Times of Oman
Aug 31, 2015 LAST UPDATED AT 07:46 AM GMT
Was this portrait really painted from the grave?
March 20, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Illustrative Purpose Only

The story goes that in 1925, when he reached 65 and was in increasingly poor health, Ledgerby decided to conduct his own investigation into the possibility of life beyond the grave. He told disconcerted friends that he planned to return from the dead to paint a last portrait...

Few painters in Edwardian London were as successful as Charles Ledgerby. In the first years of the last century he was said to be earning a good living from his society portraits, had a house in Mount Street, Mayfair and a Regency flat in Brighton.

Today you occasionally see a Ledgerby in a country saleroom or a provincial gallery — innocent chocolate-box portraits of long-forgotten society women and actresses which go for modest amounts to collectors of Edwardian art.

Only one Ledgerby of all the scores he painted had any claim to fame... and that was one he was claimed to have painted from the grave...

Research has shown that Charles Ledgerby, like other fashionable men of his time, apparently dabbled in the occult. He was a friend of Walter Wilhoughby and Oliver Lodge, had met Alestair Crowley and been at seances with the controversial Harry Price.

The story goes that in 1925, when he reached 65 and was in increasingly poor health, Ledgerby decided to conduct his own investigation into the possibility of life beyond the grave. He told disconcerted friends that he planned to return from the dead to paint a last portrait...

So in the summer of that year, assisted by Arthur Dunne, a writer on psychical phenomena, Ledgerby began to lay his plans. This involved hiring a strongbox at London's Selfridges store for a period of not less than ten years, and for at least five years after his death. He then had to decide on the portrait but the subject was not difficult to find. His wife had died in 1915 and for the past four years the artist had been secretly in love with Mrs Kate Garrick, wife of a wealthy merchant-banker and 30 years younger than Ledgerby.

It was not an affair he insisted to a few close friends, but just a friendship and over the previous three years he had painted three portraits of Mrs Garrick. One had been hung in the Royal Academy summer exhibition, one sold privately and the third given to the sitter.

In the autumn of 1925, Ledgerby asked Mrs Garrick to sit for him once more. She agreed and did so that October, posing in a high dark green armchair which framed her pale face and light blonde hair. She wore a deep red dress with a low neckline and two strands of amber beads. In the background were shelves of leather-bound books and on a shelf an ebony-embossed globe of the world.

Friends later said the Ledgerby was normally a fast painter but this time he worked slowly and carefully, rarely speaking to his sitter, who later said to her husband: "Charles is very quiet during the sittings. I hope he isn't unwell." Then after two weeks of working daily on the portrait, Ledgerby stopped painting. "But it isn't finished," Mrs Garrick declared, to which the artist replied: "I will do the rest later. That is all for the present." He took the portrait home and asked Arthur Dunne to call. Together they noted the unfinished parts of the painting — the eyes were not drawn in, the dress left uncoloured and hair only roughly sketched.

The next day, the portrait was put in a protective case and taken to the Selfridge vault. Also in the case were pencils, crayons, brushes and ready-mixed paint corked in air-tight bottles. Dunne was to write later in a book on the life and death of Charles Ledgerby: "I personally supervised the locking of the vault and the key — said to be the only one — was deposited with my bank."

Two years later, Charles Ledgerby died in Turin of a heart attack and Arthur Dunne, after checking that his bank still had the key to the vault, waited patiently for some sign from the world beyond... Two months later Dunne claimed that it finally came. "I was woken in the night absolutely convinced that I had to go to Selfridges and look at the picture.

"As soon as the store opened that morning I presented my letter of credit to the management and watched while the vault was opened and the metal case containing the picture removed. I immediately took it to my house by taxi and asked four of my friends, including Leslie Methven, then editor of a psychical research magazine, to witness the opening." The four witnesses of the ceremony were later unanimous in their account of what happened next, despite the storm of disbelief and scepticism which followed.

Arthur Dunne wrote: "I unlocked the box and took out the picture. I was immediately overcome with a mixture of shock and disbelief. The eyes of the portrait were now complete, done with pencil and crayon.

"The hair had been completed with crayon and there were some lines of red crayon across the dress. There was no doubt in my mind that Charles had returned from the grave to do more work on the picture."

Was it a hoax? Until his death in 1940, Arthur Dunne steadfastly maintained that it wasn't. The other three witnesses also signed a legal statement confirming that further work appeared to have been done on the picture since it had been placed in the vault.

"I would hardly risk my personal reputation, won over 40 years, for the fleeting notoriety of a trick," Arthur Dunne wrote.

"To me it is the most convincing proof yet that a being can return to this life after death in ways that we can't begin to comprehend."

After Dunne's death the picture was sold at auction but since 1947 its whereabouts have remained a mystery.  

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