Prince Demah, Portrait Painter

Prince Demah, Portrait of Christian Barnes. Hingham Historical Society. Photo (c) James Vradelis

One of our Society’s co-founders, Susan Barker Willard, bequeathed a treasure trove of art, furniture, and documents which she had inherited from her Barker, Thaxter, and Willard family ancestors. Much of it has furnished our 1688 Old Ordinary house museum since the early part of the last century. Two paintings in particular have always been favorites, especially on the fifth grade school tours that are a rite of passage in the Hingham Public Schools.  They are a pair of 18th century oil portraits of Henry and Christian Barnes of Marlborough, Massachusetts.

Henry Barnes had no family connection to our town of Hingham, but Christian had friends and relatives here.  Her mother’s family were Barkers from the South Shore. Henry was a distiller, manufacturer of pearl ash (an early chemical leavener), and trader in British manufactured goods. They were Loyalists and forced to flee Marlborough for England in late 1775 after some violent incidents (including, it has been reported, the tarring and feathering of Henry’s horse). The Barnes portraits are each damaged in the chest area, and the lore is that the portraits—left at their estate—were the victims of Marlborough patriots.

Portrait of Henry Barnes by Prince Demah.  Hingham Historical Society Photo (c) James T. Vradelis

Prince Demah, Portrait of Henry Barnes. HIngham Historical Society. Photo (c) James Vradelis

Members of Marlborough’s financial elite, the Barneses owned three slaves in the early 1770s. Thanks to Christian’s prolific correspondence, we have known for some time that Prince, the son of their slave Daphney, was a talented artist. (Prince’s mother, Daphney, features in a set of letters in our archives. She was the subject of an earlier post in this blog, “A Letter from Daphney.”) In the first letter that mentions Prince, Christian writes, that “Prince is here and I am sitting to him for my picture.”  A month later, in November 1769, she reports that Henry has purchased Prince, with a view towards “improving his genius in painting.”  From there, Christian’s appreciation for Prince’s talent grows.  In an early 1770 letter, she reports that he is

a most surprising instance of the force of natural Genius for without the least instruction or improvement he has taken several faces which are thought to be very well done. He has taken a copy of my picture which I think has more of my resemblance than Copling’s [sic].

(She is referring to John Singleton Copley, a colonial American painter famous for his portraits of 18th century Bostonians.)

The original manuscripts of Christian’s letters are at the Library of Congress, but we are lucky to have, in our Old Derby Academy archives, a set of typescripts made in the early 20th century—also the gift of Susan Barker Willard.  In her letters, among her friends, and even in a set of newspaper advertisements, Christian passed the word about Prince:

As soon as the roads are tolerable I propose going to Boston in order to recommend our Limner to the Publick. I should be glad to have your judgment as to his performance and likewise your advice how I shall proceed with him. He has taken five pictures from the life since his return. Three of them as good likenesses as ever Mr. Copling took. I am in no doubt but he could coppy a picture as well as anybody in the Country.

Christian’s enthusiasm made it impossible for us to stop thinking about Prince the painter—particularly since our two Barnes portraits were painted in the 1770s and were unattributed.  We continued to learn more about Prince and his remarkable life but were unable to connect the dots between Prince and the Barnes portraits. (The paintings are unsigned and when they were restored in the 1930s a heavy layer of masonite was placed over the back of the canvas, obliterating any obvious clues.

Portrait of William Duguid by Prince Demah.  Metropolitan Museum of Art

Prince Demah, Portrait of William Duguid.  Metropolitan Museum of Art

In late 2013, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York opened an exhibit called “Interwoven Globe,” on the 18th century international trade in textiles. The exhibition included a modest portrait of a Scottish textile merchant, painted in 1773 and signed, on a stretcher on the back of the canvas, “Prince Demah Barnes.”

We got in touch with the Metropolitan and were able to share what we had learned about Prince. The Metropolitan invited us to bring our two portraits to its Paintings Conservation Department, where they were examined using x-radiographs and infrared reflectography. The Metropolitan concluded that its signed painting by Prince and our two Barnes portraits were all by the same artist.  We have co-authored an article about the three paintings which appears in this month’s issue of Antiques magazine.

