A newly-discovered early Thomas Baker landscape: ‘Scene on the Leam’ 1836, with Brave Fine Art in Cheltenham

Thomas Baker (1819–1864), Scene on the Leam, a mile or so above Leamington, 1836, (c) Brave Fine Art

Lately Dad has received several exciting new additions to his online Thomas Baker of Leamington catalogue. This is exactly how he hoped the catalogue would work and he’s delighted that people are using it to identify their own paintings and add to the record of Baker’s work. Baker recorded almost every painting he produced between December 1829 and July 1864, 901 in total. Each one has a small number painted on the back corresponding to an entry in his diaries. The diary entries give details of the locations, when it was painted, the materials he’s used and who bought it. Like an engineer keeping their blueprints, Baker created one of the most complete records of an early painter’s work and business known to art history. My father had been a fan of Baker’s work since the 1990s, and used to look up Baker’s diaries at Birmingham Museum. In 2017 the museum photographed the diaries and gave him permission to publish them. With readers’ and owners’ help he has been able to find paintings corresponding to about half of Baker’s 901 listed works, and thanks to contributors the number is growing all the time.Brave Fine Art gave Dad a kind word in their catalogue entry for this newly-discovered early landscape. It really is a stunning picture.

‘This little painting has quite a story, which we’ve been able to uncover thanks to the ongoing efforts of Robert Mulraine who maintains an online memoranda of the artist’s works. Baker was a fastidious notetaker and kept records of the various landscapes he produced throughout his life. The records are in the form of diaries, which were bequeathed to the Birmingham Art Gallery and Museum by Baker’s son, and these in turn form the basis of Robert’s website.

The diaries are a fascinating read and provide insight into the life of a working artist during the 19th-century. For example, entry number 105 relates a “Scene on the River Brathay Westmorland”, which Baker exchanged with a pawnbroker for a watch. On another occasion, he swapped a painting for a gun.’

The diary entry for this painting no.91 shows how much detail Baker crams into his catalogue system, from the date it was painted, April 24th 1836 through to its final sale August 1847.

Diary entry for no.91, from https://www.thomasbakerofleamington.com/1836 Image (c) Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

That little sketch is just brilliant. The painting is about texture and the drawing is about light.

BFA’s catalogue entry includes this: ‘Baker often sent paintings to the Art Union in Manchester, which was akin to a syndicated lottery whereby members would pay a subscription. Winning tickets were then selected via a draw and winners could choose a painting from the ones exhibited – up to a set value.’

That’s really interesting – a way of selling and collecting I knew nothing about. They continue:

‘The painting was returned to Baker in December 1836 and in 1847, it was sold to James White, the pawnbroker mentioned earlier. It also appeared at Christie’s in 2001 titled “Swallows over a tranquil River”.’

The painting is viewable on Brave Fine Art’s website at bravefineart.com. They price Scene on the Leam at £1,095. Thirty years ago at the height of the Victorian picture boom a Baker could sell for five to ten thousand at auction let alone retail. 90s pounds are worth double so that’s a £20K Baker. An unbelievable price today. What is a picture actually worth? Does a price mean anything? Brave acknowledges this conundrum: “The art world is seemingly obsessed with value. Why does the price of an artwork infer its quality? We prefer to avoid discussing an artwork’s monetary value as it reduces it to a commodity. That’s why we work to a standard markup like a normal shop rather than set our prices randomly.” I wonder what establishes the baseline of the formula. Bravo Brave Fine Art for such a honourable figure. They describe themselves as ‘researchers rather than dealers’ and they have a researchers’ sense of duty to their artists: ‘Over the last five years, we’ve uncovered more than 400 lesser-known artists and tried to tell their story. We’re working hard to provide a stage for the extraordinary painters that time forgot.’

In the next few posts I’ll try to show a few more of the recently catalogued Bakers that owners have sent in.

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