We are pleased to announce the return of the 1626 portrait of Sir Kenelm Digby to Archives & Special Collections. The portrait by the Anglo-Dutch painter Cornelius Johnson (1593-1661), had been purchased by Dr. Jerome P. Webster in the late 1950s and came to the Health Sciences Library with the Jerome P. Webster Library of Plastic Surgery after his death in 1974. After hanging in the Archives & Special Collections reading room for several years, the panel on which the portrait is painted was found to be cracking. With no funds available at the time for restoration it was placed in storage in the 1980s with the Office of University Art Properties.
In 2014, Robert J. and Geraldine Webster Dellenback, the son-in-law and daughter of Dr. Webster made a generous donation to conserve the painting. Throughout last year conservators from Thomas Art Conservation and The Metropolitan Museum of Art worked on restructuring the wood panels, restoring the frame, and conserving and cleaning the surface of the painting, revealing the exquisite portrait hidden beneath centuries of accumulated grime.
The painting was rehung in Archives & Special Collections in March 2015, but only last month was it formally rededicated at a ceremony attended by Mr. and Mrs. Dellenback and two of their children; Dr. Robert Grant, professor of plastic surgery at Columbia University; Anna Getselman, Executive Director of the Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library; and Roberto C. Ferrari, Curator of University Art Properties.
During the ceremony, Ferrari noted that “this generous donation from the Dellenbacks has been instrumental in helping us properly care for an important work from the collection, and forward our educational mission of the art collection at Columbia.”
Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1665), the sitter, was a member of an old and distinguished gentry family, although his father had been executed for collaboration in the Gunpowder Plot to kill the king and members of Parliament. Before he was twenty years of age, Digby had traveled extensively to Italy, France, and Spain, and in 1623 he was knighted and named a gentleman of the privy chamber of Charles I, then still Prince of Wales. Soon after this portrait was completed in 1626, Digby had a brief but successful career as a commander in the British navy, but after the unexpected death of his wife in 1633 he turned to the study of natural sciences and philosophy and authored a number of treatises based on his own scientific and medical experiments. Digby’s work on the healing properties of the occult “powder of sympathy” included several references to the pioneering work of the Italian plastic surgeon Gaspare Tagliacozzi (1545-1599), whose biography Dr. Webster co-authored in the 1950s.
The Health Sciences Library is grateful to the Dellenbacks for their generous support of this project and to Roberto Ferrari for overseeing the restoration.
The painting is now again gracing Archives & Special Collections’ Geraldine McAlpin Webster Reading Room where it can be seen by appointment