London, Blendheim’s Fine Arts Auction House, 131 years later
London, Blendheim’s Fine Arts Auction House, 131 years later
Nigel Worthington-Smith sat quietly at his desk staring at the picture on his computer screen. He quickly paged back through his notes to see what he had written from his initial phone call with the client, Mr. Jason Murdock.
inherited his great-uncle’s estate, Longbourn, Hertfordshire
looking for valuables - drawn to this
needs estimated value
He looked back at the screen and attempted to stop the pounding in his heart.
“Mr. Murdock, I need more information on the item you just emailed me. Can you tell me where it was discovered?”
Nigel’s manager and the director of his division stood next to him while he spoke.
“I see… were there any other similar items in the trunk?”
He nodded his head enthusiastically at his bosses.
“Are any of them dated by any chance?”
“I’m sorry, did you say 1843? Are you sure it isn’t 1893, the four is perhaps a nine? I see… excellent…pardon?” He quickly scribbled on his notepad. “Are you sure that is the title?”
His hands began trembling. He flashed his note at his manager who grinned wide.
“Yes, I believe Blendheim’s would be very interested in seeing them, all of them, I suspect.”
The director pointed to the calendar.
Nigel raised his brows, but he nodded. “Would you be available to allow us on the estate tomorrow?”
Jason Murdock looked on with amusement at the men gathered in his uncle’s attic. They wore crisp white gloves as they delicately handled each item being withdrawn from the trunk. He felt slightly guilty at his own haphazard methods of going through those same things just a week ago, but took comfort in knowing he had not truly damaged anything inside. Several grunts and non-committal “hmms” had been uttered as something new was brought out, described, catalogued and packed for shipping.
When the trunk was finally empty, and the other workers were storing away their personal belongings, Mr. Worthington-Smith approached him.
“Mr. Murdock, allow us to thank you once again for taking up so much of your time. We have made a list of the items we wish to investigate further, and it is ready for your approval, along with our insurance certificates. But before we finish, we should like to get more information about your family, sir.”
Jason was surprised. “My family?”
“Yes, sir. The man who left you this estate, Victor Darcy, he was your great-uncle?”
“Yes, my late Grandpa John’s older brother.”
“I see, then your mother married an American, named Murdock?”
“Actually, no, it was Grandpa John who married the American. The marriage caused quite a fight since his father and brother didn’t approve of my grandmother’s family.”
Mr. Worthington-Smith pushed, “Please, go on.”
“My grandmother was Sally Murdock. Of the Westport Murdocks?” Mr. Worthington-Smith shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.
“Her family was very wealthy, which should have made his father happy. But Grandma Sally’s family fortune had been made by an ancestor, also called Sally Murdock, when she emigrated from England as a widow in the early 1800’s and opened one of the most profitable brothels in Boston. She was rumoured to have been one of the founders of the infamous Ann Street, the most notorious red-light district in America at the time. The Murdocks had since gone into respectable businesses by the time Grandpa John was around in the forties of course, but that stain was apparently too great for the Darcys in spite of all grandma’s money.
“Grandpa was so angry, he moved to America, changed his name from Darcy to Murdock and hardly spoke to his family again. I think he never did reconcile with this father.”
“Your great-uncle had no children?”
“Uncle Victor never got married. He was supposed to have been some sort of spy in the war, and lost his leg. When he came home and Grandpa left with Grandma Sally, he just sort of withdrew. The neighbours here have told me he lived a very quiet life.”
“Do you happen to know the name of John and Victor’s father?” Mr. Worthington-Smith asked.
“It was Frederick. Gramps had four aunts and his father, Frederick, was the baby. I guess he was a surprise since the sisters were so much older. Gramps talked about his four very prim and proper old aunties. I don’t know who Frederick’s father was though. I’m sorry. I may find it when going through more of the family papers later.”
