Sometimes, in the wilds of our wonderful Northwest Montana, we encounter a unique treasure that must be investigated.
Such is the case of a very beautiful oil painting in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Len Matson of Lakeside. It is the painting of a military officer wearing the Irish regimental uniform of the British Army-complete with kilt and sporran (the latter is a pouch, usually made of skin with the hair or fur on; this is worn in the front of the kilt).
Investigating the tartan of the kilt and the insignia on the uniform jacket and sporran, it was discovered that "Colonel Flanagan" was a member of the Royal Irish Rifles (later integrated into the Royal Ulster Rifles).
The painting is 34-by-45 inches and is designated as "Colonel Flanagan" (no other names). It was painted in 1944 by a Swiss-born artist named Boris Bernhard Gordon.
The painting was left to Len Matson's mother by Col. Flanagan's ex-wife when she passed away. It was subsequently passed on when Len's mother retired to a care center in 1989.
Who was the colonel? Where did he live and what did he do? Why was the portrait painted? Len Matson and your author decided to track the colonel down.
The first lead was the artist. Boris Bernhard Gordon was a distinguished artist and an Internet search revealed that he spent his entire professional career painting landscapes, major U.S. buildings (including the capitol in Washington, D.C.) and many portraits of important people including President Dwight Eisenhower. Gordon died in 1976.
Gordon was commissioned to paint the portrait of William Marsh Rice of Houston. Rice was an extremely wealthy man who had donated substantial amounts of money to establish a high school in Houston.
Later he donated $8 million to establish Rice Institute, and that later became Rice University. Shrewd investment by Rice increased his donation to $10 million.
In 1900, Rice was murdered by Albert T. Patrick, his attorney, apparently to gain control of the funds. A 1912 New York Times article detailed Mr. Rice's contributions to Rice University and his untimely demise.
The article also pictured the Rice portrait painted by Boris Gordon that was specifically commissioned by/for the institute.
Now the colonel: The name Flanagan, with several spellings, is common. Len had once heard his mother comment that Col. Flanagan was a wealthy man.
A search of historical records revealed that "James Wainwright Flanagan" was a mining engineer in the early 1940s based in Houston, Texas. He was known to have had extensive holdings in mining and petroleum ventures.
It was discovered that at least four museums were existent in Houston at this time: Rice University, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Heritage Society at Sam Houston Park, and the San Jacinto Museum of History (Albert and Ethel Herzstein Library).
It was found that James W. Flanagan had procured and donated, to the San Jacinto museum a large collection of autographs from early founders of our country, including cancelled checks.
It was still of interest if we could connect Col. Flanagan to the Rice University, so we contacted Dr. Lee Pecht, head of special collections at the Rice University Woodson Research Center.
Pecht checked the early history of Rice University (to 1960) and found no mention of either Col. Flanagan or Boris Gordon. There is no record of any contributions to the Rice Institute/University by either, and the painting owned by William Marsh Rice is no longer in the University's possession.
Thus we can conclude that Col. Flanagan did not make his donations of either money or art to Rice.
With his donation of autographs, checks and papers to San Jacinto Museum of History, that appears to be the major site of his contribution.
Nevertheless, Col. James Wainwright Flanagan made significant contributions to Texas history and his legacy lives on in the form of a beautiful oil painting in Lakeside.
(The author thanks Ms. Ruth Dukelow, a cousin and the associate director of the Midwest Collaborative for Library Services in Lansing, Mich., for her assistance in this research.)
Dukelow is a resident of Somers.