Identity of Scots duo in gallery portrait revealed

Susan Keracher, art curator at The McManus, looks at Stenberg's painting of Janet Isles-Denny. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Susan Keracher, art curator at The McManus, looks at Stenberg's painting of Janet Isles-Denny. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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WHEN artist Ron Stenberg launched an appeal in Scotland on Sunday to discover the identities of two people in a £100,000 painting he donated to one of Scotland’s leading 
art galleries he had no idea what a remarkable tale would emerge.

Stenberg’s painting Two Auld Wifies, Dundee (1982), now on display at The McManus art gallery and museum in Dundee after being shipped from his home in New Zealand last month, was believed to depict a couple of old friends sitting chatting on a bench at the corner of Reform Street near the City Square where they met every Friday afternoon.

But after the story appeared in Scotland on Sunday last month, Susan Keracher, art curator at The McManus, was informed that the woman on the left of the picture was Janet Isles-Denny, one of Dundee’s wealthiest women who decreed in her will that her vast fortune be left in trust to promote the arts, heritage and disadvantaged in Dundee.

Furthermore, the “friend” sitting beside her was in fact her son Alexander who had learning difficulties and was a long-term resident at the 
Royal Dundee Liff Hospital. Their identities have been confirmed by Isles-Denny’s former solicitor.

Stenberg had inadvertently captured Isles-Denny enjoying time with her son on one of his excursions out of the hospital.

Keracher said the painting revealed “a poignant story of the enduring love of a mother for her child”.

Alexander died a few years after the painting was completed and Isles-Denny died in 2008, aged 101.

A spokeswoman for Stenberg, 96, who painted the work when he was a lecturer at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in the city, said: “Mr Stenberg is absolutely delighted. He thinks this turn of events is incredible. He cannot believe that this painting which has hung in his home and has starred in exhibitions, including one in New York where a collector of Scottish art offered him £100,000 for it, had such a life of its own.

“He is particularly touched that this was a mother caring for her son. The fact it was 
Mrs Isles-Denny, who set up a trust to help the arts and the needy was of great interest to him.”

The Janet T Isles-Denny Trust is one of the biggest trusts in Dundee with an annual income of more than £100,000 according to latest accounts lodged with the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator.

It gives grants to charities including those promoting the arts, heritage and culture; equality and diversity; sport and human rights and helping those in need due to age, ill health, disability, financial hardship or other disadvantage. Charities it has helped include Maggie’s Cancer Centres, Music in Hospitals and Sense Scotland.

Janet Thorburn Isles was born on 19 August, 1907 in Broughty Ferry. Her father was an upholsterer who built up a significant property portfolio through astute business dealings.

On 27 September, 1928, at St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, she married Thomas Denny, a stoker on HMS Greenwich. However, the marriage broke down a few years after Alexander was born.

Keracher said Mrs Isles-Denny’s difficult life took its toll and that she was by turns shunned or ridiculed for her unconventional behaviour.

“Yet her story has a further twist. A woman who was mistrustful of people and ostracised in return, left her entire estate to establish a trust to benefit the people of Dundee,” Keracher said.

“My colleagues and I are delighted to receive this painting, a generous donation from Ron Stenberg. We felt sure that it would become a popular and much-loved addition to the city’s nationally significant fine art collection.

“In uncovering Mrs Isles-Denny’s identity and learning something of her life, we are pleased that, alongside the work of her trust, the painting will stand as testament to her life and the evident joy she felt in sharing time with her much- loved son Alexander.”