By Courtney McNeil, Chief Curator of Collections and Exhibitions
My curatorial specialty is pre-1945 American and European art, so in the course of my work at Telfair Museums I am constantly thinking of how to bridge the gap between the past and the present in order to demonstrate how older art is still important and relevant today. When I heard that “Bridge” was the theme of this year’s TEDx Savannah conference, I knew right away that I wanted to participate.
I spoke about two portraits from Telfair’s permanent collection which were, at that time, on view side by side in the exhibition Face to Face: American Portraits from the Permanent Collection.
The portraits show two men who happened to be fierce political rivals during the American Revolution – the third (and final) royal governor of Georgia and dedicated loyalist Sir James Wright (left), who is shown beside Whig party leader and fierce advocate for American independence, Dr. Noble Wimberly Jones (right). The portrait of Dr. Jones was donated to Telfair by his descendants in 1981, and the James Wright portrait was purchased by the museum in 2016 with funds contributed by a group of generous donors. If you’re interested in learning more about either man, the Georgia Encyclopedia features detailed biographies of both James Wright and Noble Wimberly Jones.
Both portraits are skillfully rendered, with delicate brushwork creating highly individualized likenesses of the men they portray. Both are attributed to talented portraitists who were in high demand during their lifetimes. But it was not until the two works were installed side by side that it became clear just how different their styles are, with James Wright’s portrait bearing all the elaborate trappings of formal English court portraiture, and Noble Wimberly Jones’s portrait taking a decidedly simpler and more straightforward approach.
I discussed all the details in my talk and concluded with my thoughts on how these portraits from more than 200 years ago illustrate concerns and motivations that can still be seen in today’s culture of selfies and social media. You can watch my talk below.
I am grateful to the organizers of TEDx Savannah for giving me this opportunity to explore an interesting facet of Telfair’s collection. Thanks are also owed to the individuals named in the credits below, who made it possible for Telfair to own and exhibit these two important portraits!