Isaac Sprague and American Botany

isaac sprague poster '16-100dpiA new exhibit opened today at our 1688 Old Ordinary house museum, 21 Lincoln Street, Hingham. Isaac Sprague and American Botany: Art, Science, and Agriculture in the 19th Century examines the life and work of America’s best-known botanical illustrator–and son of Hingham–and places his art in the context of several currents of 19th century social history.  Plus, we have mounted some absolutely lovely botanical prints and and a series of beautifully detailed pencil drawings of the many types of orchard fruits that were once grown in this area. The exhibit can be seen Tuesdays through Saturdays, between 1 pm and 5 pm, for the rest of the summer.  We hope you come and take a look and learn a little more about this Hingham artist.

Main Street, Top of Pear Tree HillIsaac Sprague was born in Hingham in 1811. His family lived in Hingham Centre, in a house that still stands today. The Spragues of Hingham were primarily coopers, part of the woodenware industry that gave early Hingham the nickname “Bucket Town.”  Sprague was mostly self-taught as an artist, recalling that he “always had a fondness for making pictures” as a child. He was “constantly discouraged from doing so by [his] father, who said artists were invariably poor,” but his family did have some creative roots–his Uncle Hosea was a printer and engraver, and another uncle, Blossom, ran a carriage-painting business (visible in the center of this early photo of Hingham Centre) where Sprague was apprenticed as a young man.

No. 11Sprague developed an early love of nature and much of his juvenile work is drawn from the woods and fields around Hingham.  In particular, young Isaac drew and painted numerous pictures of birds.  When Sprague was about thirty, he met the wildlife artist J. J. Audubon, who examined a number of Sprague’s bird drawings and, impressed with his talent, hired him as an assistant. In this capacity, Sprague accompanied Audubon out west to the Missouri Territory and Fort Union on a trip to produce sketches for Audubon’s Quadrupeds of North America. This connection with Audubon launched Sprague’s career as a botanical artist.

2011.0.271After his trip west Sprague returned briefly to the South Shore, working as a clerk in a Nantasket Beach hotel until, the following year, he started to work as an illustrator for prominent American botanist Asa Gray, first producing illustrations for his 1845 Lowell lectures at Harvard.  Before long he moved to Cambridge, continuing to work for Gray and other Harvard professors, illustrating several comprehensive botanical volumes in the 1840s and 1850s.  (The illustration to the left, of Aesculus Parviflora, is from an 1848 work, Trees and Shrubs of New England.)

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.

The Portico Finds Its Home

Those who have been to our Old Ordinary House Museum—or who have been to the home page of our Society website—have seen the gazebo or summer house in the shape of a small Grecian temple which sits at the top of the Old Ordinary garden.

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As well as being a charming backdrop for garden parties and the occasional wedding, this structure is a genuine piece of Hingham history. Its travels around town over the last two hundred years are documented by correspondence, photographs, and the written reminiscences of the Rev. John Gallop, one of its former custodians–all in our archives.

In the late 17th century, the Thaxter family built a house in Hingham Square, on the present day site of St. Paul’s Church. As added to and improved over the years, the “Thaxter mansion” grew into a large, attractive home, furnished with tapestries, tiled fireplaces, and painted doors—some of which were donated to our Society by Thaxter descendants.

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At some point, prior to the first photographs of the house but almost certainly in the first half of the 19th century, a classically-influenced portico, with a pediment and columns, was added at the house’s front door.

Greek revival architecture was the fashion during the first half of the 19th century, and it sometimes took a more modest form than the Monticello or “Tara” models. Greek-influenced porticos were added to many older New England buildings. In addition to the Thaxter mansion, porticos with columns and a pediment were added to the Old Ordinary itself and (in an architectural mash-up) the English Gothic Old Ship Church.

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The Thaxter mansion was torn down in 1866 to make way for St. Paul’s Church, but the portico was saved. The story is that it was taken away by Hingham artist W. Allan Gay, but in any event, it was installed in the side yard of the Martin Gay house at 262 South Street, where it began its second life as a summer house or gazebo.

The Martin Gay house and its side yard.  (See the portico at the far right of the photograph.)

The Martin Gay house and its side yard. (See the portico at the far right of the photograph.)

Almost 100 years later, during an expansion of the South Shore Country Club, the garden area the Gay property was sold. The portico, which had fallen into disrepair, was threatened with demolition. The Rev. John M. Gallop, rector of the Parish of St. John the Evangelist, saved the portico from demolition. He sought and received permission to remove it. He installed it in the side yard of St. John’s Rectory, on Main Street next door to the church.

Upon his retirement from St. John’s, Gallop donated the portico to the Hingham Historical Society. The decision was reached to add it to the formal gardens on the grounds of the Old Ordinary. (These gardens have a rich history of their own which would take another post to cover.) Still more preservation work was needed, but thanks to Gallop and many dedicated volunteers at the Society, the portico found a permanent home in 1979, not much further than a football field’s length away from where it was originally built.

Installing the portico in the Old Ordinary's garden (1979)

Installing the portico in the Old Ordinary’s garden (1979)