Prince enjoyed a short professional painting career before the Revolution changed the lives of Christian, Henry, and Prince.  Christian and Henry fled and Prince enlisted in the Massachusetts militia as a free man–Prince Demah (no more “Barnes”)–and served as a matross. He died, likely of smallpox or other disease, in March 1778. As “Prince Demah, limner,” he wrote his will, leaving all he had to Daphney.

Prince Demah’s will.  Massachusetts State Archives

These three portraits by Prince Demah are the earliest known paintings by an African-American to be located and identified. It appears that Prince was only allowed to focus on his art for around ten years, but we know that he made other portraits as well—in oils and with “crayons,” or what we call pastels today. The next step: seeing if we can identify any more of his paintings.  As we at the Hingham Historical Society now know, one (or two) of them could be  found just about any place.

Visiting the Misses Barker

When she was young, Eliza Robbins of Milton enjoyed visiting the Barker sisters of Hingham. As an adult, she wrote a fond memoir of her visits to “The Misses Barker,” which she addressed to her younger sister, Sarah. Her essay, a typescript of which was placed in our archives by early society benefactress Susan Barker Willard, consists mainly of fond character sketches of the three maiden sisters who lived together on North Street in Hingham during the late 18th and early 19th centuries but also provides interesting glimpses of the Town of Hingham during that era.  According to Miss Robbins,

Deborah, Sarah and Bethiah Barker were daughters of Captain Joshua Barker of Hingham, Plymouth County, Massachusetts. Captain Barker belonged to a good family, when all the families were good—descendants of those primitive and pious colonists who first settled New England. He was a man of high honour, great benevolence and most amiable manner. . . . Mrs. Barker was the cousin of her husband and was the second of three sisters; the eldest died the widow of General Winslow and the youngest, Elizabeth, died single in the house of her nieces. The three sisters, especially the subject of this brief memo, never married.

Miss Robbins’ grandmother, Elizabeth Murray Inman, had owned a millinery business in Boston with the Barker sisters’ “Aunt Betsy” during the mid-1700s and, she explained, “between [the Murrays] and the Barkers an intimacy then commenced that was hereditary to the descendants of both the parties.”

19th century photo of North Street Bank, 115 North Street, formerly the Joshua Barker home

19th century photo of North Street Bank, 115 North Street, formerly the Joshua Barker home

Remembering her visits to the Barker home, which was located on North Street in Hingham Square (next to the present-day Post Office), Miss Robbins wrote:

That parlour was a delightful south room. The fervent heat of the summer sun was broken by the thick shade of a wide spreading plane tree that stood near the house and the glossy tresses of a dangling woodbine hanging over the windows softened the light that entered it, leaving spaces sufficient to look through upon the street to which the ground before the house covered with short velvet grass descended in a gentle slope. On the further side of the street lay the vegetable garden of the neighbor, along the borders of a little brook that ran through them toward the sea, which though out of sight was not far off. Beyond the gardens lay another street—behind that stood a hill on the top of which the villagers bury their dead. On the right hand—onward to the limit of vision, along the path way ran houses, those of traffic and mechanic art—the Academy and the spire of an old Church. None of these objects were picturesque but they had a character, they represented life and death, learning and religion, industry and competency, security and contentment. . . .

Detail from a map of historical names and places in Hingham.  ("Barker Shipyard" belonged to the sisters' uncle, Francis Barker.)

Detail from a map of historical names and places in Hingham. (“Barker Shipyard” belonged to the sisters’ uncle, Francis Barker.)

The basic layout that Miss Robbins describes is remarkably unchanged:  the house faces North Street, the bed of the former “Town Brook” (now the capped Greenbush train tunnel), and then South Street.  On the far side of South Street, Hingham Cemetery, Old Derby Academy, and Old Ship Church run south along Main Street ahead.

Hingham Square, looking south on Main Street, 1861.

Hingham Square, looking south on Main Street, 1861.