“Yes, please. If you could provide a family tree to us, it would be very helpful. I would love to tell you we shall be contacting you very soon, but authenticating is a tedious business. We stand behind everything we say, so must be very careful before making promises. We will get to the bottom of your little mystery, however and provide you with an estimated value if you decide you wish to sell at auction.”
Jason walked into the elegant building of Blendheim’s London on Oxford Street and was startled to find himself directed to the offices of the owner. A large conference table commanded the centre of the room, set with fine china and an ornate sterling silver tea service. Nigel Worthington-Smith was soon introducing him to the director of the division and then the owner himself.
“This is my second favourite part of my job, Mr. Murdock, informing our customers of the value of their pieces,” he said enthusiastically.
“What is your favourite part?” Jason asked.
Mr. Worthington-Smith looked at him incredulously. “Selling them, of course.”
Soon the meeting was called to order and Jason took a seat in a plush leather chair. There were several people seated around him to whom he had not been introduced and his curiosity was piqued as to why so many were sitting in on his meeting.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to start by introducing you all to our client, Mr. Jason Murdock, whose excellent eye caught this exquisite piece.” He gestured to the glass box at the head of the room, which sat in a perfect beam of light from above, obviously a commonly used display location for their works of art. Inside was Jason’s photograph.
“Our first priority in evaluating any piece of art is to determine what it is, who made it and when it was made. You can imagine it is not always a simple procedure to find any of these answers.
“The piece in question is extremely similar to a very famous photograph, to which we could easily compare it.”
The wall behind Mr. Worthington-Smith opened up to reveal a screen and an enlarged version of an image, nearly identical to Jason’s, appeared. “As you can see, it looks exactly like yours, sir, with the exception of the addition of the two men in the lower left corner, standing on the hill.”
“They must have taken this directly after or before mine,” Jason said.
“A possibility we very much wished to prove, Mr. Murdock. Therefore, our next priority was to identify the men. The smaller man on the right was easily recognised. He is Louis Ducos du Hauron, the man who took the famous photograph. He had a partner, Charles Cros, who is also well known, however the man standing next to Hauron is not Cros.”
“Why do you think he is important? Maybe he’s the guy who drove them out to the hill.” Jason asked nonchalantly.
Mr. Worthington-Smith laughed lightly, “No, Hauron knew this particular image could be very significant and would not treat the subjects in it lightly. This man’s presence was intentional. We were convinced early on that discovering his name was paramount. Which is why we turned to the contents of the trunk where you found it. We often find the location the objects are found in helps in identifying them and your trunk eventually proved useful, yet also raised even more questions.”
He motioned to the side and several men brought in four easels with large frames which featured many of the other photographs Jason remembered from the trunk. They placed the frames around the room facing the conference table. There were many murmurs among the people there. Jason sat bewildered.
“These are not what you might have originally thought, Mr. Murdock. Although photography had taken off by the 1860’s these are much earlier, circa 1840’s. They were captured by a method known as the Calotype process invented by William Henry Fox Talbot here in England in the late 1830’s. The process was difficult to do and the general populace had very little chance to use it due to Fox Talbot‘s patents which were prohibitively expensive. That makes these particular pieces very rare.”
“Forgive the interruption, Nigel. But the one with the reclining man looks amazingly like the famous Fox Talbot photograph ‘Henneman Asleep’,” said a lively woman across from Jason.
“You also have an excellent eye, Valerie. We have indeed been able to confirm that it is Nicolaas Henneman.”
The room was filled with whispers. Nigel pressed a button and the screen behind him showed an enlargement of an image of a man sleeping in a chair. “This is the famous ‘Henneman Asleep’ by Talbot, circa 1843.”
He turned to back to Jason, “Henneman was an odd character. He was Talbot’s assistant and Talbot even set Henneman up in London to do photography years later. However, he was originally the man’s valet.” Jason was frowning hard causing Nigel to laugh slightly. “Yes, to this day it remains an oddity. Henneman was Dutch, yet trained in France and then came here to work. Why Talbot trained someone with a servant’s education as his assistant, no one could guess.”
