After one of his Courtney Avenue neighbors died and her house was sold, Gordon Burnette noticed several old paintings left by the curb with some other junk.
One in particular caught his eye: a picture of a mare and foal. Written on the back was the mare's name, the artist's name and June 1882.
The painting was in bad shape, though, so Burnette left it on the curb.
Later, his son saw the paintings and brought them home. "He said, 'You like horses. You can have this one,'" Burnette recalled.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
A little Internet research told Burnette that the mare, Miss Russell, was a great trotting broodmare whose 1898 death was reported in The New York Times.
The artist, too, was special. Thomas J. Scott was one of the most prolific equine portrait artists of the late 19th century. Beyond that, though, little is known about him. And aside from a few prized paintings, the fate of most of his work is a mystery.
Scott and his paintings have become an obsession for Burnette, a tool-and-die maker who over the past six years has become an amateur equine art sleuth.
Since January, he has been working with author Genevieve Baird Lacer to research Scott and track down his largely forgotten work.
While Scott painted more than 150 horse portraits, Burnette has been able to find only about 30 of them. Perhaps the most important one is a large portrait of the great Thoroughbred stud Lexington, which hangs in the clubhouse at Keeneland.
Another, of Lexington's dam, Alice Carneal, is in the Georgetown and Scott County Museum. Others hang locally at Waveland Museum and Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate. And there are some in the Jockey Club of New York and the National Museum of Racing at Saratoga, N.Y.
Most of Scott's other known paintings are privately owned. Burnette and Lacer suspect there are dozens more out there — many of them in Central Kentucky — decorating the walls of families who have no idea what they have.
Burnette has had his painting of Miss Russell professionally restored, and he recently bought another Scott on eBay — an 1874 portrait of the stallion Acrobat. Burnette isn't so much interested in collecting as in documenting Scott and his work — and in bringing Scott the fame he thinks he deserves.
Eventually, Lacer and Burnette hope to gather enough information and images to publish a book about Scott. They also dream of putting together an exhibit of his work during the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
Lacer became interested in Scott because he was one of only two known students of the great equine portrait artist Edward Troye, whom she profiled in a 2006 book.
"Engravings of Scott's paintings appeared in all of the leading horse publications," Lacer said. "That's how we know he was so important at the time. But later, he was forgotten. We don't know why."
Scott was born in Pennsylvania in 1830 and graduated from the Philadelphia School of Pharmacy in 1846. Apparently, his artistic talent and passion for horses led him to Lexington in the 1850s, where he studied with Troye and painted some of the greatest Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds of the age.
Because photography was then in its infancy, Lacer said, "We wouldn't know what these great foundation horses looked like if these men hadn't painted them."
When the Civil War began, Scott joined the 21st Regiment Kentucky Volunteers (Union) and served under the artist Samuel W. Price as the unit's hospital steward. After the war, Scott lived and painted in the Northeast for several years before returning to Kentucky.
Newspapers and horse publications of the day have frequent mentions of Scott and what he was painting at the time, but little other information about him.
Scott probably didn't earn much as a painter, so he might also have worked as a pharmacist. He was a journalist for one of the leading horse publications, Turf, Field and Farm. He wrote under the pseudonym "Prog," which means to wander and beg for food. He died in 1888 at St. Joseph Hospital and is buried in Lexington Cemetery.
If you think you might have a painting by Thomas J. Scott, you can contact Burnette and Lacer at email@example.com. They have created a Web site, www.thomasjscott.com.
"These paintings have been revered by families so much that many of them remain in private collections to this day," Lacer said. "If you have a horse portrait that looks old and you don't know the origin of it, we might be able to help you identify it."