It’s not often that an event or situation makes national news in Fuquay-Varina, and even rarer when one makes big news in an arena as exclusive as the art world.
But both occurred back in April when a local resident revealed that he and his partners were the owners of one of the country’s national treasures.
I found out about it when I was talking with Billy Ray Powell about his new sports complex on Hwy 55. In the middle of a conversation about his plans for the building, he happened to mention that he was unveiling a painting that week that he hoped would one day fund his plans for the land around his building. I assumed it was a Van Gogh or a Monet, or something equally amazing. What I discovered, is that it was definitely equally amazing, but in a way I didn’t expect.
When French painter Paul Philippoteaux visited the United States after the Civil War, he became intrigued with the Battle of Gettysburg. After returning to France, he created a 40-foot mural of the battle and brought it back to show. His depiction wasn’t accurate, so historians helped him tweak his concept, and he went back to France to work on a revision. The second painting was so large that he enlisted the help of 16 other artists to help him complete the project. When he was finished, his “cyclorama” was 22 feet tall, 386 feet long, and weighed six tons! Painted on Belgian linen, it is the only one like it in the world. Designed to be shown “in the round,” the masterpiece was (and still is) the largest painting in the western hemisphere.
The focus of the piece is the infamous “Pickett’s Charge,” a pivotal skirmish in the overall battle that that ended with thousands of Confederates dead, and virtually ended the three-day engagement. Almost every male resident of Holly Springs was killed during Pickett’s Charge, so the battle has significant meaning for local residents. North Carolina regiments are clearly depicted in the painting, which includes dying horses, soldiers charging into the fray, cannons firing, and medics caring for the wounded.
After its initial reveal, the painting toured the country and was a huge hit at every stop. Set up with three-dimensional elements such as wells, fences, and natural landscape pieces, it was as close to a real-life depiction of the event as one could get. “The artists who worked on the piece were hired for their talent with specific kinds of painting,” explains Powell. “Some only worked on the people in the painting, others on the animals, and still others on the landscape and buildings. The richness and full-scale depiction of the battle and all its components was the 19th Century equivalent to today’s blockbuster war movie.”
After its national tour, during which it was seen by millions of people, it became a major feature at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. After the fair, it was stored in a warehouse with other historical artifacts until the building burned down some years later. The painting was presumed lost in the fire.
Phillippoteaux had painted three copies of the painting, this time on canvas, and had brought them to the United States for display in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. The copy in Philadelphia was destroyed in a fire, and the New York painting was lost years ago. The Boston copy was eventually relocated to the Gettysburg National Park museum and underwent a $10 million dollar restoration in 2008-09. For years, it was considered the only remaining copy and a national treasure. However, unbeknownst to most Americans, the other copy was tucked away in North Carolina for 50 years!
In the mid-1960s, treasure hunter and local artist Joe King traveled to Chicago and discovered that the building that originally housed the painting was being leveled by developers. He located the painting in a walled up basement room in the ruins of the building, bought it and brought it back to Winston-Salem. It was unrolled in the Wake Forest University football stadium in 1965 and was so long it couldn’t fit entirely on the football field. That was the last time it was seen by the public until last month.
When Joe King died in 1991, he donated the painting to Wake Forest University. The college, however, wasn’t sure what to do with it, and ended up selling it for close to seven figures in 2007 to an anonymous buyer. That anonymous buyer turned out to be Billy Ray Powell, David Wilson, and Leigh Vallance, who have stored it in Fuquay-Varina for almost 10 years.
“I’m a collector,” explains Powell. “I had an antique gun collection, a large inventory of vintage cars, and other Civil War memorabilia. This was just one of those things a collector couldn’t pass up.” After a health scare a few years ago, Powell decided to divest himself of some of his collections, and the painting is one of the last items in his collection to need a new home.
The trio are hoping that by rolling out the painting and letting art and history professionals view it they will find someone who will buy it and give it a home. “It really needs to be displayed,” says Powell. “It doesn’t do the public or the art world any good if it’s rolled up in storage. It needs to be viewed.”
To that end, the owners of the painting agreed to unroll the painting one more time, this time in the warehouse recently purchased by Billy Ray Powell. It was displayed in three sections and Powell and his partners drove visitors up and down two of the lengths in a scissor lift so they could view it from above, which is the better vantage point for a painting of this size. A number of news sources were on hand for the unveiling, and the news ran in several different outlets over the last week in April.
Several of the guests at this two-day event included staff from the Governor’s office, a foreign millionaire who is interested in the painting as an investment, and staff from a new museum in Fayetteville. The North Carolina Civil War History Center had been looking for the painting for several years. Developers knew it had been purchased from Wake Forest University, but were unable to determine the identity of the anonymous buyers.
Leigh Vallance heard about the proposed museum a few months ago on his car radio and realized what a great fit it would be if the painting could be displayed there. After a few phone calls to the radio station, Vallance was able to track down the backers of the museum and discovered that they had indeed been looking for the painting themselves. Although discussions have commenced regarding the potential sale of the painting to the museum, backers have a ways to go to fundraise the necessary amount to fully fund the museum itself, much less a painting such as the one Billy Ray and his partners own.
The goal of the new museum, however, is to tell the story of North Carolina’s involvement in the Civil War, and the painting’s depiction of North Carolina troops at Pickett’s Charge makes it a much desired commodity for the new venture. Time will tell where this amazing work of art will end up. As the largest painting in the Western hemisphere and the second largest in the world, it deserves a home where Americans can view it and where it can be restored and cared for like our other national treasures. But for one amazing week, it put Fuquay-Varina on the map and was the talk of the town!