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.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

More Pelham Miniatures—Or Are They?

Miniatures that Henry Pelham painted while he lived in America are very rare. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has one of Stephen Hooper; correspondence between Pelham and Hooper confirms that the artist produced such a miniature.

During the war, Pelham left Massachusetts for Ireland. The National Gallery of Ireland has a miniature Pelham painted in 1779 of Lewis Farley Johnston, a little boy who grew up to be a judge.

I suspect that Pelham’s relationship to his celebrated half-brother John Singleton Copley has made people eager to attribute more miniatures to him. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston says this image of Peter Chardon, Jr. (1738-1766) was painted by Pelham in “about 1760”—but Henry was only eleven years old that year. (Perhaps he painted it from a 1760 Copley portrait after Chardon’s death.)

The M.F.A. also has a couple of miniatures attributed to Copley that show Henry Pelham as a grown man—or they show Copley’s brother-in-law Jonathan Clarke instead. Or maybe Pelham painted Clarke.

In 2007, Freeman’s sold the miniature of Jeremiah Kahler shown above as Pelham’s work. That auction house also said that Kahler was born in Hull and “lost at sea before 1830.” In fact, according to records of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, Kahler was born in Germany and “died at Boston, Feb. 2d, 1829, aged 86, extremely poor.” Period newspapers confirm both the date and the poverty.

I went looking for information on when Kahler arrived in New England. The earliest record I found of him dates from 1784, when he subscribed along with over two hundred other businessmen to improve Boston Common. The Massachusetts General Court naturalized him in November 1788 under the name Jeremiah Joachim/Joakim Khaler, which implies, but doesn’t prove, that Kahler had not been established in Massachusetts before independence. That act identified the merchant as “late a subject of the King of Denmark”; perhaps Kahler had come to Boston from the Danish West Indies.

The first newspaper advertisement I found from Kahler appeared in the Columbian Centinel in 1793. The next year he married Hannah Spear (1765-1845), and he was active in many business and charitable societies around the turn of the century. Kahler’s translations from German newspapers for the Boston press were reprinted all along the Atlantic seaboard, and he was the connection between Bostonians and Prof. Christoph Daniel Ebeling of Hamburg.

For Pelham to have painted this miniature, Kahler would have had to arrive in America before March 1776, when the artist left with the British military. It’s conceivable that the two men crossed paths somewhere else. But it seems most likely that this miniature was created by another, less interesting artist.

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