Syracuse University Magazine

Rescuing a 'Beautiful Lady'

By Joyce Dallaportas and Ronald K. Theel


Drawing on the advanced research skills they developed while earning doctoral degrees at SU, Joyce Dallaportas '62, G'70, G'75, G'88 (English, humanities) and Ronald K. Theel G'01 (educational administration) work together to rescue, research, restore, photograph, and market paintings and fine art objects. They share beliefs in the appreciation of art as effective therapy for stress and as a means of personal renewal.

Not knowing where a painting in need of preservation might be found,
our search has led us into the closets and attics of old houses, to flea markets and second-hand shops, online to eBay, and yes, even out to the curbside. Of course, once such a painting is found, you don't know where it will lead you. Although success may be awaiting the art detective who probes beyond the surface, the process has its discouraging moments. Sometimes we have felt like birds beating against the wind; but on other occasions, our spirits have soared. 

A visit to a Syracuse estate sale led us to a severely damaged oval portrait, whose subject was described by the seller as "a beautiful lady." He had no more details to offer. After intense investigation, we were able to identify her as Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), a fact confirmed by the National Gallery in London, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and other reliable sources, including 9th Earl Spencer, brother of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, both of whom are descendants of the duchess. We learned more when we made contact with the current Duchess of Devonshire and the curator of her collection. The portrait, modeled after a famous original by Thomas Gainsborough, captures her individuality, beauty, and trendsetting sense of style. But it was painted long after the subject's death by Ferdinand van Stoopendaal, an obscure figure who may have been a good copyist, a forger, or both. In any case, the painting, which Joyce meticulously restored, is being offered to the British Centre of Romanticism in Grasmere, Britain, for inclusion in exhibits accompanying ongoing conferences honoring women writers. 

Today, Georgiana Spencer Cavendish is remembered as much more than a woman born into a life of great privilege and a fashion setter. In the time of the French and American revolutions, she rebelled against the stifling limitations imposed by the male-dominated society. She was a feminist, political activist, and an eminent literary figure (Emma; or, The Unfortunate Attachment: A Sentimental Novel, and The Sylph are among her works.). A celebrity in her own right, she has been the subject of several films, including The Duchess (2008). Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, as it turns out, was much more than "a beautiful lady."



Joyce Dallaportas, who grew up in Watertown, New York, has taught English, art history, and Greek. Her first port of call was Syracuse University, where she began her studies at University College in 1959. Ronald K. Theel is a retired school administrator with more than 30 years of experience in primary and secondary education. He also served as the Syracuse City School District's coordinator for character education.