The art mystery that inspired Iris Lloyd’s last novel Dancing at D’Avencourt

Iris Lloyd with book and painting

Hungerford author Iris Lloyd’s new novel, Dancing at D’Avencourt, is inspired by a fascinating and beautiful painting, After Midnight Mass, Fifteenth Century by George Henry Boughton, R.A. which Iris owns a framed print of it. Iris wanted to know the story of the woman in the painting so she wrote her story in Dancing in D’Avencourt. Iris also wanted to know where the original painting resides today and shares that story here:

Pasted on the back of my print are the following details:

“From the picture in the collection of W.K. D’Arcy, Esq. Size of canvas 50 by 96 inches. Exhibited at the Royal Academy, 1897.

This important work by the painter shows a congregation coming away from midnight mass in some Continental city in the fifteenth century. The eye is at once attracted to the lady of high birth, slender in form, youthful and elegantly clad, who is stepping lightly over the snow-covered ground on her return to her home. Torch-bearers make sure of her way, and by her side is an elderly attendant, while groups of respectful and interested spectators mark their sense of her importance. The rest of the congregation, who follow her through the spacious doorway, are all in quaint and picturesque costumes, that give in themselves a beauty and interest to the work, apart from the effect of the massive cathedral walls and the cold midnight air. The charm of the Mediaevalism of the scene is the attribute in the picture sought, and most successfully attained, by the painter.”

My print, which measures 10½ by 6 inches, was framed by Wilfrid Coates of 25, Fawcett Street, Sunderland, who advertised himself as a Fine Art Dealer and High Class Picture Frame Maker & Gilder.

According to Wikipedia, William Knox D’Arcy was born in 1849 and became one of the principal founders of the oil and petrochemical industry in Persia. Concession to explore, obtain, and market oil, natural gas, asphalt, and ozokerite was given to him and the concession known as the D’Arcy Concession in Iran.

On contacting the Royal Academy, I discovered that they had no knowledge or information about the painting’s present whereabouts.

So I wrote to the head office of BP in St. James’s Square, London, asking if the painting was hanging in their board room, and received a most helpful reply by email from Mr. Paul Erwood of the Group Press Office, to whom my letter had been passed: “I’ve done some digging around on your behalf, to see where the painting is and whether we could be of help. The original oil painting is owned as part of the Baker/Pisano collection out of New York, but has found its way into the archives of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C.”

I contacted the Smithsonian and discovered that what they possess is a small study of the finished painting measuring ‘only’ 18½ x 36 ins.

They pointed me in the direction of the Heckscher Museum of New York, which had included the original in a catalogue of an exhibition held in 1983, so I contacted them.

Before receiving a reply, I obtained a copy of the Catalogue mentioned above. It did not contain an illustration of the finished painting but of the study, which is nothing like the final painting but includes elements of it.

I came to the conclusion that there is only one such study and not two and it is now at the Smithsonian Museum.

I then received an email from the Heckscher, telling me what I had already found out. They do not know where the original is.

So I wrote to Philip Mould of Fake or Fortune? TV fame, to ask if he has any ideas where I should search next. After sending a letter, phoning, sending an email and phoning again, one of their staff pointed me in the direction of Bridgeman Images of London. They replied to my email, suggesting I got in touch with M and J Duncan art dealers, whose website records the painting as SOLD but no date or purchaser given. I emailed twice and then wrote to Duncan’s to see if they could help.

Success! A gentleman from M & J Duncan rang me on a Saturday morning, having just received my letter but not the two emails, as the company is in ‘lockdown’ because of the coronavirus pandemic.

He told me that he is the agent who sold the painting a few years ago. Obviously, he is not allowed to tell me the purchaser or the price paid but said it is now in a private collection and not on public display. Such a pity!

I have let everyone who contacted me know the outcome of my search and the Heckscher Museum say they will add the information to their file.

In this process, I have learned a little about the art world, and have discovered that the professional people who work there have been unfailingly courteous and helpful.

And I still have my framed print which, from the look of the pasted label on the back, may be contemporary with the painting’s 1897 exhibition at the Royal Academy. To try to establish this, I am now researching the framer. One fact I have discovered is that he went out of business in the 1920s.

Am I being too fanciful in thinking my print could be the only one in existence?

Iris Lloyd



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