[From Manx Quarterly #20 1919]
Purchased for the Island, Baume's Money Speaks.
In the " Examiner" of August 3rd, it was announced for the first time that the collection of pictures by the late John Miller Nicholson, the famous Douglas artist, had been acquired with a view to being handed over to the public of the Isle of Man. These pictures, some fifty-eight in number, were in the artist's possession at the time of his death, and were advertised for sale by public auction last July. It was felt by the Nicholson memorial committee that no better form of perpetuating John Nicholson's memory could be devised than the acquisition of the collection on behalf of the Manx nation. A meeting of the committee was held at which was submitted a proposal for the purchase for the Island of the pictures en bloc. As the result of a decision arrived at, the representatives of the late Mr Nicholson were approached, and eventually they agreed to sell to the committee the collection for £1,000 a price, it is understood, much below that which it is estimated have been realised at auction. Accordingly the auction was cancelled, and the collection has now passed into the hands of the committee. The pictures consist almost entirely of landscapes and seascapes, and include examples of the artist's work both in oils and water-colour. Mainly the subjects are Manx, but many were inspired during Mr Nicholson's student-soujourn in Italy, several being concerned with Venice. Of the Manx pictures the majority depict Douglas scenes Douglas Harbour was ever first in Nicholson's affections. Not a few of them have antiquarian as well as artistic interest, they preserve to the eye many quaint and picturesque portions of Old Douglas which have vanished in connection with the modern rage for "improvement."
It has now been published that the ways and means of acquisition were provided by Mr Dalrymple Maitland, Speaker of the House of Keys, in his capacity as surviving devisee under the will of the late Pierre Henri Josef Baume. Mr Maitland's gift of the collection is subject to certain conditions; which will in due course be embodied in a deed to be prepared by the Attorney-General. For the present, at least, it is the intention to house the pictures in two of the upper rooms in the Douglas Town Hall buildings, and arrangements are being made accordingly. It is hoped that ere-long the public will have the opportunity of viewing the pictures in their temporary home, and doubtless many people from all parts of the Island will take advantage of the privilege. In course of time, however, the collection will certainly be accorded the more suitable accommodation of a Manx National Gallery to be erected in conjunction with a Manx National Museum upon a worthy site in Douglas.
Such Douglas people as have had half-a-century's residence in the town will well remember the late Mr Baume, who was a rather striking figure in Douglas life of over forty years ago. Baume, to whom considerable mystery attached, was supposed to have been by birth a Frenchman be was certainly from one of the Latin countries, but as he spoke several Southern European languages perfectly, it was impossible to deduce from his tongue the exact land of his nativity. By repute he had been more or less mixed up with the stormy politics of continental countries during his early manhood, and he himself was wont to allow it to be understood that he could, an[sic] he would, unfold many a tale of dark happenings which marked the first four decades of the nineteenth century. Some people went the length of asserting that he had acted as a secret agent for Louis Philippe; others declared that he was prominent among the Carbonari. In any case he had had a career which, if mysterious, was certainly remarkable. Eventually he took up his residence in England, and in doing so was in all likelihood actuated by prudential motives. This would probably be in the 'forties or early 'fifties, and having once become domiciled upon British soil, he ever afterwards eschewed the Continent.
For a few years he lived in London, but apparently he had good reasons for not liking the Metropolis, and after wandering in other parts of England, he in the end pitched upon the Isle of Man as his permanent home for the remainder of his days. He came to Douglas somewhere about the middle of the last century, and acquired an old house in the South Quay Archway, and there he had his abode until almost the day of his death, nearly forty years ago. He was eccentric in his habits not to put too fine a point upon it, ho was a miser of the deepest dye. He barely allowed himself the necessaries of life so far as food, raiment, and fuel were concerned, but he kept well abreast of European literature, and his purchases of books resulted in him getting together a considerable library. After his decease some of his books were sold, but many were devoted to the flames at the instance of certain Douglas pietists, who regarded the volumes as fraught with danger to orthodox Christianity.
Generally speaking, Baume lived in very secluded fashion, and his outward appearance betokened the hermit. His meagre supplies and his letters were brought to his house, and at an agreed upon signal he lowered from an upper room a tin can attached to a rope. The articles were placed in the receptacle and were then hauled up by Baume. Mischievous boys occasionally played him pranks, but the old gentleman usually got even with them. One youngster, by frequent listening, became proficient in giving the signal, and in due course he so imposed upon Baume as to induce the lowering of the tin can. The enterprising youth promptly filled up the can in unsavoury fashion, and the evil load was drawn up. An outburst of poly-glot profanity greeted and doubtless regaled the ears of the ambushed imp, who was so satisfied with the outcome of his experiment that he decided upon an early repetition. Accordingly he, after the lapse of a few days, once more gave, the signal, and again the tin can was lowered. But Baume was evidently on the look-out, for ere the can was filled, about a quart of coal tar descended upon the head of the joker, with disastrous consequences to hair, face, and clothes. Upon this occasion the laugh was with the old Frenchman.
