As with any institution, the Supreme Court of Florida always has been about people -- most especially those who have served as Justices. Their achievements, lifestyles, and even their foibles weave a rich fabric that has given the Court its distinctive character for more than 150 years.
Today, portraits of current and former justices hang in the Supreme Court Building in Tallahassee.
The largest and most historically significant body of art in the Supreme Court is the official portrait gallery located along the inner and outer walls of the Courtroom. This collection of portraits contains representations of all the former Justices of the Supreme Court. A few are the only existing likeness of the Justices.
The portrait gallery has an interesting story behind it. Not until roughly the turn of the century did the Court make an active effort to see that all former Justices were represented there. Even then, a complete collection was not actually achieved until the 1980s under the administration of Chief Justice Joseph Boyd, Jr.
By longstanding custom, portraits of more recently retired Justices are displayed in the gallery areas inside the Courtroom. Older portraits are displayed along the exterior walls of the Courtroom.
A special custom is followed when a present or former Justice dies. The portrait of that Justice is removed from its customary place on the wall and is displayed in a place of honor near the main entrance to the Courtroom.
The first attempt to build a complete collection of portraits occurred around 1905. At that time, Alvan S. Harper was commissioned to prepare portraits of a large number of former Justices. The exact number is not known, but probably ranged between 26 and 30. These representations originally were hung in the Supreme Court chambers located in the State Capitol building as it existed in the early 1900s.
Mr. Harper himself had been a Tallahassee photographer who did a substantial amount of work in the city between 1885 and 1910. Much of his photography work nearly vanished and was saved from oblivion only by happenstance.
In 1946, the State purchased several blocks of downtown real estate for Capitol expansion projects. This included the former home of Mr. Harper, which was slated for demolition. Prior to its destruction, however, someone discovered about 2,000 glass negatives of Harper photographs, many of which have immense historical value for the Tallahassee area. Many of these photographs are reproduced in a book edited by Joan Perry Morris and Lee H. Warner.
The Harper portraits are of significant interest because they were prepared using photographs, many of which no longer exist today. Using his special skills, Mr. Harper took photographs and retouched them in charcoal. Without Harper's work, the true likenesses of many of the early Justices would be lost to history.
Through the decades after 1905, the Supreme Court moved twice into other buildings. Some time prior to the last move in late 1948, the Court commissioned various artists to create oil copies of the Harper portraits, which replaced the originals. At that point, the original Harper portraits vanished and later were presumed lost.
In 1984, a Supreme Court employee stumbled upon some "old pictures" in a little-used storage area of the present building's sub-basement. Amazingly, these consisted of ten of the original Harper portraits, which were in a neglected condition. The remainder of the originals have never been found.
The Florida Supreme Court Historical Society immediately began efforts to restore and preserve the works. With assistance from employees of the Florida State Archives, the portraits were restored and rehung. The Court on recommendation of the Historical Society decided to place the original Harper portraits on permanent loan to the Florida Secretary of State for inclusion in the artwork of the restored Historic Old Capitol. Today, the originals can be seen hanging on the same walls where they first appeared in the years after 1905 inside the old Supreme Courtroom of the 1902 Capitol. The portraits will be returned to the Court if the old Courtroom is ever used for a different purpose.
In exchange for the original Harper portraits, the Secretary of State agreed to one other condition: Exact copies would be made and given to the Supreme Court. Each exactly matches the oil copies contained in the official portrait gallery.
Another large group of paintings in the portrait gallery were done by an artist named Adrian Lamb. It is unclear exactly how these portraits were commissioned, though the Supreme Court Historical Society does have records indicating some involvement by a Clerk of the Court, Guyte P. McCord, who served from 1939 to 1964.
Mr. Lamb's 1966 biography shows that he, too, was internationally renowned. He studied art at the Julien Academy in Paris, France, and his work was featured throughout the world. Paintings of his were displayed, for example, in the United States Embassies in Paris and Moscow. As a resident of Connecticut, however, he is one of the exceptions to the Court's general practice of commissioning Florida artists.
Another group of portraits were painted by the late Tallahassee artist Claribel Jett. Justice Joseph Boyd commissioned her to do portraits of four missing Justices (Macrae, Hart, Fraser, and Semmes), finally completing the Court's collection. In addition, Ms. Jett also was commissioned to do the portraits of three living Justices: B.K. Roberts, Millard Caldwell and Wade Hopping.
Today, Justices select an individual artist to paint their portraits, which is typically done before retirement, therefore, there are numerous artists represented in the more recent portraits.