Heads were turning back and forth furiously until Nigel clicked to the next slide. The two enlarged images sat side by side. The second, Jason’s picture, showed the same man in a slightly different pose. His legs had moved and his hand had come to rest on the arm of the chair.
“An original Fox Talbot! Congratulations, Mr. Murdock!” the man to Jason’s left exclaimed.
“Um… thank you,” he replied.
Nigel smiled once again. “Yes, we believe it is most certainly a Talbot.”
“It seems I had an ancestor who collected early photos.”
“Possibly, but the men who took these photographs would not have parted with them for mere money. Which leads us to yet a third set.” He nodded once more and another set of easels and framed photos were brought out. The whispers grew enormously.
“These were taken by a third process called Wet Collodion. It was invented in 1849 here in England by a young man named Frederick Scott Archer who lived in London as a photographer. He did not patent his invention, and he also did not introduce it to the world until 1851 when he published an account of it in a chemical journal.”
Jason was nodding, trying to understand the consequences of the numbers Nigel was throwing at him. Once again, an enlargement came on the screen, this time of a gentleman reading a newspaper on a bench in the park.
“This is one of the Collodion images from your trunk, sir.” He clicked again and the screen zoomed onto the date on the newspaper: May 24, 1850.
“Could he just be holding an old newspaper?” Valerie asked.
“Fortunately, we do not have to prove the date.” The photo zoomed back out. “Do you see the building in the background? The Lancaster Theatre? It burned to the ground in October of 1850.
“We were able to date this one, and later authenticate that the others are not reproductions. The fact that these are original Archer Collodions, taken at least a year before the rest of the world began to produce them in great quantities means their value is increased dramatically.” The people in the room were nodding enthusiastically.
“However, our original problem was not yet solved; we still wanted to know who the man in the Hauron photo was. In addition, a larger question now loomed before us; how did all these important pieces of history come to be in your family’s possession? To answer that, we asked you for your family tree and later, we tried to match which ancestors would have been living at the time the different photos were taken. Only one person fit the time frame; your great-great grandfather, William Bennet Cartwright Darcy.”
“How did he get them?”
“How indeed, Mr. Murdock? To find the answer to that, we began to research William Darcy. Do you know much about him?”
“Not a thing. I don’t believe my Grandpa John ever knew him.”
“No, he would not have. He died long before your grandfather was born. William Darcy was really an extraordinary man. His father, Fitzwilliam and mother, Elizabeth lived in Italy when he was a boy. Our investigation found out that William was admitted to the University of Padua when he was only eight years old. He received what you would call a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics, chemistry and physics before he left at only twelve years of age.”
Jason was stunned.
“He went on to the University of Bonn to continue to study all three subjects and received the equivalent of a Doctoral degree in each by the time he was seventeen.”
“A child prodigy.”
Mr. Worthington-Smith nodded. “Without a doubt. His family returned to England after he graduated from Bonn, but he then left for Paris and continued to study and eventually taught chemistry there.”
“How did you learn all this? I can’t imagine it was easy to find out about my ancestor’s going to European schools?”
“Ah, that is where your trunk proved invaluable.” He clicked on the screen again and a photo of a worn leather book appeared.
“Did you happen to look through this at all, Mr. Murdock?”
“I did look through it briefly, yes. It appeared to be a diary of some sort. It was rather hard to read the fancy writing.”
Nigel clicked to the next page; there on screen was a page from the journal. He sighed. “It is a very elegant hand, but if you are not used to the style, it can be difficult to read. This journal was written by William’s father, Fitzwilliam. This is where we learned of William’s education and much more.
“However, it was these diaries,” another book came on screen, “that provided us with answers we didn’t even know we were looking for.” A page came on screen, this time in a different hand.