Now and again Baume ventured out for a " constitutional." Usually he walked with the aid of crutches; but these latter were not indispensable to his locomotion, for he would frequently carry them at what is known in connection with military musketry exercise as " the trail." In the early 'seventies he was a very old man probably verging upon four score years and ten. Yet his mental powers remained strong and acute, and in the course of his peregrinations he frequently stopped to interchange views with acquaintances upon men and things. His convictions with regard to "revealed" religion were decidedly advanced of character, and as he had no compunction about expressing them freely, he was looked upon by many people in those less tolerant days as a rather dangerous person. His clothing was little better than rags; he had matted hair and an uncleanly-looking beard; and generally his appearance conveyed the idea of extreme poverty. While he was passing up Church-street one Sunday, a portly Lancashire lady was moved to pity and offered him some copper coins by way of alms. The old man stopped and cast upon her a glance expressive of fierce indignation! but be spoke courteously yet pridefully. " Madame," he said, " you know not to whom you offer your money; I am worth two hundred and fifty thousand 'pounds. If you do not believe me, go to Mr Sherwood ; he is my lawyer, and will assure you that what I say is true." The dame grew more rubicund of face than ever, and remarking "Well, I'm blessed!" or words to that effect continued on her way.
Though in thus stating that he was worth quarter of a million, Mr Baume exaggerated the amount of his financial wealth, it is certain that his penury resulted in the accumulation of considerable estate mainly real of character. He would appear to have been as appreciative of the stability of landed property as is the average Manx yeoman, and from time to time he invested his money in fashion which prevented the malversation of his capital. Thus before coming to the Isle of Man he acquired Colney Hatch Farm, a property to the North of London. In the days' when he purchased, the land was almost purely agricultural, and for a long time it was known in the neighbourhood as " The Frenchman's Farm." However, as the years went on, and London extended its tentacles, the property took upon itself a building value and appreciated considerably. Some time after Mr Baume's death it was sold by the devisees under his will at what was regarded as a very handsome price. Baume also purchased a small agricultural property in the English Midlands, and after he came to the Isle of Man he bought two small farms in the West of the Island and some house property in South Douglas. Shortly before his death in the late 'seventies or early 'eighties, he was removed by acquaintances from his sordid surroundings in the South Quay Archway, and was in comfortable accommodation when he passed away.
Immediately after his death it transpiired that he had by will dealt with the whole of his real and personal estate the latter not of much account. Under the will all his property was devised to several Manx gentlemen of standing in the country, in trust, to be employed by them charitable and educational purposes in Isle of Man. The will, which was drawn by the late Mr Richard Sherwood, who subsequently became Second Deemster, contained a proviso to the effect that should the Statutes of Mortmain so operate as to render null and void the bequest in trust, then the property was to vest in the gentlemen nominated as trustees for their own personal benefit. This proviso had as object the defeat of the Mortmain Statutes, Mr Baume evidently being quite confident that the devisees would so apply the proceeds of his estate as to conform with his well-known desire that Manx charities and educational institutions should benefit. By the way, the Statutes of Mortmain " Mortmain" means "Dead Hand" render illegal bequests of land for charitable purposes, but as the statutes only apply to England, they did not affect Baume's bequest so far as his property in the Isle of Man was concerned. They did, however, nullify the bequest of his English real estate in trust for charitable purposes, with the result that the whole of such property vested in the devisees and could have been applied by them to their own private use had they felt disposed to so apply it. But the devisees were faithful to the confidence which Baume had by implication reposed in them, and they took steps to secure that the bulk of the estate, whether situate in England or the Isle of Man, should be devoted to charitable and educational objects. They made one trifling exception. At Baume's funeral, which was quasi-public of character, a man turned up and proclaimed that he was the natural son of the deceased. The striking similarity which he bore in features and other physical characteristics to Baume were sufficient to convince the devisees that the claim was well-founded, and subsequent investigation demonstrated its truth. Very properly, then, the devisees made over to the claimant the Midland landed property, which was not a very large one. It may here be mentioned that Baume was buried in St. George's Churchyard. A stone commemorating him and setting forth his charitable dealings with his estate stands just to the East of the church.
With regard to the other properties, the devisees so ordered matters that pending conplete application to charitable and educational purposes, neither they nor their representatives should reap any personal benefit. They secured their object by executing legal documents so framed as to ensure that on the death of a devisee his interest should vest in the survivors, and this arrangement was faithfully carried out. One by one the devisees died, until only Mr Maitland survived. He was a young man when Baume nominated him, and he has outlived all his fellow devisees, with the result that what portion of the bequest remains unapplied is at his sole and untrammeled disposal. Baume's disposition of his property did not meet with unanimous approval in the Isle of Man. One Douglas vicar at a semi-public meeting was moved to protest warmly against acceptance of money bequeathed by " a dead atheist," and he was not singular in the intolerant spirit he thus displayed, though other people who shared in it had sense enough to keep their tongues quiet. The vicar's bigotry was warmly resented by the late Mr Robert S. Stephen, who had been elected as one of the representatives of Douglas in the House of Keys just prior to the meeting. Mr Stephen in round terms rebuked the clerical Protestant and brought an eloquent speech to appropriate close by quoting the last stanza of " The Antient Mariner " :
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
So effective was Mr Stephen's orators that the meeting came to the conclusion that Baume was rather of a religious turn than otherwise. Any how there was no more talk at the time or subsequently about refusing the money accumulated so painfully by the " dead atheist."
During the interval which has elapsed since Baume's death, the great bulk of the property has been dealt with as the testator desired. Several charitable institutions notably the Industrial Home and the Ramsey Hospital have been substantially subsidised; valuable scholarships have been founded in connection with King William's College, and education in Peel has also been furthered financially to considerable purpose. Now Mr Maitland has applied what is left of " Old Baume's money" probably all that is left of it in purchasing for the people of the Isle of Man the Nicholson Collection, and it is difficult to conceive of application to better purpose.