It was a Wednesday, February 13th and I was customarily performing one of my Google checks on the Internet. I have a string of searches I periodically employ surrounding Mosher’s life. In this case I was inputting Emilie B. Grigsby to see if anything new had been written, when there before me was a picture of a painting of Miss Emilie in her younger years being offered at Bonham’s, Knightbridge on February 19th in their “British & Continental Oil Paintings” sale No. 15770. The portrait was done by Jan van Beers (Belgian, 1852 – 1927)–son of the Flemish poet by the same name–who studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts d’Anvers before moving to Paris in 1878 where he worked for a time in the studio of his compatriot, Alfred Stevens. Originally a history painter, Beers later turned his attention to portraiture and genre scenes. His works can be found in museums in Amsterdam, Anvers, Brussels, Rouen and Madrid. A number of Beers portraits appeared in Emilie Grigsby’s possessions auctioned in 1912 and also in those of financier and traction magnate Charles Tyson Yerkes. Grigsby was “the great passion of Yerkes’s life” (Franch. Robber Baron. 2008, p.199) and a recipient of a large portion of Yerkes’s fortune following his death in 1905. (I have yet to consult the Catalogue of the Collection of Charles T. Yerkes or the 1910 auction catalogue of his possessions.) She was also one of Thomas Bird Mosher’s most important customers. She’s well represented in the Bishop Collection but the only portrait I had of her was a photograph taken by Carl Van Vechten in her later years. So here was a chance to get an original oil painting of her, and a charmer it was, but now the quandary of how to acquire it.
I contacted an important book-collecting colleague of mine and asked him what he would recommend I do to successfully bid on the portrait in England. Not only did he offer valued advice, but also said he was willing to contact a British firm, by way of introduction and recommendation, through which a proxy bid could be executed. It all worked splendidly and the employee with whom I corresponded provided a sound report on the painting’s condition. I also got a provenance report from the auction house but that indicated little except that the “vendor of lot 244 in tomorrow’s British & Continental Pictures auction has relayed that he came by the work through a dealer within the last year who had acquired it via a house clearance.” So little on provenance and with minor flaws aside, everything sounded like it was still a go and I gave her my upper-end bid knowing full well that in addition to the purchase price in British pounds, I’d unavoidably have to contend with the unfavorable British pound- American dollar exchange rate, the auction house’s 20% commission, the 17.5% Value Added Tax, frightfully high shipping expenses, and the 10% commission on top of all of that charged by the firm performing the proxy bid for me. Of course there was first that tiny little matter of winning the bid.
February 19th came around. At 5:41 EST I e-mailed my proxy and authorized yet another £200 on top of the top bid I previously authorized. At 8:06 EST I received word that my proxy received my increased bid and was on her way to the auction. Later on I pictured my representative there at Bonhams executing my bids, and at 11:39 AM she e-mailed that “there was no need for the extra on the bid – I’m delighted to say it’s yours…” After receiving this word I fired off an e-mail to one of my friends:
Well now. . . Miss Emilie accepted my invitation to stay with us and the Mosher Collection here at the Bishopric of Lancaster County. It’s a done deal. She’s on her way. This is a first. I’ve never bought a painting for the Mosher Collection. All and all this was an exciting venture.
I going to designate an area just for her, including her 1899 co-printed book, The Rubáiyát (one of 10 printed on vellum–all printed for TBM & Miss Grigsby), Mosher’s lengthy introductory letter to her saying what he can do to build her holdings of the Mosher Books printed on Japan vellum, display several books from her library, the catalogues of the auction contents of her 67th & Park Ave. house, a small stash of her bookplate designed by Réne Lalique, and my notes and research on her including my conversations and e-mails with a lady whose mother visited Grigsby in New York. She will also be part of a PowerPoint presentation to the Baxter Society in Portland, ME on May 14th.
The portrait is certainly detailed and pretty stunning. My thought has been that it gives some pizzazz to the collection. But I’ll be honest and say it may not be really important–I mean I could have lived without it and the collection wouldn’t have been demeaned by not having it–, but the more I think it over the more important it and she becomes. She was obviously important to Mosher to which I can easily testify and provide ample evidence, but she was also considered one of the most beautiful and mysterious women in the world. Of course beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and different ages look differently upon the beauties of an earlier day, but she did attract a number of people in her day including W. B. Yeats, August Rodin, Rupert Brooke, and George Meredith who, when he met this pale beauty with golden (actually reddish gold) hair “said he had at last met the heroine of ‘The Ordeal of Richard Feverel.'” (NYT Feb. 14, 1964, p.29.) She also had a serious fling with Mitchell Kennerley and, believe it or not, a flirtatious affair with Belle da Costa Greene of Pierpont Morgan Library fame–or so it’s suggested in the recent biography by Heidi Ardizzone, An Illuminated Life (W. W. Norton, 2007). There is much more I could say about dear Miss Emilie but I’ll hold it here for now. Suffice it to say, I’m glad she’s here in the glass faced barrister case holding some of the collection’s finest bindings and I’m particularly pleased to see her smiling face whenever I enter the room. I know Mosher would have too which makes it all the sweeter.
Philip R. Bishop
July 10, 2008
This article is Copyright © by Philip R. Bishop. Permission to reproduce the above article has been granted by Gordon Pfeiffer, president of the Delaware Bibliophiles and editor of that organization’s newsletter, Endpapers, in which the article appeared in the September 2008 issue. No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without expressed written permission from both parties.