Sunday, January 17, 2021

Alcott Portraits and an Almost Forgotten Artist


Looking for pictures of Abigail May Alcott, Little Women's Marmee for this year's block of the month on the Civil War Quilts blog I have come across this drawing several times. This version tells us it is Abba May Alcott reproduced for publication "from a crayon portrait."

Hands All Around: Alcotts at War
Block #1 by Addison

See a post on a star block for Abba here:

A crayon portrait is drawn with what we might call chalk, a monochrome drawing done in a range of shades from black to white, often on a gray sheet of paper. The chalk is smudged to obtain various gradations. Shadows might be added with black and highlights finally with white. Brown chalks were also commonly used for monochrome pictures.

Abba's dark eyes contrast with the highlights in her nose cheek and chin (the Alcott women had strong chins.) No artist is ever given credit for this portrait with its distinctive highlighting style including a few white squiggles on her lace collar.

The caption also tells us that the portrait was photographed from a picture belonging to Mrs. Bronson Alcott Pratt, probably Louise DeRevere Grant Pratt (1892-1984) wife of Bronson Alcott Pratt, Abba's great-grandson.

Abba's portrait is much in the same style as the portrait of her daughter Elizabeth Alcott (1835-1858). This is the only known picture of Elizabeth who died in her early 20s, so we know it was probably drawn before 1858. Again no artist is generally credited in the reproductions of the crayon drawing, in the collection of Orchard House.

And here it is over the piano. It looks to be shades of reddish
brown chalk on brown paper. 

As an artist myself (not a very good one) I'd have been fussy about this portrait if it were mine and would have asked the artist to take that shine off my nose. She probably would not have agreed to my request as the shiny nose is a style she affected often. You notice I say "she." I think I recognize that style.

I find at the last minute that Daniel Shealy's Annotated Edition of Little Women tells us what I'd guessed.

Portrait of Asiel Abercrombie by Caroline Negus Hildreth (1814-1867)
Collection of the University of Massachusetts Amherst

Caroline Negus Hildreth was a professional artist who had a studio in Boston from the 1840s until 1861. She taught art and was known for her crayon portraits.

Here's Abba's husband Bronson Alcott "from the portrait by Mrs. Hildreth" reproduced in a 1914 book of Alcott letters by Jessie Bonstelle and Marina De Forest.

From Daniel Shealy's Alcott in Her Own Time

This version seems to be closer to the original crayon portrait with a few highlights in Bronson's blondish hair turning gray. Born in 1799 he was 53 in 1852 and 1853 although the portrait is usually dated to 1858 and sometimes to 1851.

Abba critiqued the portrait: 
"A tinge of the incomprehensible lies softly around it, a field of atmosphere as if she had worked with down from an angel's wing rather than with a crayon as if the moonlight had cast a shadow on the lights."

She was not pleased with the "mantle draped about the shoulders," not in keeping with Bronson's "neat and poor" appearance. About her own portrait we find no comment. And no one but me complains about the shiny noses.

Miniatures by Caroline Negus Hildreth from a Skinner Auction

Caroline Gould Negus (1814-1867) was born into a family of painters in Petersham, Massachusetts. Her first specialty was miniatures and her early work has the naivete one would expect in her sign painter family but she became more skilled and conventional.

Miniature on ivory of Ralph Waldo Emerson 1844
by Caroline

Emerson thought her portrait "did me too much honour" but he was pleased with it and commissioned crayon portraits of daughters Edith & Ellen for which he paid the artist $20 in the year 1844.

Probably this unaccredited double portrait, which may be in the
collection of the Concord Library.

Based on the visual similarities I would credit Elizabeth and Abigail Alcott's portraits to Caroline Negus Hildreth, probably done in the mid 1850s before Elizabeth became so ill she could not leave her bed in late 1857.

The Alcotts moved often in the mid 1850s, spending time in Boston, Concord and other places, trying to live as cheaply as possible, earn a little money and see to the education of their youngest daughter May who took art classes in Boston. Bronson Alcott mentions Mrs. Hildreth living in rooms on Tremont Row in a letter. The 1855 city directory lists her as an artist at 228 Washington Street. 

