Missing diaries

Robert Meyrick, Head of the School of Art

Robert Meyrick, Head of the School of Art

12 October 2012

The hunt for missing diaries that could provide a vital clue to the origin of the controversial Isleworth Mona Lisa, unveiled last month in Geneva as being an earlier version of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, has attracted the attention of the world’s media.

The journals of British art connoisseur and collector Hugh Blaker, who bought the painting in 1913, are being sought by Robert Meyrick, Head of the School of Art at Aberystwyth University.

Posted to the United States from Britain in the 1960s, the hunt for their whereabouts has been reported on hundreds of international news networks that include the Chicago Tribune and NBC News to The Himalayan Times, Caribbean Herald and Talk Vietnam.

Robert Meyrick is considered the world’s leading expert on Blaker, who is best known in Wales as picture advisor to the Davies sisters of Gregynog, was invited to speak at the unveiling of the Isleworth Mona Lisa in Geneva.

Robert Meyrick explains, “In a twist typical of the intrigue-prone world of art, the diaries disappeared and the Washington address they were sent to seems never to have existed. Those papers could well provide the key to pushing back the provenance of this version of the Mona Lisa by at least 150 years.”

Blaker, a painter and art critic who as a museum curator and dealer had a reputation for recognizing lost Old Masters, found and bought the “younger Mona Lisa” in a nobleman’s country house in Somerset.

Convinced it was not a copy but rather a version of the Mona Lisa painted in the Master’s studio, he kept it at his home in the London suburb of Old Isleworth until it passed to his sister Jane on his death in 1936.

But Blaker told no one the name of the country house or of the seller. Meyrick is keen to solve that mystery for a biography he plans to write.

“I think he may well have put the details in his diaries. The very brief published extracts we have give no clue. If we have that knowledge, we should be able to trace how it came into the Somerset family's possession, and where.”

Meyrick theorizes that the painting was purchased by the noble’s family while undertaking a Grand Tour across Europe in the 18th-century. Many great works of European art came to Britain that way.

After Jane Blaker died in 1947, the painting was eventually purchased by Henry Pulitzer and then lay for nearly half a century in Swiss bank vaults until last month’s presentation by the Zurich-based Mona Lisa Foundation.

At that session, Leonardo specialist Alessandro Vezzosi praised its quality but held back from endorsing the Foundation’s claim that it is the work of Leonardo, who died in 1519. For that, much more work was needed, said Vezzosi.

Some experts who were not present like British professor Martin Kemp of Oxford University, scoffed at it as a poor copy - although, as foundation member Stanley Feldman noted, Kemp had never actually seen the portrait.

“The controversy underlines the importance of the diaries,” says Meyrick.

With Blaker’s library and other papers, they passed after the death of Blaker to his painter friend Murray Urquhart.

Before he died in 1972 Urquhart, whose son Brian was a key figure in the United Nations in the 1970s and 80s, said he had sent Blaker’s diaries to a researcher named Charles Woods who had written asking to see them.

According to Urquhart’s account, he posted them to Woods at 116½ Maryland Drive, Washington DC, but heard nothing more. "All I can establish is that there is no such address, and probably never was," says Meyrick.

There is also no trace of Woods.

But in 2010, in response to a standing appeal on his website (www.robertmeyrick.co.uk), Meyrick was sent Blaker’s diaries for the last five years of his life by a family who found them years before in a junk shop in Gravesend in Kent.

"Did all the papers end up as junk, or did the earlier diaries really go to Washington?" asks Meyrick. “Perhaps we will never know, but I plan to keep looking.”