 

Hingham Square looking south on Main Street, today

Hingham Square looking south on Main Street, today

John Barker at Gaines Mill

To follow up on our post about the stationery, envelopes, and postage on John Barker’s Civil War letters home, we’ll allow Barker to speak for himself, through a letter to his sister, preserved in our archives.  He describes his first serious battle, at Gaines Mill, a Union defeat during General George McClennan’s 1862 Peninsula Campaign:

. . . At about noon the skirmishers began to fire & kept it up till about 3 in the afternoon, when the fight commenced in earnest.  Our Reg’t was not engaged until 5 o’clock when the line in front were driven back.  They went to our rear & then came the tug of war for us & it came in earnest too.  Such roars of musketry I never heard although I thought I had heard it before when it sounded musical to some extent & the artillery above all this.

The Massachusetts 22nd, John Barker's regiment, at Gaines Mills.  (Source:  Parker, Henry Wilson's Regiment:  History of the 22nd Massachusetts Infantry)

The Massachusetts 22nd, John Barker’s regiment, at Gaines Mill. (Source: Parker, Henry Wilson’s Regiment: History of the 22nd Massachusetts Infantry)

On they came and we were forced to retreat.  Just as the retreat commenced I stopped & layed down.  I had a hole through my right breast.  The ball entered my breast & passed through my lung came out just below my shoulder blade.  I bled dreadfully.  The blood completely soaked my clothes & I also bled inside a good deal but as narrow as my escape was I have lived through it.  The Reg’t was on the retreat when I was wounded, & in two minutes the Rebels were about me & as they advanced our artillery from the hills opened on them with grape and canister, which was scattered all around where I lay covered me with dirt & mowing the foe down in great numbers & killing some of our wounded left in the field.  The fight lasted till night then stopped when two of the Rebels came to me & helped me back to the woods close by where I was left till the next day afternoon.  I was in great pain all night.  It was with difficulty I could breath at all & did not know I should live to see morning again & at time was in so much distress I almost wished I were dead, but got through the night & the next day did not feel quite so bad.

In the afternoon I was taken & carried to a house close by where were 275 of our wounded men & I asked our Dr. who was taken also what he thought of my wound & his reply was that I might possibly get over it. But he could do nothing for it.  He told me to keep it wet with water & I tore one of pockets out of my pants & cut it in two, & put one piece on my breast & one on my back.  I kept it wet all the time. . . .

The first week at the house I layed out on the ground, after that got into an old hovel and stayed there.  For the first week they buried from 8 to 15 each day, after that not so many.  Our living was very poor but we made out to live some of us at least.

. . . [O]ne morning there came 30 or 40 baggage wagons & they piled us in & drove off.   Such groaning as that I should not hear again.  They drove us in wagons with no springs for 5 miles over a corduroy road of the roughest kind, then we were loaded off into the cars, what of us were not put on top.  Just as we got ready to start it began to rain & blow, which it did for the next hours in earnest & wet me nicely I being outside.

At night we arrived at the city of Richmond.  That night & till noon the next day stayed in the depot, then were taken to an old tobacco factory in which we stayed a week peeking through the grates in the windows & lying on the nasty floor.  There were 800 sick & wounded prisoners in that building & we had to live on rather short allowance I tell you. . . .

Barker was lucky that his stay at the notorious Libby Prison (the “old tobacco factory”) was short.  He was part of one of the first prisoner exchanges of the war and returned North after only one week.  He closed his letter to his sister, written from a Pennsylvania military hospital, with the report that “[t]he Dr. examined me this morning & says he thinks my lung will soon be nearly as good as ever.”  The doctor was right:  John Barker was back with his regiment for the Battle of Gettysburg, was injured again, and returned to Hanson.  He married and became a shoemaker, dying in 1903.  His name appears on Hanson’s Civil War monument.

A Soldier Writes Home

Unlike 20th century soldiers, whose mail home traveled for free—or 21st century soldiers, with access to email—Civil War soldiers typically had to purchase their own stationery, envelopes, and stamps in order to write to their loved ones at home.  Our collection of letters which John Barker of Hanson sent home between December 1861 and January 1863—and their envelopes—help tell that story.  Writing materials and stamps were not always easy to come by.  In an 1862 letter home from East Point, VA, Barker wrote:

I suppose that the girls have begun their school.  I would wright them but I have only one stamp and the letters will not go without them now.   I should like to have you send me some if you have them for they cannot be got hear for love nor monney.

