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The Purple 'D'

To me, this is an unfortunate and sad matter to recollect and about which to write. Many years ago, probably in the early 1940s, when I was doing routine chores for Robert Strong Woodward, there was a wintry afternoon when he requested that I help him in the frame room. I remember that it was cold out there and we were both wearing sweaters and coats. The frame room was located in the section of the carriage shed which was added on during the Woodward reconstruction of the Southwick house and the blacksmith shop. It was built to store many frames, unfinished paintings, crates for shipping paintings, rolls of canvas and stretcher frames. It was an unheated area. In later years it was to become a medical examining room and an x-ray room. His purpose that day was to review the many paintings stored there, and carefully go through them to inspect them.

His intent was to mark a large "D" on the back of the canvases which he wanted to have destroyed after he died. As I pulled out each painting for his inspection, many of them already had a "D." Obviously, he had performed this review previously. As we went through them, he picked out numerous ones and marked a new "D." Some of the "Ds" I marked myself under his supervision. Purple paint was used to make the letter. Then all paintings were replaced back into the racks.

In subsequent months, especially in the winter when the weather was not conducive to outside painting, he would have one of us who worked for him, bring to him a certain painting from the frame room. This would be set up in the north window corner and he would paint a new copy of it. If the new painting satisfied him when done, he would have us cut up the old one up with large scissors, and burn the canvas slices in the studio fireplace. There were times in which he would do the burning himself, a chore which he actually seemed to enjoy.

In his will was the following request: "7. I direct my executor hereinafter named to destroy as soon as feasible after my decease all of my canvases which I have marked D on the back. In no event and under no circumstances are any of the canvases marked "D" to be sold or distributed or permitted by my executor to get out of her possession." (To view the complete will of Robert Strong Woodward, please click here.)

After his death in 1957, despite his wishes, his executor failed to carry out these directions in his will. The probate judge obviously overlooked it. Many of them were sold and many others were given away. I did not realize this until several years after his death. Many "D" paintings are now beginning to re-appear as I do the research for this website. It was also years later that I discovered in a large packing box in the attic of the old carriage shed, a great many, probably 25 or 30, "D" marked paintings. At that time I just closed up the box and procrastinated doing anything about them. Now being 81 years old and realizing that the question of what to do with them would be coming up again with someone else having to make the decision, my wife and I decided that they should finally be destroyed, as was his wish. So, on one Sunday afternoon, again a wintry one requiring coats in the unheated attic, we unloaded the large box, brought all of the paintings down into the warm studio and one by one I cut them all into strips and carried them down to the incinerator. As I write, more than half have already been incinerated.

Several RSW canvases, having been sliced in half prior to being burned.  The 'D' on the reverse side is also shown.
Several RSW canvases, having been sliced in half prior to being
burned. The "D" on the reverse side is also shown.
I was today speaking with a great appreciator of Woodwards and telling him what I had done and was doing. He commented, "You are doing WHAT?!" I tried to justify my actions. I am satisfied that I did. But I do not think I convinced him. At last, however, the final wishes of Robert Strong Woodward have been carried out. At least some of the works with which he was dissatisfied are no longer living on after him.

February 2007