A painting worth thousands left in the trash has since prompted a zeal-filled quest for Gordon Burnette to give acclaim to the long forgotten, but well-revered 19th century equine artist Thomas J. Scott.
At first, Burnette wasn’t sure what to make of the old, peeling image of a roan mare with her small bay foal that was disregarded on his neighbor’s curb earlier this year. Clearly, it was once an exquisite piece of art that didn’t belong in the garbage, but was it worth the expense of restoring? After garnering advice of an auction house that had recently sold a few of Scott’s other paintings, Burnette decided it was.
As it turned out, the painting, which was of the well-known Standardbred mare Miss Russell, was created in 1882. Burnette then began learning about just how prominent Scott’s work had been in his day. In addition to painting Standardbreds, it is believed Scott painted around 200 portraits of Thoroughbreds, including one of the champion racehorse and sire Lexington. The painting of Lexington now adorns a wall in the Keeneland clubhouse.
But for as many well-known paintings Scott had to his credit, today, his name is virtually unknown. Because of this, Burnette has made it his personal mission to bring Scott’s highly regarded reputation to light. Since December he has been slowly uncovering the mysteries of Scott’s life with the help of Gigi Lacer, author of a book called “Edward Troye: Painter of Thoroughbred Stories.”
With a background in language arts and a love for horses, Lacer became intrigued by the works of Troye, who ironically, was Scott’s art teacher. The paintings of the instructor and pupil are strikingly similar, as can be witnessed by the engraved images that grace the pages of Lacer’s book.
“Troye’s paintings are rare, and Scott’s are not only rare, but most people don’t even know they own a Scott,” said Lacer. “Most people think they own Troye’s (artwork), even though they’re signed (by Scott). They look similar, and many have been handed down for generations. What we would like to do is give Scott the acclaim today he truly enjoyed back in his day.”
Lacer explained the reason she and Burnette know Scott was the most popular equine painter of the period following Troye was due to a New York-based sporting periodical called Turf, Field, and Farm that is on file at the Keeneland library.
“If it weren’t for Turf, Field, and Farm, I would have known about a dozen paintings of Scott, and I wouldn’t have known another thing about him,” said Burnette.
Born in Pennsylvania, Scott graduated from the Philadelphia School of Pharmacy in 1846 and moved to Lexington in the early 1850s, where he started painting horses under Troye’s tutelage. After serving with the Kentucky Volunteers during the Civil War, Scott continued to paint until his death in 1888. He died at Lexington’s St. Joseph Hospital and is buried in the Lexington Cemetery.
Since the quest to uncover the work of Scott began, Lacer and Burnette have been able to locate around 30 of the artist’s Thoroughbred paintings. Many were found at the National Museum of Racing, The Jockey Club, the Ashland Henry Clay Estate, as well as several private residences.
One of the other most well-known Thoroughbreds painted by Scott is Vagrant, winner of the 1876 Kentucky Derby. Unfortunately, the original has not been located.
Burnette and Lacer are planning to create an exhibit of Scott’s and Troye’s works at the Headley-Whitney Museum in Lexington to be displayed during the 2010 World Equestrian Games. Burnette, who works as a dispatcher for the University of Kentucky’s physical plant, has always been a racing fan, but it’s the history aspect of Scott’s story that got him interested in finding more of his works.
“I keep discovering more and more that I didn’t know,” said Burnette. “It would be wonderful if we could find more paintings so Scott’s talent could really get the notoriety it deserves.”