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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Rare portrait fuels hunt for history

Architect of pact ending war with Russia left few clues behind


PORTSMOUTH, New Hampshire — As a Japan enthusiast and history buff, Charles Doleac was fired up in 2002 after learning of a global hunt for a lost portrait of an American diplomat that once hung in Tokyo.

News photo
Historical treasure hunt: Charles Doleac, president of the Japan-America Society of New Hampshire, shows a rare portrait of diplomat Henry Willard Denison that he bought at an auction in 2007. KYODO

Doleac, president of the Japan-America Society of New Hampshire, took up the challenge and set out to unravel the history behind Henry Willard Denison's crucial role in helping end the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.

Looking back now, Doleac recalls the "frenzy" when the Foreign Ministry issued a plea to help track down the portrait of Denison, which was completed by Seiki Kuroda in 1918, four years after the diplomat's death in Japan.

The painting once graced the walls of the foreign minister's official residence in Tokyo. While some believed it was destroyed when the building was firebombed during World War II, others hoped it survived.

"I heard this story from the Foreign Ministry, the Japan Consulate here would always tell me if you ever come across a portrait of Denison we would be kind of interested (in learning about it)," the attorney said in a recent interview at his downtown Portsmouth office.

"So the question was, did this portrait exist?"

During the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the American diplomat was appointed vice consul at the U.S. Consulate in Yokohama in 1869, later becoming acting consul. In 1880, the trained lawyer was offered a job as a legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry, a position he held for more than 30 years.

"To me he represents a great diplomat who strove to resolve conflicts and he was a great American in the service of another country and frankly the world could use a lot more of that," Doleac said, stressing Denison's stellar reputation as a well-respected but self-effacing man who never sought the spotlight.

The Vermont-born man, who grew up in New Hampshire, was highly regarded for his role in negotiating key treaties, such as the Shimonoseki Treaty following the first Sino-Japanese War. He subsequently helped conclude a treaty of friendship and alliance between Japan and Great Britain.

Denison, however, is best known for the critical role he played in 1905 when he accompanied Foreign Minister Jutaro Komura (1855-1911) and the rest of the Japanese delegation to Portsmouth.

There he worked along with his Russian counterpart to draft the Treaty of Portsmouth, which was ultimately signed Sept. 5, 1905, after an intense month of negotiations.

So when Doleac learned in August 2007 that a major New Hampshire auction house had acquired a rare portrait of the historical figure, he jumped at the chance to buy it.

"Nobody knew and I am sitting here getting more and more excited thinking I found the portrait that the Japanese are looking for," he recalled, his enthusiasm once again bubbling over.

Digging through artwork stored in a warehouse before it hit the auction block, his dream of recovering the Kuroda masterpiece was quickly dashed.

Although initially disappointed to learn that American Blendon Campbell was the painter, Doleac became excited at the prospect of unearthing a new find.

"I had discovered something that nobody knew existed," he said.

Besides the missing Kuroda piece, a circle of academics and historians knew about the existence of a death mask and bust — both in Tokyo — as well as a portrait commissioned by Denison's wife after his death in 1914. It still hangs in the New Hampshire Statehouse.

But no one had a clue about Campbell's work, dated 1915, that had been housed at India House, an exclusive Manhattan club near Wall Street.

As a former curator for India House, Margaret Stocker explained how the lack of paperwork for the Campbell canvas made it difficult to determine how or when it was acquired.

Through research, however, she believes it was commissioned to hang in the private dining room of India House, which served as the headquarters of the American Asiatic Association.

Formed in 1898 by American entrepreneurs aiming to make inroads in Asian markets, the association drew its membership from commercial and diplomatic heavyweights of the day.

Stocker reasoned that Willard Straight, a cofounder of India House who lived and worked in Japan, China and Korea from 1901 to 1911, would have known Denison, been aware of his importance and likely hired Campbell to render his image on canvas.

Despite the diplomat's prominence, today there are few details of his life, which Doleac thinks makes the painting more significant and raises more questions.

"Denison was an extremely private man and this fact alone made him valuable to the Japanese," explained John Perry, a professor at Tufts University. "He directed all his papers to be burned upon his death."

After Doleac made the winning bid at the Annual Marine and China Trade Auction almost five years ago, his focus shifted from acquiring it to restoring it.

Due to exposure to cigar smoke and other elements in the dining room over decades, the oil painting required weeks of restoration work.

After peeling away layers, new details were uncovered, such as a maroon lapel button. The subtle addition — a gift from the Japanese government for his achievements — convinced Doleac that Denison sat for Campbell while alive, even though the portrait was completed after his death.

Over his lifetime Denison received three awards from Tokyo — two levels of the Order of the Rising Sun, and the Order of the Sacred Treasures. He was posthumously awarded the Order of the Chrysanthemum and was buried with honors next to Komura in Tokyo.

Doleac, also a recipient of the Order of the Rising Sun, believes it would have been impossible for black-and-white photos of the day to capture the color and fine detail of the button, offering further evidence that his acquisition could be the only portrait Denison posed for while he was still living. The other known paintings were produced after his death.

Along with Stephanie Seacord, the Portsmouth Peace Treaty Anniversary Committee's public affairs director, the lawyer continues to search for further clues about the portrait, which they hope will reveal more about the modest man.

"Here is this man who grew up in New Hampshire and nobody really knows a lot about him and we are still trying to fill in the gaps," Seacord explained. "The more we dig and the more small references lead to something else the more we find out how extraordinary he was and get a feel for the times and understand the context of the treaty."

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