Aframed reproduction of a famous oil painting of Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the armies of the Confederate states, has come home to Loudoun after a long absence.
The life-size oil portrait of Lee was painted in 1904 by Ogdensburg, N.Y., artist Theodore Pine, a great admirer of Lee, and was known as the "Pine Portrait." A reproduction of the painting was given to the Lee chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy by UDC member Eloise Hirst Couper of Lexington, Va. Couper's husband, William, was the Virginia Military Institute historian.
It is not clear whether the reproduction, covered in thick glass, is a photograph or a print. Experts at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, where the original hangs, said they had heard a black-and-white reproduction existed but did not recall having seen one. Lee was president of the school from 1865 until seven months before his death in 1870. The school was then called Washington College -- for George Washington. The year after Lee's death, the school's trustees renamed the college Washington and Lee.
The Lee chapter of the UDC gave the framed reproduction to the Purcellville Graded School for white children Jan. 19, 1932. The Lee chapter then usually met in Purcellville area homes, because most of its members were from that area. The school had opened Jan. 19, 1923, and Jan. 19 was Lee's birthday.
Sometime after 1932, the reproduction disappeared from the school. It turned up in 1987 in an antiques shop in Harrisonburg, Va., where it was bought by collectors Ronnie and Linda Ogburn of Mount Olive, Ala.
Ronnie Ogburn said he could not read the full ink inscription on the back of the picture: "Presented to Purcellville Graded School by Lee Chapter United Daughters of Confederacy Jan. 1, 1932" because the word "Graded" was partly obliterated. A graded school was one that had one grade in each classroom -- in Purcellville, first through seventh grade -- as opposed to the many one- and two-room schools where all grades were taught together.
Ogburn wrote to Dorothy K. Rickard, president of the Lee chapter, for information on the picture's provenance. Rickard then had the UDC chapter's minutes, which are now at the Thomas Balch Library in Leesburg. She replied to Ogburn and enclosed a copy of the Jan. 1, 1932, minutes and a text titled, "The Dedication of Lee's Picture," which took place in the auditorium of Purcellville Graded School on Jan. 19, 1932.
The ceremony reflected an era when memories of an antebellum Loudoun, both through its few remaining Civil War veterans and the children of those veterans, pervaded the culture of much of the county's white population.
Bertha Gruver, principal of the school since its opening, read Proverbs 22:1: "A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches. . . ." Gruver said Lee had been offered $50,000 by a life insurance company to use his name in some manner but replied: "My name must be worth something. I'll take care of it."
Gruver accepted the Lee portrait, and sixth-grade teacher Mildred Barker read selections from Abraham J. Ryan's book "The Sword of Lee," a treatise on music about Lee.
In Rickard's letter to Ogburn, she said: "It really bothers me that they [school officials] did not at least return the picture to us if they did not want to use it. I know one thing, as long as I am president of our Chapter we will not spend any funds for schools again!"
No one knows how the portrait disappeared or what happened to it until 1987.
Gruver retired in 1937. Purcellville Graded School closed in May 1967, and none of the six teachers I contacted who had taught during the school's final years could recall the photograph. They also didn't remember seeing the photograph at the school's successor, Emerick Elementary, after it opened as an integrated school in September 1967.
The old graded school remained vacant until it became the Loudoun Valley Community Center in March 1970. Alice Power, who became director that summer, does not recall seeing the Lee reproduction at the center, although she told me recently that half of the building was blocked off by chicken wire because of a leaking roof and ceilings likely to collapse.
My role in returning the Lee picture began this spring, when Rickard asked me to speak at the Lee chapter's 80th anniversary dinner and meeting. Curious as to what the organization was about, I wrote an article about the changing role of the UDCs in the Virginia Piedmont for the July 18 Loudoun Extra ["Bound to the Past, Beholden to the Future"].
In my research, I came across the 1987 letter from Ogburn to Rickard in which he said: "If at any time your chapter would like to purchase the photograph, I will sell it to you for the price my wife paid for it [$75]."
To me, such a sum, even with mailing costs, seemed small, and I wondered why the Lee chapter didn't buy the heirloom. But in perusing that year's minutes, I noticed the chapter treasury had less than $200.
Perhaps Ogburn would sell me the picture -- hopefully for $75 -- so I could surprise the Lee chapter on its anniversary -- and on Rickard's retirement after 25 years as president. Why not? I thought. Jan. 19 is also my birthday -- my link to Lee.
The Ogburns had moved since 1987, but in July, I tracked them down in Gardendale, Ala.. They had the reproduction "somewhere," Linda Ogburn told me. "We never hung the picture in our home. There was just no place to hang it."
Yes, they would give it to me for the price they had paid for it, plus shipping. "I always thought it needed to come home, and now the time has come," Linda Ogburn said.
She said she first saw the Lee picture while looking for a third anniversary present for Ronnie, who was then researching forebears who had fought for the Confederacy.
"I saw it in this shop," she told me a few months ago. "The picture kept saying, 'Take me home.' But I didn't buy it and went back to my cousins, where I was staying. A few days later, I came back. It was still there, and I bought it."
During several phone calls over several weeks, she assured me that she and her husband were "so tickled that it's going home."
Lee's picture was late arriving from Alabama, and when I called Linda Ogburn to get the shipping details, she said that while the picture was being packed for mailing, she received two offers for it -- both for more than $75. She told the prospective purchasers: "But you don't understand. He's going home."
Linda Ogburn checked with UPS as to the picture's whereabouts and was told it had reached Lexington, Va. I thought, "How apropos." Lexington would be its last stop before Waterford.
Upon receiving the picture, I saw it was a black-and-white copy of the original in Lee Chapel at Lexington. I called the chapel, and curator Angelika Kuettner and director Patricia Hobbs verified it was an out-of-print copy. They do sell a color print.
Kuettner also mentioned that the Lee family believed the chapel's Pine portrait was the finest rendering of the Confederate leader. Hobbs said another Pine portrait of Lee hangs in the Pack Memorial Public Library in Asheville, N.C.
Kuettner said in an e-mail that Pine painted Lee after studying photographs of the general, who posed in Richmond for Julian Vannerson in 1864.
After looking through many likenesses of Lee in Roy Meredith's book "The Face of Lee in Life and Legend," I saw that the postures of both paintings were similar but concluded that Lee's kind facial expression closely matched a spring 1865 photograph by Mathew Brady, taken in Richmond shortly after Lee's surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House.
All this background I condensed into a one-minute cadenza after my planned Loudoun Civil War lecture to the Lee chapter and friends. A presentation of the picture was to follow.
Eugene Scheel is a Waterford historian and mapmaker.