Thomas J. Scott was an itinerant artist and journalist who painted perhaps 200 or more race horse portraits before he died of pneumonia in Lexington's old St. Joseph Hospital in 1888.
Scott was a private man, and little is known about his 56 years of life. Except for a few prized paintings, he was largely forgotten until seven years ago, when Gordon Burnette of Lexington noticed a beat-up old painting on the curb with a deceased neighbor's trash.
The find led Burnette on a quest to find out more about Scott and his work. Quest? Obsession may be a better word. Whatever it was, it has had quite an impact.
Last Monday, on Memorial Day, an honor guard from the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War helped Burnette dedicate a new, corrected headstone for Scott's grave at The Lexington Cemetery, where he is buried with fellow members of the 21st Kentucky Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
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And thanks to work by Burnette and Shelbyville author Genevieve Baird Lacer — biographer of Scott's famous teacher, Edward Troye — at least 10 of Scott's paintings will be included in an exhibit at Lexington's Headley-Whitney Museum, which opens Aug. 15 and continues through December.
The exhibit, The Horse in Decorative and Fine Art, contains a variety of pieces borrowed from more than 15 individuals and 15 museums, including the Smithsonian in Washington, the Speed Museum of Art in Louisville, Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill and Ashland, the Henry Clay estate.
"We're specially pleased that we're getting the original (Scott) painting of Lexington (the horse) from the Smithsonian's American Art Museum," said Amy Greene, the Headley-Whitney's curator. Another Scott portrait of the great 19th century stallion Lexington is perhaps his most visible work today: it hangs prominently in Keeneland's clubhouse.
Burnette, a dispatch supervisor for the University of Kentucky's Physical Plant, said he had no intention of becoming an amateur historian and art sleuth. But after stumbling on a great mystery, he just had to solve it.
When an elderly neighbor on Courtney Avenue died in 2003, her home's new owner threw out a bunch of junk, including what turned out to be Scott's 1882 painting of the great trotting broodmare Miss Russell.
It took Burnette nearly three years to get around to learning more about the painting and having it restored. Since then, he hasn't stopped. He and Lacer created a Web site — www.thomasjscott.com — to help track down more of Scott's paintings and try to find out more about him.
In addition to painting horses, Scott was an equine journalist for the magazine Turf, Field and Farm. He wrote under the pseudonym "Prog," which means to wander and beg for food. Originally from Tullytown, Pa., he lived in New York as well as Kentucky, and many of his family members later settled on Long Island, N.Y.
Burnette bought another Scott painting — an 1874 portrait of the stallion Acrobat — on eBay. He later discovered that it had been auctioned a few years earlier on Long Island, perhaps by a Scott descendant.
His strangest discovery so far, though, was a copy of his Miss Russell painting. It had been hanging for years in a home three blocks from where Burnette lives. (Artists often made copies of horse portraits for the animal's subsequent owners.)
Lacer and Burnette are pulling together images of the Scott paintings they have tracked down, as well as what they have discovered about his life, in a 60-page book that will be published in time for the Headley-Whitney exhibit.
Burnette said he continues investigating Scott because he is puzzled by why he was largely forgotten after his prolific professional life. "I keep thinking, how did they leave him out?" he said. "He was lost in history."
Without Scott's paintings, we would have no visual record of many great race horses of the mid-1800s. Ironically, there are no known images of Scott himself, although Burnette has found photographs of his wife, children and mother-in-law.
During the Civil War, Scott served as a hospital steward in the 21st Kentucky Volunteer Infantry, which was made up mostly of Lexington men. "If there are any Civil War photos of him, they might be somewhere in Lexington," Burnette said.
And the way the mystery of Thomas J. Scott has unfolded, they may be literally just around the corner.