“Is that Italian?” someone asked.
“In a manner of speaking, yes. It is Italian, however if anyone here is fluent, I am sure they have already concluded that this seems to be nonsensical. It is, of course, because it is written in code.”
Several eyebrows shot up.
“Someone had something to hide?” Jason asked.
“Someone did not want to be found out, is more the truth, Mr. Murdock. After knowing the man’s genius, it did not take much on our part to conjecture these were written by William Darcy. Handwriting analysis comparing it to letters we found in the trunk confirmed William had written them. Normally we might not have pursued such a challenge had we not made a startling discovery.”
Here Mr. Worthington-Smith’s division director stepped in. “The discovery was yours, Nigel. You were the one to notice the similarities and start us down the path.”
Nigel blushed. “Thank you, sir. After we made our discovery, we spent some time having the diaries deciphered. William Darcy was brilliant at codes and gave us quite a hard time of it. Interestingly, it was William’s father who provided the answer to breaking it. Apparently, William often wrote to his father in code and Fitzwilliam put the key in his journal. The rest then fell into place.”
“Get on with it, Smith.” complained the owner. The company laughed.
He clicked on the next photo. “Do you recognize either of these paintings, Mr. Murdock?”
“The family picture is the one that hangs in the drawing room at Longbourn.”
“Yes. The individual portrait is young William Darcy and the other is the Fitzwilliam Darcy family. William is standing next to his father; the baby is his brother Thomas, who would one day inherit his father’s estate, Pemberley, instead of the eldest son, William, an occurrence practically unheard of at the time. William Darcy would instead inherit Longbourn from his mother’s father.”
“Why wouldn’t William inherit Pemberley, too? Did he and his father have some sort of estrangement?”
“Not in the least. According to Fitzwilliam’s diary, William gave up his birthright to his younger brother of his own volition when he was eighteen years old.”
The Englishmen around the table gasped. “Whatever for?” one astonished man asked.
“Perhaps because he knew he was going to be too busy to be a proper master to such an enormous estate.”
“Busy doing what?” Jason asked.
“This,” Mr. Worthington-Smith said triumphantly. The screen then focused on the face in the painting of young William Darcy and it began to change before the viewers.
“Age progression technology,” someone whispered.
Slowly William’s face began to age through childhood, his teen years and then into a young handsome man, very similar to his father. The progression stopped there, and the words
1842, age: twenty-eight
flashed across the bottom of the screen. The picture then moved to one side and another face slowly came into view. Jason could hear the gasps around the room when finally, side by side, were the faces of Henneman sleeping in the chair and the young William Darcy. They were the same man.
The room erupted in noises. Nigel spoke up to be heard above the crowd. “The age progression you watched was done by an independent laboratory that had no idea who we hoped William would look like.”
“Were there no other images of William Darcy?”
“None that we could find. We suspect he was quite determined to stay hidden. Fortunately for us, age progression allows us to make pictures of him at any age. If these photos had been discovered as recently as twenty years ago, we would not have had the technology to prove our theories.”
“Hennemann was really an English chemist!”
“What of Archer? How does he fit into this?” Valerie asked
“They met in London, after Talbot set up Darcy, as Hennemann, with the photography studio. Darcy collaborated with Archer and helped him discover the newer process that was much quicker and cheaper.
“Darcy had the chemistry experience Archer, and we suspect Talbot, needed. He also talked Archer into not patenting the process, unlike Talbot, and that meant thousands of people could finally afford to have photographs made.”
“All this was in Darcy’s journals?”
Worthington-Smith nodded. “It was.”
Jason could hear the two behind him in heated discussion beneath their whispers. “The Gustave Le Gray photos from 1857, went for over a quarter million pounds each.”
“I cannot imagine what the Talbots and Hennemans would go for these days. Nor the Archers. The 1842 Girault de Prangey sold earlier this year set the world record for a photograph - over five hundred thousand pounds.”
