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.

Powerful Words in the Name of Freedom

Every day Hingham residents drive or walk past the entrance to a small park lying between Central and Hersey Streets. Now known as Burns Memorial Park, it was once home to Tranquility Grove, an outdoor space used for meeting and rallies—including in particular abolitionist rallies.

Hingham was home to an active group of abolitionists. Led in large part by local women who were considered extremists by many, Hingham’s abolitionists worked for freedom through petitions, speeches, meetings, and protests. High-profile abolitionists visited Hingham regularly during this period, including Frederick Douglass (who came more than once), William Lloyd Garrison, an aging John Quincy Adams, and the Grimke sisters.

On August 1, 1844, the Hingham Anti-Slavery Society hosted a large regional rally to mark the tenth anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies. The rally featured a speech by Frederick Douglass at the First Baptist Church and a procession down Hingham’s Elm Street to Tranquility Grove. As the abolitionists entered the Grove, they were greeted by large white banners hung from the surrounding fir trees. In bold black letters, the banners spelled out anti-slavery slogans:

20141011_110642They are slaves that fail to speak/ for the fallen and the weak

20141011_110456True freedom is to be earnest to make OTHERS free

20141011_110507God made us free! Then fetter not a brother’s limbs!

20141011_110636Welcome All to Freedom’s Altar!

Fragile and creased with age, the banners from the 1844 Tranquility Grove meeting are preserved in our archives. One of them makes direct reference to Tranquility Grove, greeting supporters entering the rally with a verse:

Hail! Friend of Truth, thou enterest here
The grove long named TRANQUILITY.
O let thy soul then breathe sweet peace,
Pure love and TRUE HUMILITY.

P1060107The efforts of the Hingham abolitionists contributed to the larger national abolition movement which would continue to gain traction across the country until the Emancipation Proclamation brought their hard work to fruition. The banners remain an evocative reminder of Hingham’s participation in that important work, and their powerful statements still right true to this day.

The Songs of the Abolitionists

Jairus Lincoln of Hingham published his song book “Anti-Slavery Melodies: For the Friends of Freedom” for the Hingham Anti-Slavery Society in 1843.  Music was an important part of abolitionist meetings and rallies. In the foreword to his anthology, Lincoln noted the success that the temperance movement had enjoyed incorporating music into its message and urged the anti-slavery movement to follow the example: “[t]here are many who have not the gift of speech-making, but who can, by song-singing, make strong appeals, in behalf of the slave, to every community and every heart.”

Lincoln included the words and music to 57 anti-slavery songs, some original, some “standards” in the movement, and some taken from a previous anthology, “The Anti-Slavery Pick-nick.”  Many of the melodies are based on hymns that would have been very familiar to the audience, with lyrics based on anti-slavery poetry by John Pierpont, Elizabeth Margaret Chandler, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, among others. (To our 21st century sensibilities, the absence of any music influenced by the rich music–spirituals and field tunes–of the enslaved peoples themselves is striking.)

A few songs stand out.  Lincoln included a sharp parody of a familiar patriotic hymn:

My country! ’tis of thee,
Stronghold of slavery,
Of thee I sing:
Land where my fathers died,
Where men man’s rights deride,
From every mountainside,
Thy deeds shall ring.

My native country! thee,
Where all men are born free,
If white their skin:
I love thy hills and dales,
Thy mounts and pleasant vales,
But hate thy negro sales,
As foulest sin. . . .

One well-known anti-slavery anthem, “The Song of the Abolitionist,” was written by William Lloyd Garrison, to be sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”:

I am an Abolitionist! I glory in the name;
Though now by slavery’s minions hissed, And covered o’er with shame;
It is a spell of light and power, The watch-word of the free;
Who spurns it in the trial-hour, A craven soul is he.

I am an Abolitionist! Then urge me not to pause,
For joyfully do I enlist In Freedom’s sacred cause;
A nobler strife the world ne’er saw, Th’ enslaved to disenthral;
I am a soldier for the war, Whatever may befall. . . .

Words and music to "Song of the Abolitionist," from Lincoln's Anti-Slavery Songbook

Words and music to “Song of the Abolitionist,” from Lincoln’s Anti-Slavery Songbook

In From Abolition to Rights for All: The Making of a Reform Community in the Nineteenth Century, Professor John Cumbler writes that “[t]he social world of abolitionism also had its lighter side.”  The two examples with which he supports his assertion are close to home:  an 1844 meeting in Hingham, where New England abolitionists enjoyed a boat trip from Boston, the seaside, and the country air, and a “fishing party” to Cohasset during those same years. Perhaps after enjoying sunshine and a good meal, the abolitionists pulled out their copies of Lincoln’s “Anti-Slavery Melodies”–perhaps even the copy that is now in our archives.

A few years ago, a choral ensemble from Arizona State University recorded a number of the songs from Lincoln’s “Anti-Slavery Melodies.” Click here and scoll down the page to listen.

 

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.