J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Margaret Gage “à la turque”

Last month I had occasion to display this portrait of Margaret Gage by John Singleton Copley, now at the Timken Museum in San Diego. It’s significant not just because it shows the general’s wife, but also because of what it depicts her as wearing.

This archived webpage about a 1999 exhibit explains:

The image of romantic fashionability, Mrs. Gage is depicted wearing an iridescent caftan over a lace trimmed chemise with a jeweled brooch at her breast and an embroidered belt at her waist. Pearls and a turban-like swath of drapery adorn her hair. Copley’s depiction of Mrs. Gage in turban and uncorseted caftan make this one of the most sexually charged portraits produced in colonial America.

Mrs. Gage’s wish to be portrayed in turquerie put her in the company of countless English women who were “going Turkish” to masquerade balls. Their American peers, however, who had no occasions to wear such costumes, participated in the exhilarating world of exotic disguise through portraiture. In the artist’s studio, clients had the chance to look more stylish than they could in real life. Copley offered his subjects the option of selecting poses, settings, costumes, and coiffures from English sources. In the space of the painted canvas, he created for them alternate or desired appearances.
There’s more discussion of this fashion phenomenon from Barbara Sarudy at 18th-Century American Women.

Margaret Gage may have been dressing up, but she had a genuine family connection to Turkey. As a youth her grandfather Richard Kemble worked for a Turkish merchant in London, then traveled to the Ottoman Empire to establish a trading house. While in Smyrna, Kemble married a woman from the Mavrocordato family, ethnically Greek merchants from the island of Scio. Later he was British consul at Salonica.

In 1704, Richard and his wife had a son named Peter, who was born and spent his first eight years in Smyrna. After an English education Peter Kemble did business in Rotterdam, Guinea, and London before settling in New Jersey. In 1734 Peter and his first wife Gertrude had the little girl they named Margaret.

10 comments:

Larry Cebula said...

Is there a good biography of Margaret Gage?

J. L. Bell said...

I don’t think there’s any biography of Margaret Gage, and I’m not sure there are materials enough for one.

The best biography of her husband is John R. Alden’s General Gage in America.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand, are you trying to argue that this is not imaginary dress? Perhaps some reading about early American poraitrature would help.

J. L. Bell said...

Perhaps a more careful reading of the post would help, Anonymous. It doesn’t use the word “imaginary,” nor does it suggest that Margaret Gage wore such clothing normally or even at masquerades. It discusses two different connections Gage had to Turkey: this portrait and her paternal ancestry.

As to whether Gage ever wore such clothing, I’ve taken no position because I don’t think the evidence is clear. The posting notes that “Copley offered his subjects the option of selecting…costumes, and coiffures from English sources.” However, I don’t think any antecedent of this particular pose and dress has been identified, in contrast to other portraits.

Given Margaret Gage’s wealth, class, and connections to Britain,
John Singleton Copley in America states, “there is little reason to to suggest that she did not own the costume.” Yet that seems to be just what your comment argues. What would be the evidence for that position?

Charles Bahne said...

I also felt a bit of confusion. The article that J.L. quotes appears to imply that Mrs. Gage did not herself own this dress, but that it was part of a collection of costumes that Copley made available for his subjects to pose in. At least that's the impression that I got when I read (and reread) J.L.'s original post.

RFuller said...

Isn't there another portrait of her from later in her life, showing her with greying hair and wearing a white dress ? I've been looking for it, but haven't found it online.

J. L. Bell said...

You might be thinking of David Martin’s portrait. It’s a more conventional British pose, and might show her with powdered hair.

Bella said...

Hi J! It's so nice to see this here - I like to visit this portrait when I'm in Balboa Park of a weekend (If you've never been, the Timken is a little jewel box of a museum, plus *free*!)

Thanks for the additional context. (Heads up, kids! Mom's got more educational commentary for ya!)

J. L. Bell said...

Since there was so much good discussion about this posting, I’m expanding on the topic a bit.

Anonymous said...

Her parents are my greatgreats on up my Paternal side. Her Mother miss Mavrocodato was a Phaniot Greek which have roots/connections in Fener, Turkey so it makes since that she'd pose/like to wear this time of dress given her amazing family history.