Case of Mistaken Identity at the Museum

In 1972 Bishop Thornberry of the Episcopal Diocese of Wyoming donated two large oil portraits of a distinguished looking man and an elegantly dressed woman to the Laramie Plains Museum.

 

 They were promptly entered into the museum’s records as Judge M.C. Brown and his wife Nancy Fillmore Brown. They have been displayed on the second floor of the Ivinson Mansion ever since. 

 

 Melville C. Brown, of course, was a man of historical significance to Laramie. He was the town’s first mayor and served again in 1896. He was superintendent of schools, a state legislator, U.S. attorney for the territory of Wyoming and president of the state constitutional convention in 1889. It was a natural conclusion that portraits of him and his wife would be local treasures.

 But there is one small problem. The people in the portraits are not the Browns.

 The story started to unravel when museum volunteers investigated more about artist who signed the paintings “G. Stone.”

 A search of the Internet revealed a relatively well-known portrait painter, George Stone, of Kansas. Further searches lead to contact with Stone’s granddaughter who verified the signature on the paintings.  She also mentioned her grandfather had come to Laramie at some point to paint a mural in a church. The church turned out to be St. Matthew’s Cathedral; the mural is “Transfiguration of Christ,” on the north wall of a west side chapel at St. Matthew’s.

 Why would Stone also paint portraits of the Browns? They were not members of the St. Matthew’s congregation—they were Presbyterians. Moreover, each portrait, when compared to photographs of the Browns, was not a close resemblance. Finally, the people in the portraits were dressed in the finest of clothes; the woman wore expensive jewelry. The Browns, despite his busy legal practice, had little money and would not likely have afforded such portraits or finery.

 How then could we discover who the people were? A clue was that near his signature, the artist also wrote on one of the paintings “after J. Carroll Beckwith.” But why Beckwith? A search for a connection between Stone and Beckwith revealed that they had both exhibited at the St Louis World’s Fair in 1904.

 A further search revealed an even more interesting clue. Beckwith was the nephew of a New York City real estate and banking mogul named John H. Sherwood (1802-1887). A connection to Laramie was then evident. Sherwood’s daughter, Mary Sherwood Blodgett, donated $200,000 to the Episcopal Diocese of Wyoming to build Laramie’s Sherwood Hall (now called Hunter Hall) to build and maintain a boy’s boarding school. She requested that the building be named for her father. That led to another clue; a school curriculum for Sherwood Hall published in 1927 noted that a portrait of John Sherwood was hanging in the school’s assembly room.

 Sherwood Hall opened in1924; the boys boarded there and took high school classes in Laramie—similar to Jane Ivinson Hall, a school for girls that the diocese opened in 1921 in the Ivinson Mansion.  Both schools gave youngsters a chance at further education after finishing, at the most, 8th grade in rural schools near their remote ranch homes. After the boy’s school closed, Sherwood Hall served as an orphanage, precursor to Cathedral Home of Laramie. It was renamed Hunter Hall and used for other activities after 1973 when Cathedral Home moved to its large campus on Highway 287/30 north of Laramie.

No photograph of either John Sherwood or Mary Blodgett could be found. However, a search of the Internet turned up the New York sale of a portrait of John Sherwood a decade ago. The sale record had an image of Beckwith’s painting of Sherwood; it was exactly like the painting that hangs in Edward Ivinson’s bedroom (painted by Stone) that had been misidentified since 1972 as Melville Brown.

Both portraits are framed the same way; it was undoubtedly Mary Blodgett who commissioned them and sent them to hang in Sherwood Hall. The Laramie Plains Museum can now conclusively state that the portraits are of John Sherwood and his daughter Mary Blodgett. No more mistaken identity; the record is set straight.

By Kim Viner

Caption:  Portraits of Mary Sherwood Blodgett and her father John Sherwood long thought to be of Laramie’s first mayor, M.C. Brown and his wife, are now correctly identified as they hang in the Ivinson Mansion.  Mary Blodgett gave the funds to build an Episcopalian School for boys in Laramie, named Sherwood Hall.  Courtesy photo, Laramie Plains Museum