StampedBarker apologized for his poor writing materials when writing from camp (“Do not know as you can read this for it is poorly written and my pencil is short”) while in a later letter from a military hospital in Pennsylvania, he remarked upon the quality of his stationery (“I must stop now for I have filled this great white sheet of paper”).  A first-class stamp for a letter sent east of the Mississippi cost three cents.  The 3¢ stamp with Washington’s profile used on Barker’s envelopes was issued after Fort Sumter and used throughout the war.

Mixter EnvelopeStamps were not always available, as Barker notes.  Letters would be delivered if labeled “Soldier’s Letter” and accompanied by a soldier’s name and regimental information.  The postage due was stamped on the outside of the envelope, to be paid by the recipient.  Barker was taken prisoner in the summer of 1862 and after his commanding officer learned that he was well and would be sent North in a prisoner exchange, he wrote the family a letter.  Marked “Soldier’s letter” and inscribed with an officer’s name, it was stamped “Due 3” and delivered to the Barkers.  (Note the handwritten note, “Good news,” in the lower left hand corner of the envelope, a reminder of what a terrifying prospect a letter from a soldier’s commanding officer would have been in the circumstances.)

FrankedInterestingly, Barker did for a period of time have the opportunity of sending letters without buying stamps.  He served in the Massachusetts 22nd Regiment, which was organized by Henry Wilson, then a sitting United States Senator from Massachusetts (and later Vice President under President Ulysses S. Grant).  Barker’s first letter home, from training camp at Hall’s Hill, Virginia, has no stamp.  Instead it was “franked,” i.e., Henry Wilson’s signature appears in the upper right hand corner in place of a stamp.  Union military officers did not ordinarily enjoy franking privileges; presumably, Barker was able to send some early letters without postage because his commanding officer was a sitting member of Congress.

SlogansStationery companies met the demand for stationery and envelopes by manufacturing numerous designs and styles for the soldiers’ use.  Elaborate patriotic pictures and slogans were common.  John Barker wrote home on stationery and envelopes featuring portraits of General Burnside and Columbia; drawings of  flags, eagles, and the Masonic “all-seeing eye;” and slogans such as “One Flag, One Government,” “My God first, my Country next and then my Family,” “Victory,” and “Dedicated to the Gallant Defenders of our National Union.”Columbia

A Letter From Daphney

Among the Deborah Barker letters to Christian Barnes in our archives (see post of October 28) is a well-worn manuscript dated May 13, 1787.  It is signed “Daphney,” and was originally indexed as authored by “Daphne Barker.”  Indeed, Deborah Barker’s frequent references to Daphne in her own letters call up the image of an elderly aunt who visits her Hingham relations from time to time.

But there is no Daphne in the Barker family tree.  We started looking at the Barnes family and, before long, realized that Daphne was the Barnes’ former slave, left behind when Loyalists Henry and Christian Barnes fled to England in 1775.

The letter is in Deborah Barker’s handwriting, but the voice is unmistakably Daphne’s.  She updates her former mistress on local news and describes a general economic malaise: “Everybody is very poor.  The streets are full of beggars and the people steal so that the jails are full.”  She fills Mrs. Barnes in on her Boston friends—and she is not afraid to dish the dirt.  “Mrs. Howe,” she writes, “was at Boston this winter.  She came in a shay.  She is grown as big as a great ox.”  When she saw Mrs. Howe, Daphne writes, she “enquired after Dolly Gate and Mrs. How told she had gone up to near Rutland and had another child by a married man.”   “John Parker’s sister Polly,” she reports, “went up to see him and came home with a child but no husband.”

Daphne is vocal in her complaints about the support she is receiving from the General Court, which became responsible for her after it confiscated the Barnes’ Marlborough estate.  Simon Stow, a Marlborough lawyer, “has the care of your estate in Marlbro’ and he never came to town till March and I believe I should have froze if Mr. Parker and Mr. Green had not sent me some wood.  Mr. Stow came to town in March & gave me a little fag of wood that he gave four shillings for and he has not been in town since.”

