New Brunswick

'Full of grace': Mystery woman in Fred Ross painting identified

A Saint John mystery involving a previously unidentified woman in an early Fred Ross painting has been solved.

Ross's schoolmate Grace Kern is the woman in the painting, art broker Peter Buckland says

After reading about Peter Buckland's hunt for the identify of a mystery woman in an early Fred Ross painting, Tricia Dorrans sent him photos of her mother, Grace Kern, a friend of the painter. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

A Saint John mystery involving a previously unidentified woman in an early Fred Ross painting has been solved.

Art broker Peter Buckland is now positive Grace Kern, one of the late Saint John painter's friends from school, is the subject of the portrait.

"I looked at old pictures and it's unmistakable," said Tricia Dorrans, Kern's daughter. "That's my mom."

The painting came into possession of Buckland on consignment in late summer and had the word "Grace" written on its back.

While the art broker said knowing who Grace was wouldn't increase the value of the work, he was still curious.

Fred Ross's Grace was finished in 1947. Peter Buckland has now identified Grace Kern, one of the painter's classmates, as the subject. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

Following CBC News' coverage of Buckland's search, he was overwhelmed with calls about possible leads.

"I was flooded with text messages, phone calls, emails. Almost more than I could keep up with," he said.

Old schoolmate comes up with answer

While Grace Kern — who was known as Grace O'Neal in her school days — was a contender for the mystery woman back in September, Buckland wasn't convinced.

It was only when Dorrans read about the painting and contacted Buckland, whom she went to school with, that the former gallery owner began to come around.

She also sent photos that helped to dispel Buckland's doubts.

One photo in particular resembles the painted woman, both Buckland and Dorrans said.

"There are three young ladies, she's in the middle," said Dorrans, describing the black and white photo in her hand. "It was taken at King's Square, overlooking the old courthouse."

"When you get to the younger photos of her in life, you definitely know it's her."

Unmistakably a work by Ross

Buckland said he didn't want to comment on the status of the painting, but Dorrans believes that it's been sold.

Ross graduated in 1945. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

It's unmistakably a piece of work by Ross, though Buckland said most works of this calibre and age are in private or public galleries. The renowned artist has been featured in the National Gallery of Canada.

The painting is, uncharacteristically for Ross, set outside — in front of a house on Brunswick Place, a street that leads to the parking lot of what was Saint John Vocational School.

Both Ross and Kern attended the school and would have graduated only two years apart in the early 1940s.

Grace, a suitable name

Kern died in January of breast cancer at the age of 92, her daughter said.

Dorrans described her mother as a lifelong housewife.

She recounts stories about how Kern would bring her grandchildren out for dinner. Being a firm believer in proper etiquette, if they behaved improperly at the dinner table they weren't invited back.

In later life, Kern spoke fondly of her friendship with Ross, Dorrans said, but the daughter wasn't sure how much they stayed in touch.

Kern did speak excitedly about seeing him at a class reunion years ago but she became ill and was unable to attend.

Still, Dorrans said the painting felt like a tribute to her mother.

"'Grace actually suits my mom. She was definitely a lady full of grace."

Grace Kern, 92, died in January of breast cancer. "She was definitely a lady full of grace," her daughter said of her. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)