Vandalized painting may not return to prominence at Amherst’s Jones Library

  • “Portrait of an English Nobleman” by William Beechey used to hang at the front entrance of the Jones Library in Amherst. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 8/21/2019 6:48:43 PM

AMHERST — A nearly 200-year-old painting that has long hung at the entrance to the Jones Library, and is perhaps the most prominent piece in the library’s collection of historic art, has been absent from the building since being defaced by a vandal in May.

While the “Portrait of an English Nobleman,” completed by William Beechey in 1823, is in the process of being restored by a conservator, police are continuing to investigate the damage to determine, through security-camera footage, the possible culprit.

The incident has created uncertainty about whether the painting, which at 78 inches tall and 67 inches wide is considered the most visible and perhaps the most recognizable piece owned by the library, will continue to be on view for patrons.

Tamson Ely, an elected trustee, wrote in an email that once the painting is restored it likely will not be able to return to the prime location. Instead, another painting that has protective glass over it will be put in its place.

The Beechey work was one of a collection of 117 paintings, 18 bronze sculptures and various other pieces given to the library in 1926 by the family of Amherst businessman William A. Burnett. Burnett had aspired to create an art gallery in Amherst, but died before making it a reality.

In recent years, the library has made an effort to better preserve and document the items in the Burnett collection, which once included Albert Bierstadt’s “Platte River, Nebraska 1863.” That painting sold at a 1989 Sotheby’s auction for $2.4 million and helped finance the expansion of the library in the early 1990s.

For instance, in 2011 a team from Smith College restored the deteriorating frame for the Beechey painting, as pieces of its ornamental details were broken off and scuffed up, either deliberately or by accident.

Other pieces on display in the building, which have a total appraised value of $87,000, have also been restored through $14,000 in Community Preservation Act money provided by the town. That work included fixing flaking paint, cleaning surfaces and addressing canvas tension issues.

The CPA money went toward “Banks of the Marne” by Paul Peraire, “Red Riding Hood” by J.G. Brown, “Portrait of Robert Frost” by A. Allyn Bishop, “Sur L’Aube” by Jan Van Chelminski, “On Guard” by Cesare Auguste Detti, “Arabs Mounted in Battle” by Paul Dominique Phillipoteaux, and “Near Central Park” by Paul Cornoyer.

Those paintings are all on view to patrons, except for the Frost painting, which is held in special collections and which was added to the collection in 1942.

Cynthia Harbeson, curator of special collections at the library, wrote in an email that her understanding related to having artwork on display is that it is better for paintings not to be behind glass.

“We usually factor that into our decision about whether to put the painting behind glass, as well as other factors such as whether the frame (or) painting can withstand the added weight of the glass, whether the frame is solidly built enough to handle the glass, and whether the frame is deep enough to accommodate glass without the painting touching the glass,” Harbeson said.

Staff have also tried to ensure that the paintings displayed in the building are in the most visible places to patrons and staff as a means of discouraging vandalism.

“We are also very cognizant of location when we choose to hang or move a painting and try not to locate any in places that are in more remote, less staffed areas of the library,” Harbeson said. “Of course, that didn’t help in this particular case, as the painting was in a very prominent place with lots of activity when it was vandalized.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at

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