Herein is the Tale of the Royal Russells, in which a little-known masterwork by C.M. Russell is newly discovered in the holdings of the British Royal Collection Trust.
In late 2018 curators set about reuniting Charlie Russell’s original artworks from the fine art exhibit at the 1919 Calgary Victory Stampede for a centennial show, Return to Calgary: C.M. Russell and the 1919 Victory Stampede, at the C.M. Russell Museum.
In replicating that original exhibition, which celebrated the end of World War 1, little did they know that their efforts would result in the discovery of a virtually unknown Russell.
The all-but-forgotten masterwork’s journey from Canada in 1919 makes for a fascinating transatlantic tale.
The story of the royal Russells begins in Great Falls, Montana, Charlie Russell’s longtime home and location of his namesake museum. Among the 24 paintings and eight sculptures C.M. Russell Museum curator Emily Crawford Wilson sought for the reunion exhibition — on view at the museum through September 29 — was When Law Dulls the Edge of Chance, a 1915 oil on canvas depicting two North-West Mounted Police disarming a pair of horse thieves in the Canadian high country.
In addition to its remarkable visual appeal, the painting, now in the permanent collection of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming, had been gifted by Stampede organizers to Edward, Prince of Wales. Edward, who, in 1936, would become the United Kingdom’s King Edward VIII before abdicating the throne that same year and becoming the Duke of Windsor, had been on a royal tour of Canada during the summer of 1919.
Wilson contacted Karen Brooks McWhorter, curator at the Center of the West, requesting a loan of the painting and inviting her to write an essay for a catalog, discussing its creation, content, and ownership. After scouring the museum’s resources for information on the painting and examining primary sources and numerous books from the Center of the West’s research library, McWhorter Googled When Law Dulls the Edge of Chance hoping to find new reference material or opinions on the piece. To her surprise, she found an artwork titled When Law Dulls the Edge of Chance at the Royal Collection Trust (RCT) in London instead.
“I paused before proceeding,” McWhorter says, “wondering if Russell had created two versions of the painting When Law Dulls the Edge of Chance or, otherwise, if one of the paintings, Cody’s or London’s, might be inauthentic — a disquieting prospect.”
Her fears were allayed with a quick visit to RCT’s online collection database, which included a physical description of Russell’s painting. Although no image was posted, the description immediately dispelled her initial concerns. The RCT and Center of the West paintings clearly depicted different subject matter, though they were curiously seemingly titled the same.
Reasonably confident that the Center of the West’s painting was correctly titled, McWhorter continued researching and turned up repeated citations of When Law Dulls the Edge of Chance as a Russell painting of Mounties arresting horse thieves, given to Edward, Prince of Wales. Reproduced images of the painting from the time of its creation onward all corroborated.
“Having securely established the Center [of the West]’s painting’s title and provenance,” McWhorter says, “I was left to wonder if the RCT’s painting was not only mistitled, but a little-known Russell masterwork.”
Her suspicions were heightened when colleagues at the RCT sent her an image of their painting and she confirmed that it was not in the C.M. Russell catalogue raisonné — the most complete listing of known artworks by the Cowboy Artist. Even the foremost experts on Russell were unaware of the RCT’s painting!
The RCT painting depicted a white man on horseback extending his left hand to a mounted Native American amid a prairie landscape. “I recalled upon seeing the image,” McWhorter remembers, “that many historical references to When Law Dulls the Edge of Chance also mentioned another Russell painting that was given to Arthur, Duke of Connaught, the Prince of Wales’ great-uncle.”
Both Russell paintings had been purchased by Stampede organizers and presented to Edward, Prince of Wales, in 1919, as gifts from the people of Canada, with the intention that he would carry his great-uncle’s gift to London following his royal visit to Canada. The Duke’s painting was repeatedly cited as being titled When a Left Handshake Is Safest.
“Now having an image of the RCT painting in front of me,” McWhorter recalls, “I began to consider that this painting of a cowboy engaged in a left handshake with a Native rider was the selfsame painting gifted to the Duke of Connaught.”
Charles Marion Russell, When a Left Handshake is Safest, 1919.
Her research indicated that the location of a large Russell oil painting titled When a Left Handshake Is Safest was unknown. Several modern historians had suggested that the painting given to the Duke of Connaught was not an oil painting but a watercolor best known as A Doubtful Handshake, now in the collection of Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma; McWhorter disagreed with that theory as A Doubtful Handshake had a secure provenance in the United States and a letter from Russell’s wife, Nancy, confirmed that the painting given to the Duke was “in oil and the composition is similar to a water color [sic] … called ‘A Doubtful Hand Shake.’”
Connecting all the dots, McWhorter became confident in proposing that the RCT painting was When a Left Handshake Is Safest given to the Duke of Connaught in 1919.
“It was thrilling to help bring to light a previously little-known Russell oil painting and help clarify its provenance, especially since that wasn’t at all my initial intent,” she says. “This was a fun, and unanticipated, adventure in research. I had signed up to research one well-known painting and ended up unraveling a transatlantic tale of two paintings.”
Good news this side of the pond: McWhorter — who traveled to London in June to see When a Left Handshake Is Safest and pronounced it “spectacular” — plans to submit a request to borrow the painting for exhibition in Cody, Wyoming, at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
We’ll keep you posted!
Concurrent with the Return to Calgary: C.M. Russell and the 1919 Victory Stampede exhibition on view through September 29, 2019 at the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana, a companion exhibition in giclée of all 24 paintings shown in 1919 will be on view in the Western Oasis at Stampede Park in Calgary, Canada, throughout the run of the Calgary Stampede, July 5 through 14, 2019. cmrussell.org, calgarystampede.com
Photography: Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019.