Tremont Row in 1845

Richard Hildreth (1807-1865)
This may be a published reproduction of a chalk portrait by Caroline.

Caroline Negus married Richard Hildreth in 1844. Like Abba Alcott she financially supported a rather visionary husband. Richard spent the years in Boston working on a multi-volume history of the United States while she taught and drew portraits. In 1861 Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner successfully lobbied the new Lincoln administration to appoint Richard Hildreth the consul at Trieste in Italy. 

December, 1867 notice of Caroline's death, widely published

During the Civil War Richard's sister Frances Gilman Hildreth Mansfield (1814-1879) invited Louisa and May to vacation at Clark's Island near Plymouth, Massachusetts. May went in 1863 and both sisters visited in 1864, enjoying two weeks with the Hildreth nieces.

Richard and Caroline Hildreth died in Italy in the 1860s. I can find no pictures of Caroline herself.

Read more about the artist:
Mary Fuller, "Caroline Negus-A Woman Deerfield Should Remember," History and Proceedings of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association 1921.

Joel Myerson & Leslie Perrin Wilson. "Picturing Emerson: An Iconography." Harvard Library Bulletin 27 (1-2), Spring-Summer 2016.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Flora Delanica #4: Spanish Iris

Flora Delanica #4 Spanish Iris
(Iris Xiphium) by Becky Brown

Spanish iris, unlike most plants we call iris, grow from bulbs rather than rhizomes, blooming in single blessedness, the perfect flower to recall Mary Delany's years as a young widow.

"Her stature was in middle proportion...every part and proportion perfect in their kind, fitted alike for activity and strength. Her walk was graceful, beyond anything that ever I saw in woman." ...Patrick Delany.
The widow Pendarves floated festively though those years in the 1720s and '30s, an ornament to a rather stiff German court ruled by King George II, second of Britain's Georgian kings. George II & his Queen Caroline tried to make the court a more glamorous place with regular Sunday drawing room events and ceremonial occasions requiring luxurious dress. The Queen took notice of Mary's clothing (probably ornamented by Mary herself) and complimented her.

King George II
"In private life he would have been called an honest blockhead..."
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Caroline of Ansbach (1683-1737)

Queen Caroline shows us the ermine trim and metallic embroidery on her court dress. The embroidery is stitched of gold and silver threads. Fashion at the time was so valuable that King Louis XIV had the stitching on the French court's royal garments melted down to pay for his foreign wars.

Metallic embroidery

As the great niece of an earl Mary Granville Pendarves enjoyed a birth right to the beau monde despite her lack of husband and fortune. Her income was enough to finance a modest life about town and country with the help of friends and family as the season dictated. 

Nancy Phillips #4 in wool

She spent many of those years living on London's Brook Street with her Aunt Anne Granville, Lady Stanley, the former lady in Queen Mary's court who had done much to raise her. Mary's well-loved younger sister Anne and brother Bernard (Bunny) offered diversions and affection.

Handel's neighboring home on Brook Street still stands.

Several rich friends enjoyed her company so much that she was able to move in rather exalted circles. Close companions included Henrietta, Lady Oxford, her daughter Margaret, Duchess of Portland and Anne Donnellen. She and Anne, an accomplished singer, often played and sang neighbor George Frideric Handel's new compositions for him.

About 1740, four friends had miniature portraits painted by Christian Friedrich Zincke to be formed into a small gold box. Clockwise from top left: Elizabeth Montagu, unknown, Mary Pendarves, and Margaret, Duchess of Portland. The unknown woman may be Anne Donnellen. This hinged box sold at Christies about 20 years ago for £56,400.

Friends and associates included not only Handel, but essayist Jonathan Swift, artist William Hogarth, intellectual salonist Elizabeth Robinson Montagu and philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. (Well, I'd guess she didn't care for Rousseau, friend and neighbor of her brother and Margaret, because she considered his ideas far too liberal.) She spent time discussing religion with Methodist John Wesley and his brother when she was young. Their thoughts were more in concert with hers.

