A painting of the former slave trader and Plymouth seafaring legend which was bought in 1928 by newspaper owners for Plymouth museum remains in the care of The Box.
Research by me following the controversial decision to remove the street sign honouring Sir John Hawkins from the square next to Plymouth Magistrates' Court uncovered a Western Morning News and Mercury clipping from January 7, 1928 which announced how the proprietors of the newspaper, Sir R Leicester Harmsworth and Mr Harold C Harmsworth had purchased a painting of the seafarer "for presentation to the town".
You'll find all the details (and can laugh at the name of the one-time
art gallery's committee chairman Mr Bastard here)
Headlined "Famous Painting of Sir John Hawkins - Presented to Plymouth By The Western Morning News" the article claimed the historic painting was by Italian artist Federigo Zuccaro and described Admiral Sir John Hawkins as "the famous Elizabethan sea captain, who was born at Plymouth in 1532 and represented the borough in Parliament in 1572".
The article explained that the painting was to be presented to the Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery Committee "in perpetuity".
At the time it revealed that the Viscountess Astor was also "keenly interested in the picture", but on learning of the Harmsworth's plan to gift the painting to the city, she "graciously waived an option to purchase".
If you read my last blog you'll already know the report noted how it was "fitting that a portrait of one ranking among the first of those to whose undaunted spirit Britain's sea supremacy is due should be in possession of the town of Plymouth, for John Hawkins was not only born here, but he represented the borough in Parliament, and though the official records contain no direct proof of the fact, he was also at one time the Mayor of Plymouth."
It added: "Zuccaro's painting bears the date 1591 and is described by Mr A J Caddie, curator of the Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery, as a superb half-length Elizabethan period painting on panel."
Mr Caddie was reported as saying that the painting "is in a fine state of preservation and has never been in any way restored, whilst, furthermore, it has never been out of the possession of the Hawkins family from the time it was painted until the present day. It was obtained from Miss Hawkins, of Torquay, by Mr J Rochelle Thomas" who sold it to the Harmsworths.
The detailed report noted how Mr Caddie had seen the portrait advertised and recognising its potential value to Plymouth, informed the museum and art gallery's committee chairman, Mr W L Bastard.
The article, which took up most of Page 7 of the paper, revealed that at Mr Bastard's insistence Mr Caddie travelled to London where he met with Viscountess Astor at her St James' square residence and inspected the portrait. While the article noted that she wanted it for herself, she was willing to allow "the Plymouth Corporation" to buy it if they could produce the £500 asking price.
According to a number of art websites, Zuccaro's works currently hang in the Louvre, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Collection, the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and the Art Institute of Chicago. At one stage Zuccaro was employed by Pope Pius IV and painted "The History of Moses and Pharaoh".
The 1928 Western Morning News article went on to give a potted history of Sir John Hawkins, noting that he was the son of William Hawkins, who was not only "a great Plymouth sea captain" himself but also "a friend of bluff King Hal" [the unkind nickname for King Henry the Eighth] and "sometime mayor of the borough".
It added that Sir John was born in a house in Kinterbury Street, Plymouth in 1532, twelve years before the birth of Sir Francis Drake at Tavistock.
It added: "After several trips to Spain and Portugal and the Canary Islands, his first great voyage was begun in 1562, then he was thirty years of age. He sought to establish himself as a trader to the West Indies. The expedition, fitted out at Plymouth, consisted of three ships of 120, 100 and 40 tons burthen respectively, and was engaged principally in the slave trade, not then regarded in the same light as at the present age."
Following his three trading trips he was promoted to Treasurer to the British Navy which the article notes was: "a post for which all his qualities recommended him".
It claimed: "A great citizen of Plymouth and England, he was amongst the pioneers in that band of English seamen whose heritage to their country is beyond estimation. He was a freeman of the borough of Plymouth".
Turns out, after I did a little more digging, I was able to confirmed that the painting still remains in the possession of The Box, the new name for the £42million complex in North Hill which combines the former museum and art gallery with other remarkable cultural and historical items relating to Plymouth.
However, it turns out that research carried out in the 1960s revealed that it was not painted by Zuccaro, but by an artist called Hieronymus Custodis, a Flemish portrait painter active in England during the reign of Elizabeth 1. The painting is currently on display in The Box's "100 Journeys' gallery.
A spokesperson for The Box said: "The most likely explanation is that it was attributed to Zuccaro at the time but over the decades since, and as a result of improved research/digitisation/collections care, it’s now attributed to Hieronymous Custodius. It’s not unusual for this sort of thing to come to light in historic museum collections from time to time – especially with objects or works of art that are as old as this painting."
They added: "A historic reattribution doesn’t diminish the cultural and educational value of a public collection that includes a portrait of a figure with local ties and global impact.
"Paintings by Custodis are rare, so even though he has less name-recognition than Zuccaro, the portrait of Sir John Hawkins still holds important art historical value.
"Our records show the painting has been attributed to Custodis since the 1960s.
"The original attribution to Zuccaro was probably due to the excitement around the Italian artist’s visit to England in the 1570s. He was only here for a short while though, so many portraits once attributed to him have now been reassessed."
According to historians, Custodis, a native of Antwerp, was one of a number of Flemish artists of the Tudor court who had fled to England to avoid the persecution of Protestants in the Spanish Netherlands. One of his portraits, of Field Marshal Sir William Pelham, Lird Justice of Ireland, sold at Sotheby's in 2009 for a reported $92,001 US.
Clearly, Mr Bastard would have been rather put out by this turn of events...