In 1999, Ann Bukantas, then head of art at Hull City Museums & Art Gallery (now at the National Museums Liverpool) asked me if I would be able to catalogue the Old Master collection in the Ferens Art Gallery. I set about the three-year-long task – especially as there were masterpieces by such artists as Frans Hals – and the catalogue was published in 2002.
We soon found that there were no dark corners in the Ferens itself, but that our task was to be made more difficult because in the 1960s pictures had been deposited all over the city. Our joint labour was to check all these. To this end, notebooks and inventory numbers in hand, we visited by appointment the Hull City Hall, The Wilberforce House Museum, The Old Grammar School, The Hull Maritime Museum, The East Yorkshire Museum, The Hull Transport Museum, The Hull General Hospital, Trinity House and Chapel and Maister House.
Finally we came to Hull’s Guildhall. It is a functioning building and it was difficult to negotiate complete access as the Lord Mayor had not to be in his parlour, the council not in session, the great rooms not the setting of a function or the lesser rooms full of meetings. The building itself was constructed as if in Brobdingnag – Pevsner, never given to hyperbole, noted that one side of it occupied a whole street. Ann and I did battle and we came across the odd Ferens picture entombed with the Victorian Alderman. In the very last room, the Robing Room of the Lady Mayoress, we came across the Portrait of George Fothergill of York (1689–1770).
We both knew who he was because the Ferens file was complete, except for the attribution. I recognised the hand of Stubbs because of a rather similar picture in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Ann made notes in her calm and methodical way. We were then in touch with the Stubbs expert, the late Judy Egerton, who was compiling the Stubbs catalogue raisonné. Judy had some (ahem) connection with Hull as she had been a friend of the Hull poet Philip Larkin. She confirmed that the picture was indeed by Stubbs and included it in her book, which was published by the Yale University Press.
The picture depicts a square-faced middle-aged man in his late 50s. A bachelor, he holds an exquisitely painted fob watch, a clear sign that the picture was not by an amateur. Even so, Stubbs, then living in York where the picture was painted, was only some 22 years old and had yet to make his name as a horse painter. Thus the Stubbs was reincorporated into the Ferens collection and was hung along with the other pictures by Canaletto, Guardi, Bonington and Constable.
Christopher Wright, Art UK advisor, art historian, artist and author of numerous catalogues of Old Master paintings in Britain