Jason felt a large lump in his throat. He looked around at the quantity of photographs and quickly started to add the potential worth in his head while Nigel Worthington-Smith continued.
“Ladies and gentleman, we are not quite finished, if you could be patient for one minute more.” He pressed the button again and William Darcy continued to age, until at last he was an elderly man. Once again, the age progression stopped and the words read
1872, age: fifty eight
When the picture moved to the side, most knew what was going to appear in the empty side.
Jason’s photograph of the two men on the hill came into view. The colours were weak by modern standards, yet the green hues of the grass, the trees behind them, the blue of the sky and the yellows and browns in the stone church in the village below were breathtaking compared to the black and white photos seen before. The screen then slowly zoomed in on the face of the taller man.
“Ladies and gentleman, I present to you a very modest man, who tenaciously avoided recognition for his achievements. A wily character who did his best to remain disguised as a simple scholar and never as the enabling mastermind behind modern photography. I give you a new face for the annals of the history of photography: William Bennet Cartwright Darcy.”
The room exploded in applause for several moments.
“Mr. Murdock, as interesting as this fascinating story has been for us all, I am sure you would like to know the potential value of your photos. Based on recent prices at auction, and the incomparable consequence of your collection, we would value them as follows: the Talbot and Hennemann photos together could fetch somewhere between six and eight million pounds; the Archer photos are slightly less rare as they are not as old, so would fetch between two and three million pounds. Lastly, the Hauron photo, the prize of the collection because of its historical significance, we feel would bring in between two and three million pounds. This means we believe the entire collection would sell for a minimum of twenty million pounds.”
The applause began again. He sat shocked as twenty million pounds, twenty million pounds, drummed into his head. Suddenly he stopped and asked, “What is the historical significance of the Hauron photo?”
Seven years later
Jason Murdock walked carefully up the myriad of stone steps to the Royal Academy of Photographic Arts and Sciences, making sure his young son did not trip. They quickly got in line and soon were entering the exhibit Jason had waited so long to show his son.
A huge portrait stood before them.
“Is that my grandfather?” the wide-eyed boy asked.
“It is, but the picture is bigger than he really was.”
He nodded, relieved.
The exhibit was set up in chronological order, starting with the first time William Darcy was involved in photography. Jason read to his son,
“Summer 1826, William Henry Fox Talbot visits Lake Como, Italy and meets twelve year old Darcy who is on holiday with his family. Talbot is taken aback by this enthralling young boy, and the two have an in-depth conversation about the camera obscura, and camera lucida to aid in drawing. The conversation is one that Talbot would remark on throughout his life as the inspiration years later for developing the Calotype process of photography.”
“He was only twelve?”
“Yes, he was a very smart boy. He had already been going to college by then and studied things that only adults usually studied.”
“What does the next part say?” he asked.
“When William was eighteen he went to study chemistry in Paris and that is where he learned about photography. There were two Frenchmen who had made a photograph that lasted. Before that, any picture would fade away very quickly on the paper.
“William thought the photos were very good, but it took a long time to take them. Too long for most people to sit. He worked for a few years on experiments to see if he could make it easier and quicker to make the pictures, but it wasn’t possible. So he moved back to England and went to work for Mr. Talbot.”
“The one he met at the lake when he was a little boy?”
“Yes, but now he was grown up, he didn’t tell Mr. Talbot that he was the little boy. In fact, he pretended not to be English and got a job as a valet - like a butler.”
“Why would he want to be a butler?”
Jason laughed, “He used it as a way to get close to Mr. Talbot and see how well he was making his photos. Eventually Mr. Talbot allowed William to work with him on the photos, and he became his assistant. He learned a lot, and became a famous photographer. See these pictures? Those are your relatives. That is a picture of your great-great-great grandparents.”
“Grandma has pretty eyes.”
Jason cocked his head and smiled. “She certainly does. The rest are all of William’s brothers and their families. They are all your uncles and aunts.”
