You may not know his name, but youve most likely seen the work of the West Virginia artist known as theSagebrush Rembrandt,for his paintings of life in the Old West.
But one of the more celebrated works of Berkeley County native William Robinson Leigh (1866-1955) is one that, until recently, hadnt been seen by the general public for more than a hundred years.
Critics and scholars hailed hisGrandfathers Story(made in 1889 while he was an art student in Munich, Germany) as a missing masterpiecebelieved to be destroyed or simply lost over the span of generations.
That painting today hangs in a place of honor at West Virginia Universitys Blaney House, the home of WVU President David C. Hardesty Jr., and his wife, Susan. It is now part of the WVU Art Collection.
Grandfathers Storyis an epic depiction in oil of a kindly old man regaling his grandchildren with a tale. The painting also has its own compelling tale that WVU s Dr. John Cuthbert loves sharing.
In the art world, �€~Grandfathers Storywas the one that got away,said Cuthbert, a Leigh enthusiast and curator of the Universitys West Virginia and Regional History Collection.
I mean, here youve got this child prodigy from West Virginia who ends up at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich at 17,Cuthbert said.This was one of the most prestigious art academies in the world at the time, and hes there. His family lost everything in the Civil War, so it was amazing that he even got out of his home county, let alone to Europe.
What was even more amazing, Cuthbert said, was the craft that went intoGrandfathers Story.The painting won the academys highest award and also earned an honorable mention at a Paris art show.
But while Leigh was wealthy in praise he was also flat brokea starving artist if ever there was one, Cuthbert said.
In 1892, he sold the painting for $1,000 to a wealthy American woman traveling in Europea woman he knew only asMrs. Howeto settle his debts and to buy a steamer ticket back to the States.
He never saw it again after that,Cuthbert said.A pretty substantial biography of Leigh came out in 1968, and the author presumed that the painting �€~was no longer in existence,as he put it.
Mrs. Howe, meanwhile, had been twice divorced, and when she died, the painting was handed down to her children, and their children and their children. It stayed in the family for sentimental value, primarily, since no one necessarily knew of Leigh or his work, otherwise.
Enter HalsteadHalDunham, a former New York newspaperman who initially retired to Berkeley County in the early 1990s with his wife, Lyn. Mrs. Dunham is an enthusiast of Old West artthe kind Leigh would later become famous forand when she found out she now lived less than a mile from the artists family home, a plan was framed, her husband said.
We wanted to save the Leigh family home,Dunham said recently from Sun City, Ariz., where he and Lyn now reside.Its actually a plantation, and was going to be torn down for a housing development. We got a lot of support from people in the county and from people like John Cuthbert and we made it happen.
Dunhams assemblage also founded the William Robinson Leigh Foundationdedicated to the appreciation and preservation of American Western Artand a launched its own Web site. Three years ago Dunham received an e-mail from one of Mrs. Howes descendants in Seattle. He was asking about Leigh, and he described a painting bearing Leighs signature that sounded, as Dunham recalled,an awful lot like Grandfathers Story.
Dunham immediately followed up with a telephone call.So were talking,Dunham said,and the gentleman (he and his wife wish to remain anonymous) says, �€~I have the painting. I have �€~Grandfathers Story.I said, �€~Sir, that cant be true.He laughed and said, �€~Im looking right at it.
Lot long afterwards, Dunham boarded a flight to Seattle, to see it for himself. He was speechless.
I couldnt believe it,Dunham said.There it was. Once I could speak again, I started giving art curator-type advice, like �€~Well, you need to keep it out of direct sunlight,and �€~It needs to be in a safe place.The owner just kind of chuckled at that point, and he said, �€~Well, you guys can have it. The foundation, I mean.All I could say at that point was, �€~Wow.
The foundation at the time wasnt equipped to house and display the work, but Dunham knew just such a venue and just such a curator: WVU and Cuthbert.
Like Dunham, Cuthbert immediately bought a plane ticket to Seattle. And like Dunham, he was reduced to silent awe the first time he laid eyes on the painting.
Im hardly ever at a loss for words, but I was this time,Cuthbert recalled.I just shook my head and said, �€~Thats Grandfathers Story.I mean, there it was, right there. And now its right here. Its a real treasure, and its back home in West Virginia.
WVU and Leigh Foundation officials were on hand at Blaney House Sept. 10 to mark the unveiling of the painting.
A high-resolution photograph ofGrandfathers Storyand a more in-depth look at Leighs life and times can be found on the William Robinson Leigh Web site:www.wrleigh.org/