Ellen T. Harris has plotted Handel's St. George Hanover Square neighbors including Mrs Delany in a 2015 paper Discovering Handel’s London through  His Music Presentations.

Handel with his first patron King George I in 1717.
Are those the royal mistresses known as the maypole and the elephant on the boat?

As an accomplished harpsichordist, conversationalist and artist Mary was never at a loss for an evening out---or an evening in, hosting musical evenings at home with her Stanley Aunt and Uncle. Did she miss one Handel concert in London when she was in town?

Charles Calvert 1699-1751

She also did not lack for suitors. One persistent peer was Charles Calvert, 5th Baron Baltimore, absentee governor of the Maryland colony. Mary found his American possession amusing and referred to him as her American Prince. When their relationship was finally over, his marriage to another caused enough pain and social awkwardness that she and her friend Anne Donnellen planned a long trip to Ireland to visit Anne's relations in the early 1830s.

Iris Xiphium by Mary Delany
To see the paper mosaick scroll down here:

Marriage and the men of England held few charms for her:
"Moneyed men are most of them covetous, disagreeable wretches; fine men with titles and estates are coxcombs; those of real merit are seldom to be found."

Spanish Iris in my garden last spring

The Block
#4 Iris

Applique on the diagonal to an square cut 10-1/2" or on the vertical center of a rectangle cut 9-1/2" x 12-1/2".

One Way to Print the Pattern:

Create a word file or a new empty JPG file that is 8-1/2" x 11".
Click on the image above.
Right click on it and save it to your file.
Print that file out 8-1/2" x 11". Note the inch square block for reference.
Adjust the printed page size if necessary.

Flora Delanica #4 Spanish Iris
(Iris Xiphium) by Barbara Brackman

#4 by Ilyse Moore, wool on linen.

A Little More Mary Delany

Scarlet Geranium from South Africa (Geran: Inquinans)

Further Reading & Viewing

Read about Mary Pendarves and George Frideric Handel in Ellen T. Harris's article "Discovering Handel's London Through His Music."

Read a lot more in Jane Glover's Handel in London. Preview here:

And Ellen T. Harris's' George Frideric Handel: A Life With Friends:
Mary, a close friend, is a major source about the composer's life.

Lucy Worsley has done one of her signature BBC series on the First Georgians: The German Kings Who Made Britain.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Parnel Grumley's Peony & Prairie Flower Quilt


Quilt dated 1847 by Parnel R. Grumley Pierce (1820-1898)
95" x 92" 
Shelburne Museum

The Shelburne Museum owns a quilt in a familiar design. We might call it Carolina Lily or Cleveland Tulips but the maker inked her name for the pattern on the reverse.

The Peony and Prairie Flower No 6 " Somewhere she also put her name and the date "Parnel R. Grumley, 1847."

It may be that the block is the Peony and the border the Prairie Flower

Ruth Finley called a similar quilt The Peony in her 1929 book Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them. She borrowed this one from a New York relative.

The Shelburne's quilt was found in a New York antique shop in the 1930s by Margaret Thorne Parshall of Millbrook, New York, who donated it to the museum. Somehow she knew the maker was from North Greenwich in Washington County.

North Greenwich is the pink rectangle

Parnel Rebecca Grumley is an unusual name so we can find her in New York records. She was born in Connecticut in 1820 and married on October 14, 1847 in North Greenwich, Washington County, a town near New York's border with Vermont. This elegant quilt must have been made for her wedding. Did the #6 mean there were five others or more?

Parnel Grumley (also spelled Grumbley) married Juline Pierce (1809-1879), again an unusual name, also spelled Julius or Julian.

Juline was a farmer in Hamilton, Madison County, over 100 miles from Parnel's home in Washington County so how they met is only one question of many.

The 1850 census taker got Juline's name right but made a hash
of Parnel's. They look to be middling farmers with a resident farm hand.

