Walk into the second floor room at Museum of the Albemarle – the one commonly known as the Discovery Room – and your eyes will likely meet the eyes of Nell Gwyn.
Nell is a portrait whose stare captures your gaze almost instantly. The portrait is powerful and represents more than 25 years of collecting art.
The collection belongs to part time Elizabeth City residents Edwin T. and Diana D. Hardison. The exhibit is titled “Across Three Centuries,” and it is the first time MOA has shown fine art.
Diana and Edwin Hardison have had an ongoing relationship with MOA for 10 years, ever since her father, Melvin Dixon, died. Dixon left architectural papers of the area with instructions they be given to the museum.
Diana says that led to the discovery of other personal artifacts from World War II that now belong to the museum. And that led to the discovery that the Hardisons are serious collectors of fine art.
The portrait of the woman is presumed to be Nell Gwyn, a one-time consort of Britain’s King Charles II. It is dated from 1675 and was done by artist Sir Godfrey Kneller. It is the painting that inspired the Hardisons to begin collecting art.
The painting actually belonged to Edwin’s brother and his wife. It would eventually be given to the couple as a gift, but not before they began collecting their own art.
The 36-piece exhibit represents primarily two periods of art, Classical and Romanticism. The dates of the paintings range from the 17th century to the late 19th century.
The collection, which well exceeds the paintings hanging in the museum, grew over the years as the couple began to accumulate much loved art.
“It evolved,” says Diana of the collection. “We didn’t start out to collect art, it sort of snowballed.”
But what might not have begun as an intentional collection has become an important representation of 300 years of Western art that includes British, French, Flemish and American painters.
One of the most noted painters represented is Gilbert Stuart. Stuart’s portrait of Sir John Lees is thought to be from the artist’s “Irish period,” according to Diana Hardison. However, the American portraitist is widely known for painting the portraits of the first six American presidents, including the portrait that is used on the one-dollar bill.
Diana Hardison explains that their purchase of art begins with the aesthetics. They see a painting they like; it may well become a part of their collection.
Although they have worked with other dealers and some auction houses, their primary source for art is a dealer based outside of London, England. A trusted source for their collection, the couple not only relies on him for art, but also for the story associated with the art, such as that of Nell Gwyn, the king’s consort and comedic actress.
For art, a verifiable story can be as important as the piece itself. For the Hardisons, a love of history plays into the collection.
Edwin Hardison is a retired history professor and university administrator. Diana holds a degree in Soviet history.
Edwin also has a background in art. Combine that with the love of history, and this collection of artwork becomes not only a testimonial to 300 years of art history, but also of societal history.
For the museum’s part, according to a press release distributed by curator Wanda Stiles, a connection to the history of the region made the exhibit more enticing.
The painting of Nell Gwyn, for example, connects to Charles II who was responsible for issuing land grants to the Lords Proprietors, including Lord Albemarle, whom the region is named for.
Portraits by Stuart also include one of Gen. Horatio Gates, the Revolutionary War hero and the man for whom Gates County is named.
The exhibit also includes a French impressionist painting by little known artist Pierre Prins. Prins, now known as “the forgotten impressionist,” was a close friend of the painter Edouard Manet, and during the late 19th century was widely regarded for his work.
You can enjoy the exhibit and the digital kiosks explaining the work and history, or you can ask for a booklet to guide you through the paintings.
On Monday, Oct. 7, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., Arts of the Albemarle will be hosting a gallery talk at the exhibit. The talk will feature College of the Albemarle art professor Patricia Sterritt. The event is free and artists and art students are encouraged to attend and bring a sketchbook.
The free exhibit is open now through May 2014. For more information contact MOA at 252-335-1453.