UNVEILED: Berrys’ discovery proves old Natchez urban legend to be true

Published 3:25 pm Thursday, January 25, 2024

NATCHEZ — Laine and Kevin Berry of Restoration Nation and owners of Hope Farm have proven an old Natchez urban legend to be true.

Laine Berry, while walking through the basement of the house on Saturday, Jan. 13, stumbled onto a painting many had heard about, but no one was certain actually existed. (Watch the video about the discovery here.)

In early 1950s, Russian painter Igor Pantuhoff came to Natchez to paint the portrait of several prominent women. He was famous for having painted the portraits of people like Lana Turner and Princess Grace of Monaco.

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One of the Natchez women whose portrait Pantuhoff painted was Katherine Grafton Miller, who is considered a founder of the Natchez Spring Pilgrimage.

Miller and her husband, Balfour, owned Hope Farm and lived there for many years.

Wayne Bryant Canon, who is general manager and executive chef of The Carriage House restaurant on the grounds of Stanton Hall, said rumor had it that Miller commissioned Pantuhoff to paint her portrait. However, when it was completed, Miller strongly disliked the portrait and demanded he paint another, which he did.

The portrait that earned Miller’s approval hangs in the lobby of The Carriage House. A third hangs in the Old Capitol Building in Jackson.

“The rejected painting was never to see the light of day. Those were Katherine’s words, I have been told,” Canon said. He said Miller didn’t like the first portrait because “it made her look her age.”

Laine Berry was in the basement of Hope Farm, filming “B” footage on Jan. 13 and noticed rolled up canvas next to some rolled up Venetian shades.

“I thought it was just a piece of dirty canvas,” Berry said in a recent episode of Restoration Nation in which she unveils what she found.

“We had already done a video for the week. It was late at night and I wanted to go one more time under the house and shoot a walk through in the basement,” she said. “It was dark and freezing cold. I grabbed the piece of canvas and turned off the video.”

Once outside, Kevin, who was filming as well, asked what she was holding.

“You can record me unrolling a dirty piece of canvas,” Laine responded.

However, after Laine got the canvas untied, it was obvious it was something very special.

Both Kevin and Laine gasped when she unrolled it, revealing the long, lost painting of Katherine Miller, which had survived the inferno that destroyed a portion of the home and took the life of its owner, Ethel Banta, in 2023.

“We had heard an urban legend about this painting,” Laine said.

Canon said Banta, who purchased Hope Farm and everything in it in the early 1980s, looked for the painting for 40 years, never uncovering it.

“Turns out, she was walking over it for all those years,” Canon said.

Miller and her contemporaries are credited with “saving Natchez” through their opening of their historic homes to tourists and creating the Natchez Spring Pilgrimage.

“(Katherine Miller) was one of the few who could go out into the world and market Natchez,” Kevin said.

Canon said she had Lantern Slides that she took across the country to show of Natchez.

“She would travel by car by herself. And she would take trains to Chicago and New York and travel by herself just to promote Natchez,” he said. “That first year, they hoped to get a hundred or maybe 200 people to come tour Natchez homes. There ended up being several thousand people here. They then knew they were onto something.”

“The painting that hangs in The Carriage House is beautiful, but I think this one captures her soul,” Laine said.

She said Hope Farm has “always been the home of women who wouldn’t take no for an answer and didn’t care what you thought about them. They were forerunners to me and women like me. It was Katherine and her contemporaries who paved the way for me to exist today.”

The Berrys said they will have the Miller photo restored and will hang it in a place of prominence at Hope Farm, once its restoration is complete.

“I wish there was a way to ask her (Katherine’s) permission to hang it,” Laine said. “I hope she knows it is being hung out of pride and respect. Respect for her memory.”