Fire at Huntington Harms Joshua Reynolds Painting

Times Staff Writer

Flames smoldering in an elevator shaft at the Huntington Art Gallery in San Marino suddenly burst through ground-floor hallway doors early this morning, severely damaging a valuable 18th-Century painting and scorching nearby furnishings.

Robert Middlekauff, director of the gallery, said the painting--a Sir Joshua Reynolds' portrait of Mrs. Edwin Lascelles, executed in about 1777--was not insured.

"The cost of insurance premiums for such art works is prohibitive," he explained.

May Not Be Completely Gone

Katherine Wilson, a spokeswoman for the gallery, said experts were being called in to see whether at least part of the charred painting can be salvaged. "It may be that it's not completely gone," she said. "We're not sure."

The cause of the blaze, which was detected by an automatic alarm system at 12:09 a.m., was not immediately determined. Firefighters from San Marino, San Gabriel and South Pasadena reportedly responded to the alarm within 10 minutes, and damage was confined to the interior of the gallery's main hall.

No immediate value was placed on the Reynolds painting, which was purchased by millionaire railroad executive Henry E. Huntington in 1913 as part of a collection of 17th- and 18th-Century British art that includes such world-famous works as Gainsborough's "Blue Boy" and Lawrence's "Pinkie."

However, an expert in the field who asked not to be identified said it could be worth "several hundred thousand dollars."

The cost of repairing fire and smoke damage to the furnishings, walls, floors and ceiling near the entrance to the palatial gallery--built as Huntington's home, with construction completed in 1911--was not immediately estimated.

The gallery will remain closed until further notice.

Smoldered for Some Time

Officials at the 207-acre estate said the fire apparently had smoldered at the base of the elevator shaft for some time before exploding through the doors and charring the painting, which hung on a wall opposite the elevator.

Middlekauff said no one was in the gallery at the time, but a sophisticated alarm system immediately signaled the Huntington's private security force, which, in turn, telephoned San Marino police and firefighters. San Gabriel and South Pasadena responded under a mutual aid agreement.

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