Daphney's letter to Christian Barnes, May 13, 1787 (Hingham Historical Society archives)

Daphney’s letter to Christian Barnes, May 13, 1787 (Hingham Historical Society archives)

When Daphne wrote this letter, she was living on Rowe’s Lane in Boston (near today’s Bedford Street), renting from a black woman named Venus, according to legislative records at the Massachusetts Archives.  Deborah Barker did not approve:  she wrote that the money the General Court set aside for Daphne “would be a very comfortable support . . . could she be prevailed upon to live anywhere but in a negro house . . . .”

Daphne appears to have come to Hingham in the summer, as reflected in repeated references in Deborah Barkers’ letters:   “[Daphne] continues her annual visits to Hingham and we are fond of seeing her” (Aug. 5, 1783); “I expect [Daphne] every day as I promised to write for her as soon as I returned from my journey” (June 1788); “she spent a month with us the summer past but grew impatient to go home” (Nov. 12, 1790).  The letter in our archives was undoubtedly written on one of Daphne’s visits to Hingham.

Further research is needed to discover what Daphne’s ties were to Hingham.  Was she related to one of the Barkers’ slaves?  Was she raised on the South Shore?  Even without full context, her letter allows us to hear the voice of an individual which might otherwise have been lost and to ponder relationships we have trouble understanding.

Boston Greets the “King of America”

General Benjamin Lincoln may have stood in for General George Washington at Yorktown, accepting Lord Cornwallis’ sword, but not all of his Hingham neighbors and friends were on his side in the Revolutionary war.  A letter in our Archives from Deborah Barker of Hingham describes the reception the newly inaugurated President Washington received when he visited Boston in October 1789, leaving no question about what she thought of the new republic and its chief executive.

Washington  toured the New England states in the fall of 1789, arriving in Boston on October 24 to an elaborate public celebration.  As pictured below, a triumphal arch, designed by Charles Bulfinch, was constructed in Washington’s honor at the west end of the Old State House, over what was later renamed Washington Street.

1789_TriumphalArch_Boston_MassachusettsMagazine Larger

Engraving published in Massachusetts Magazine in 1789. Caption on the picture reads, “View of the triumphal Arch and Colonnade, erected in Boston in honor of the President of the United States, Oct. 24, 1789.”

Deborah Barker, one of three daughters of loyalist Joshua Barker, who fought for the Crown in the French and Indian War, was not among those impressed. She had been in Boston when Washington arrived and reported to Christian Barnes of Bristol, England, her mother’s cousin, that “[t]he General as President of the United States (or in other words as the King of America) thought proper to visit the northern part of his territories.”  She continued in the same sarcastic vein:

. . . Such a movement could not be performed secretly. It was no sooner announced that he intended visiting Boston than every breast beat with rapture, joy, and exultation. The mechanicks were employed, some in erecting triumphal arches, some in painting flags expressive of their several branches of business, which the most respectable of the order were to carry forth . . . . All of the superior orders were busy in forming addresses expressive of his transcendent merit, and their great love and respect for him. The poets in writing odes and other poems asserted their abilities. . . . The military were all in motion and made a superb appearance. Thus after a week’s preparation and expectation the great the important day (in honor of which everything that an infant world could do was to be done for the Man that many of them fancyed themselves under the greatest obligation to) arrived. The people met in the Mall, formed themselves into a regular processing, each man following the flag bearing a device expressive of his employment, first the merchants, then the clergy, doctors, lawyers, & sea captains, the mechanics alphabetically, thus proceeded by the select men (they you know must always be first) they marched down prison lane and up the main street . . . .

Barker knew she had an appreciative audience for her colorful description. Christian Barnes and her husband, Henry, had been forced to flee the colonies in 1775 because of Henry’s British trading activities and had forfeited their substantial Estate.  Banished by an Act of the General Court, they had settled in Bristol. Portraits of Christian and Henry Barnes hang in the parlor of our 1688 Old Ordinary House Museum. Christian’s has two slashes across it and Henry’s a hole in the middle of the chest–which tradition claims were left by the Marlborough patriots who seized the Barnes estate. It is through Deborah Barker that these paintings came to rest in Hingham.