Juline and Parnel apparently never raised any birth children but the 1855 state census shows them living with a nine-year-old adopted son named E Remington, perhaps written as Eugine. An Edmond Remington (about 9 in 1855) grew up in Madison County. This boy may be Parnel's nephew, born to a sister Elizabeth Hannah Grumbley Remington who died in Wisconsin in 1853. 

The Grumleys and the Pierces did not make much of a mark, except for this impressive quilt and a pretty tombstone in Hamilton's Woodlawn Cemetery.

Juline retired from farming, according to the 1875 state census and died in 1879. 

In 1880 the census found Parnel, a widow, living with two other women, dressmaker Susan C. Moore and Lucy Allets and Lucy's son. Perhaps the census taker caught them when Susan was living in with Parnel, making a new wardrobe for the new widow. Parnel lived into her late seventies. 

Hamilton a few years after Parnel's death.

Friday, January 8, 2021

A 1682 Quilt in Alabama #5: The Persistence of Memory

The last 4 posts have examined the tale of America's oldest quilt, featured in the book Alabama Quilts where it is dated 1682. Facts do not substantiate that claim. 

Links to the previous four posts:

Why do such stories linger?

The quilt fragment is attributed to the hand of Sarah Kemble Knight (1626-1727) pictured here as the author of a journal from 1705. The absurdity of the whole tale of Madam Knight is illustrated in this portrait. The source is unknown but it was probably published in a late-19th century version of her journal, which is likely a fictional forgery. She looks quite a bit like a late-19th-century version of a woman.

Why forge diaries? 
1) It's entertaining for writer and reader---a narrative form that might start out labeled as historical fiction but seems so authentic that it's hard to differentiate. 

2) There is money to be made. You may recall Clifford Irving going to jail decades ago for the financial chicanery in forging a diary by eccentric celebrity Howard Hughes.

Reprint about 1850

3) Then there is slander, such as the anti-religious propaganda of the Maria Monk diaries, attributed to Theodore Dwight, thought to be the author of the forged diary of Sarah Kemble Knight. 

4) And, unfortunately, some people have psychotic episodes believing voices are dictating stories to them.

6) Often it is the message that matters. Some people desire an idea to be true so firmly that they see nothing wrong in a little lying. 

Messages: Family history as noble, regional history as honorable and righteous, a more aristocratic background than truth would tell? 
Colonial history of northern European immigrants as more authentic than history of the indigenous people or later, darker "foreigners"? 
Post Civil-War nostalgia for a lost Southern way of life?

I did some Photoshopping to show
what the other side (dark blue wool) might look like.

Did Alabama teacher Adeline Morse embellish a Massachusetts family quilt with a lengthier pedigree---just as she may have shortened her own when telling the 1870 census taker that she'd been born in 1820.

The complex tale of the 1682 quilt, America's "oldest quilt," its link to Sarah Kemble Knight and the Journal of Madam Knight probably weaves threads of various motivations. Slander would have little part in it and nobody seems to have heard voices so the strongest motivation for the persistence of the Sarah Kemble Knight myth might be the message this tale tells us.

Sarah Anne Hobson (1874-1953)
Anne and sister Margaret were keepers of
family heirlooms like the quilt fragment & family stories 

in the first half of the 20th century.

The message is complex but very durable, much like Anne Hobson's 1903 dialect fiction about African-Americans In Old Alabama, Being the Chronicles of Miss Mouse.

We could find a parallel in the image of the Southern plantation historic home.

Tara, the colonnaded mansion in the film Gone with the Wind. 
It's a movie set.

Karen L Cox in Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created notes that in the Gone With the Wind novel Margaret Mitchell described a more typical and more modest house but set decorators created a new fiction. Mitchell "feared that Hollywood might add columns 'on the smokehouse, too.' "

Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949)

 Mitchell: "Southerners could write the truth about the ante-bellum South [but] everyone would go on believing in the Hollywood version."

I'm afraid the "1682" quilt relates more to the Hollywood version than to the accurate textile history version.

And that's a wrap on quilts from 1682.

Although you could read Karen L. Cox's Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created