The Mystery of the Norwood Petrie Portrait
By Debbie J Challis, on 9 April 2014
Last year I went to view two paintings at the Harris Academy, South Norwood: one is of the inventor and philanthropist William Ford Robinson Stanley and the other is of the archaeologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie. Stanley is the original founder of the Harris Academy (formerly known as the Stanley Technical College) and the Stanley Halls next door. I am a trustee of the charity The Stanley Peoples’ Initiative
which is taking the Stanley Halls into community management. Obviously I work at the Petrie Museum and so was intrigued and somewhat bewildered to have two portraits of people closely connected to organisations I am involved in and care about on my doorstep.
The portraits are in need of a new secure place to live. Both the school and Trust that own them would like them cared for in a new home where the public can see them. And so that visit sent me off on a quest to identify the date and artist behind Petrie’s portrait. After assistance from the National Portrait Gallery on whether it is Petrie. (The answer: probably but there is no certainty without paperwork).
The portrait of William Stanley was painted by Bror Kronstrand (1875-1950), a Swedish artist living in London in the 1900s, and his biography stated that eight portraits of eminent scientists, including Petrie, were commissioned from Kronstrand for the ‘Stanley Institution’ (55). The ‘Stanley Technical College’ may have been known as the Stanley Institution but that has not been proven. I checked with the Stadsbiblioteket Mariestad archive in Sweden, where Kronstrand’s documents are kept, and the archivist confirmed that ‘it was Kronstrand who painted these men [William Stanley and Flinders Petrie], alongside other celebrities.’
However, I then found this portrait of Petrie by Kronstrand online; it is not the same one as the one in South Norwood. In addition, the conservator who has examined both the Stanley and Petrie paintings thinks the styles are different but suggests taking small samples of pigment from the Petrie portrait for further analysis and identification. My Swedish journey was at an end . . .
So why was Petrie in South Norwood? Petrie’s pocket diaries record that he was in Croydon on 16 June 1905 and gave an address where he stayed at Coombe House, which is not far from South Norwood. He was President of the SE Union of the Scientific Society, which met in Reigate for an annual conference in June and included the Croydon Natural History & Scientific Society. William Stanley was president of this society shortly before he died in 1909.
If there was a personal connection between William Stanley and Flinders Petrie it may have been through the various societies they were members off, or their shared interest in design of measuring instruments and / or astronomy. Stanley was very interested in Egypt (he visited Egypt and Palestine in 1889) and collected art with Egyptian themes.
But for now, the mystery of the Petrie portrait remains and I would love any help that you, my learned friends, could give me. More information may not just solve the mystery but possibly help make a case for funding to rescue the ‘Petrie portrait’.
Sten Söderberg (1939), Bror Kronstrand: målare och resenär, which was translated by a volunteer of Stanley Halls, Christian Solberg, and Petrie Museum assistant Pia Edqvist.