“Then what did he do?” the boy asked, now excited about this adventure.
“He moved to London to take more pictures and met a young man by the name of Frederick Scott Archer. He helped Mr. Archer develop another way to make photos, called the collodion process. It is pretty much the way we make all photographs now.”
“Is that the end?”
“No. He stopped for a while and got married to his cousin.” The boy made a face, causing his father to laugh. “Not like your Aunt Ellen’s daughter. He married his Aunt Georgiana’s granddaughter.”
“Wasn’t he really old?”
“Not really. Less than ten years older than I am.”
He shrugged off his interest. “What next?”
“Well, after they had four little girls, he took another trip to France, this time to work with a man who wanted to make colour photographs.”
“You mean they could only make the black and white ones at first?”
“Yes, and making colour photos was very hard: nobody had done it. William worked a long time with a Mr. Du Hauron until they finally made these two pictures.”
They had come to the last part of the exhibit, and there was a copy of the famous photo Nigel Worthington-Smith had shown him so many years ago, and Jason’s real photo next to it.
“The tall man is your grandfather, the shorter is Du Hauron. They took these pictures, the world’s first two colour photographs, one right after the other.”
“Are you sure that is William? It is hard for me to tell with his beard and the glasses.”
“It is him. The men here at the museum had to work like detectives to prove it was him, but they did it.
“Do you see this?” Jason pointed to a glass case at the end, where three books lay open inside. “The first book, the red one, is a journal written by William’s father, Fitzwilliam. When they read it, they found out about how smart William was and how he went to college when he was only eight years old. Later they learned about all the places William traveled, because his father wrote about it in the book. That is how they started thinking maybe William was the man in the photograph. The next book belongs to William’s son, Frederick.”
“Frederick, like Mr. Arch?”
“Mr. Archer. Yes, William named his son after his friend who he missed very much. Mr. Archer died when he was very young. William’s son wrote about all the things that his father had done, too.
“The last book belongs to William. He wrote about working with all these men who were trying to invent photography and he also wrote about why it was important to him to help them be successful.”
“Why was it important, Dad?”
“Because William had a very special mind. He had a gift that allowed him to make a picture in his head, without a camera.”
They had turned the final corner of the exhibit and there, standing tall was the image of a page from William’s secret coded diary and next to it, in a fine cursive hand that looked identical, was the translation. “How about if I read to you what William said about why he wanted to succeed?”
His son stood touching a large brass plaque and looked up to his father. “Yes, please. But first read this.”
“It says all the photos and artifacts in this exhibit were contributed by the Murdock-Darcy Family Foundation in honour of their benevolent ancestor, William Bennet Cartwright Darcy.”
“Hey! That’s my name!”
“It sure is, William. Want to hear this last part?”
William nodded, and his father read the following:
France, June 14, 1872
Hauron, Cros and I went to Agen yesterday and took two photographs on the hill on the south end of the town. The breeze was non-existent, the colours glorious and the sun cooperative. It was as if the hand of God reached down to us and gave us the blessing to finally, finally, copy what has always been inside me. Louis and Charles laughed later when we had the proof in our hands and I could not help my tears. My head aches today from all the wine we drank but I cannot be sad. I feel I have finally come to the end of my journey and it has been well worth my effort. Tomorrow I leave for Pemberley with my little prize in my pocket, my colour photograph.
I dedicate my achievement to my bella mamma, Elizabeth Darcy. She wanted me to contribute to the greater good of the world, to give something to humanity if at all possible. She said my intelligence was a rare gift and should not be wasted, yet I never felt pressured by her, despite those great ominous words. She loved me, and taught me, yet was never envious of my supposed genius. There was only one thing of mine she ever wished for, and I have spent my life making sure she, and everyone else, could have a small bit of it. My dream was to give others the joy of making pictures, and never have to worry over wasting the canvases.
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