cape Cod portraitist.

The fact that this show was able to take place is due to a series of “miracles,” St. Sure said. One look at the series of coincidences, and it is hard not to conclude that St. Sure’s task was fated her. The first of these came about the same time that she realized that Ballen and Ballou were one and the same man. She received an unexpected phone call from a Brewster man she did not know, but who was looking for someone to help transcribe a series of old family papers he had inherited. Along with these papers, the man also inherited three portraits. The paintings were not signed, but he knew they were all members of a family that lived in Brewster in the mid-19th century. St. Sure, having just read Mayo’s memoir, recognized the name of the family as one that Ballou had stayed with while he lived in Brewster.

There were other “miracles,” too. St. Sure had contacted a woman in Iowa some years ago during her research on another Brewster-related subject. The woman told her that she had several ancestral paintings that she and her husband had inherited. She knew where the various portraits were and who the sitters were, but she did not know who had painted them.

“From her descriptions, I knew that all of these people—the elderly Mrs. Knowles, two of her sea captain sons, her teenage daughter and two granddaughters—had lived in Brewster in a house just across from the home in which Ballou had boarded from 1847 to 1853,” St. Sure said. “On stylistic grounds alone, at least four of these portraits can be quite firmly attributed to Ballou.”

But perhaps the most remarkable Ballou discovery was the surprise result of a chance conversation, some four years ago, with Edith Broderick, owner of Works of Art Antiques in Brewster. Knowing that she specialized in 19th century portraits, St. Sure asked her if she knew anything of a painter named Ballou. She did not, but a year or more later, despite having lost St. Sure’s card, she nevertheless managed to send St. Sure a note saying that she had seen in a private home on the Cape an old painting, purchased at auction together with an original signed receipt dated January 14, 1841, acknowledging that G.H. Ballou had received $10 from Mr. Isaac Small of North Truro “for painting a portrait of himself.”

About the same time, a Chatham friend told St. Sure that he thought he had seen some Ballou portraits in the Chatham Historical Society museum, and indeed he had. Five of them, all attributed to the same G.H. Ballou who in 1868 had married a Chatham widow and lived in that town until his death in1886. This summer’s exhibition of Ballou portraits will include the Chatham works — now numbering eight — and Isaac Small of Truro, as well as fifteen Brewster portraits, certainly or probably attributable to Ballou.

The strange discoveries continued. By the time the idea of a Ballou show was taking shape, with 20 or more portraits already available for a 2003 exhibition, St. Sure realized that there were other Brewster families wealthy enough to have commissioned portraits from the painter who lived so long in their midst, families long gone from Brewster who might have taken ancestral portraits with them when they “emigrated” west, as many of them did after the 1850s. St. Sure remembered two neighbor girls named Bangs from her childhood in California — an unusual name in California but a very prominent Brewster name in the 19th century — and managed to find them, one still in California, the other in Texas. Not only did she learn that their father’s great grandparents had indeed lived all their lives in Brewster, but that they had had their portraits painted by a now-forgotten painter.

Photographs of the portraits of Capt. Elkanah Bangs and his wife Reliance leave little doubt that the painter was G.H. Ballou. Viewers will see for themselves when the portraits arrive back in Brewster, after more than 100 years, for the August show.

The most amazing of the “miracles,” came when St. Sure discovered that her own mother’s family, Californians since the 1870s, also once lived in Brewster, having moving there from Eastham in 1846. “Five of the probable-Ballou portraits I found—those of the Winslow L. Knowles family—are of my own relatives whose portraits I had never seen or heard of until I began this search,” she said. “The elderly Mrs. Knowles was my great great grandmother and her youngest son, Josiah, my great grandfather. Small world.”

“Several more such coincidences, a dozen unlikely discoveries, and many hundreds of hours of research later, I had enough material on the portrait painter, Giddings Hyde Ballou, not only to write a fairly complete account of his life but to catalogue nearly 30 examples of his work in the town of Brewster,” St. Sure wrote. The show of many of these works in the Brewster’s Ladies Library is more than appropriate, St. Sure said, largely because the library was “founded by Augusta Mayo and her friends in 1853 with the help of the invalid painter from Medford.”

This exhibit is the result of a cross-country search for Ballou’s work, some of it borrowed from families, the rest from museums and local historical societies, then painstakingly verified by studying style and other clues. The convention of signing a canvas was not generally practiced in Ballou’s time, and many other artists more famous than he never bothered to put their name on their works. Ballou’s viewers will be able to compare styles and techniques, settings, and clothing, as well as the evidence of canvas-makers marks and family recollections and draw their own conclusions whether the works were all painted by the same mysterious Medford artist.

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