In Context: J. Edward Johnston Portrait

One day a grandson of J. Edward Johnston visited an antiques shop and saw a face that he recognized: that of his grandfather, whose first wife had been Katharine Reynolds. The grandson knew Johnston, who died in 1951, only from family photographs.

In early March 2020, Lawrence White gave the portrait of his grandfather to Reynolda House. The portrait’s painter is also something of a find. Frank Owen Salisbury was English, not American, but he painted a rather well-known set of folks—among them, King George V; King George VI at his coronation; the young Queen Elizabeth II at her coronation; Winston Churchill (more times than any other artist); U.S. President Calvin Coolidge and his wife, Grace; and President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his official White House portrait.

As Deputy Director Phil Archer noted in a recent talk about Johnston, Salisbury’s portrait was likely done sometime in the 1920s. Johnston and Katharine married in 1921, after her three years of mourning the death of her husband, R.J. Reynolds. He enjoyed equestrian sports; Salisbury painted him dressed in fox-hunting clothes. Johnston also started a polo club, and Katharine built him a polo grounds on the estate, along what later became Polo Road. Johnston, who graduated from Davidson College and served in World War I, was hired in 1919 by Katharine to be the Superintendent of the Reynolda School.

Phil notes that in the painting, Salisbury depicts Johnston as “a figure of privilege and easy athleticism. It may be surprising to learn that Edward was painted by the de facto court painter to the Royal House of Windsor, but Katharine and Edward were true Anglophiles. It’s worth noting, too, that Edward would later receive the Order of the British Empire for his work in liberating prisoners of war during World War II.”

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hello this is phil archer deputy director at reynolda house in march the museum was given a portrait of j edward johnston teacher soldier businessman and the second husband of ronaldo’s founder catherine smith reynolds johnston the painting was discovered in an antique store by a grandchild who recognized it from family photos we are delighted to have it join other portraits of the reynolds family but it also provides an occasion to tell the story of edward’s later years which involve international intrigue espionage and heroic escape during a time of global war it was painted by frank owen salisbury a highly successful society portraitist known as england’s painter laureate salisbury could be relied upon to discreetly lift a chin or gloss over a stray wrinkle with his fleet brushwork but edward johnston was one sitter who required no flattering as his school yearbook declared a handsome face is nature’s greatest gift catherine reynolds hired edward to head up her school and enroll the village soon after the end of world war one in which he had served as a lieutenant they married two years later edward worked briefly for the r.j reynolds tobacco company and competed as president of the winston-salem polo team which played on fields on the renault estate and throughout the southeast the johnston’s married life lasted only three years ending in 1924 with catherine’s death a few days after giving birth to their son edward jr senior served as a co-guardian for the four orphaned reynolds children then moved to baltimore with little edward remarried and started a new family in this undated portrait he’s dressed not in his military tunic or polo jodhpurs but rather in riding breeches and boots suitable for the hunt it’s one of the loosest and most appealing of this artist’s works johnston nestles cross-legged into a roundabout or corner chair appearing relaxed pensive and self-assured a figure of privilege and easy athleticism franco and salisbury cut a wide swath among the british aristocracy and american political elite he was de facto court painter to england’s royal house of windsor receiving commissions for dozens of portraits of sovereigns their households and favorites like winston churchill who sat more times for salisbury than for any other artist salisbury painted official portraits of kings george v edward viii george vi and queen elizabeth ii among the winston churchill likenesses was the so-called siren suit portrait in which the wartime prime minister sports his own sartorial invention designed to slip easily over whatever one might be wearing if anything when the siren for an air bombardment sounded churchill favored salisbury’s steadfast traditionalism in which he could detect not a whiff of modernism since i assume you’re sheltering at home i refer you to the crown season 1 episode 9 for the story of a less well-received portrait that went up in flames literally in the states salisbury received multiple presidential commissions these included president calvin coolidge and first lady grace coolidge who sat for him on sapilo island off the coast of georgia where the portraits remained when the entire island was later purchased by r.j reynolds jr he painted the official white house portrait of franklin delano roosevelt harry s truman for his presidential library this was requested by president obama upon his arrival at the white house in 2009 to hang in his cabinet room and dwight d eisenhower at the dedication of the american role of honor in england edward johnston wasn’t the only american civilian portrayed other sitters included industrialists with still familiar names folger kellogg melon morgan pullman and rockefeller i put those in alphabetical order but i see now i started with the breakfast foods folger and kellogg i’ll close with the story of world war ii and edward johnston’s little known service when he commanded a branch of the pentagon that was so highly classified it was unknown even to members of congress a real-life spy chief colonel j edward johnston was commanding officer of an ultra-secret program called military intelligence service x or mis-x mis-x trained airmen and ground force troops to evade capture resist interrogation if caught and make every attempt to disrupt their captors and regain their freedom though disarmed and held behind wires prisoners of war were an important combat asset they represented a third front in the war against the nazis a so-called barbed wire front the prisoners only weapons apart from courage and ingenuity were coded messages received in letters or heard over bbc broadcasts and escape aids that were sent into the stalogs within humanitarian shipments radio equipment for example was hidden within baseballs and board games razor blades were magnetized to double as compass needles and maps and reichmark bills were glued between the faces of playing cards or under the surface layer of monopoly game boards johnston used his connections with rj reynolds tobacco to secure camel cigarette packs which were outfitted with small pieces of machinery that could be assembled into crystal radios in association with their british colleagues at mi9 mis-x supported elaborate tunnel digging stratagems like the one dramatized in the great escape to be a prisoner of war is a melancholy state winston churchill once wrote you are in the power of your enemy you owe your life to his humanity and your daily bread to his compassion you must obey his orders go where he tells you stay where you are bid await his pleasure possess your soul and patience

for his part edward johnston witnessed the cruelty suffered by prisoners in world war one it is a measure of the quality of a nation’s civilization that though its captured soldiers may be forced to possess their souls and patience they should not do so in despair mis naught x aided 737 service members to successfully escape from german pow camps a tiny fraction of the brave escape attempts that were made after the war the pentagon shuttered the program and ordered all records to be burned since johnston had worked so closely with his british counterparts he was awarded the order of the british empire before his death in 1951 though this too went unpublicized for national security reasons similarly the efforts and inventions of a large number of mis-x coders cryptanalysts engineers and technicians went unheralded their contributions lost in the flames of military secrecy and the fog of war you