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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Saturday, March 01, 2014

What Stands Behind That Watercolor of Maj. Pitcairn?

This is another detail of the watercolor painting that Skinner is offering for sale this weekend, labeled as showing Maj. John Pitcairn of the British Marines and painted by Paul Revere.

This detail comes from the other side of the painting, or actually from inside the wooden frame. In investigating the picture, the folks at Skinner opened the frame and looked inside. There were scraps of newspaper glued to the wood as part of the matting process, and specialist Joel Bohy kindly sent me an image of them. This is one portion of that photograph.

I’m not an expert on folk art or handwriting. I don’t know the details of British army uniforms like some of the people who commented on Thursday. But by golly, I can search for text in historical databases. So I set out to identify those newspapers.

It would have been so helpful if any of those visible scraps had included a year. Clearly the newspapers weren’t printed in 1774-75, when both Pitcairn and Revere were living in Boston’s North End, because they don’t include the long S.

But, as I wrote on Thursday, I already thought that was an unlikely time for an American to create a portrait of Pitcairn; it seemed more likely that the painting dated from sometime in the early republic, if not the Colonial Revival. So when was that scrap of newspaper printed?

I picked out what I hoped were unusual phrases and words in the visible portions of the scrap and ran those through the search function of Readex’s Early American Newspapers database. Usually I use that resource to search for newspaper coverage in the Revolutionary period, but it extends many decades further as newspapers become more numerous and frequent.

After a bunch of false hits, I narrowed down the search terms to eliminate those that were more common that I’d thought. And I started to get real hits.

The ad at the top of this scrap was a notice from “Sam. Stilwell, Sec’y.” of the Woodstock Glass Manufacturing Society to shareholders for a meeting at his house in May 1810. That item ran many times in the Mercantile Advertiser of New York in the early months of 1810. It was always set the same way in the paper, so the printers were saving that block of type from one issue to the next. (Incidentally, that glass company never seems to have gotten off the ground.)

Below that ad were two more, placed by Benjamin Bailey and Walter Willis, dissolving their partnership with William Osborn and announcing a new partnership between the two of them alone.

Again, those ads ran in the Mercantile Advertiser several times in early 1810. The same text appeared in some other New York papers in the same months, but with different typesetting.

I didn’t find the precise issue of the Mercantile Advertiser in which the glass company’s ad appeared over Bailey and Willis’s ad, but those two matches make clear that scrap of paper came from the year 1810. That was within Revere’s lifetime (he died in 1818). It was also during the peak of the New York career of Duncan Phyfe, said to have owned the watercolor. So it’s quite plausible that Phyfe or his workmen had pages of the Mercantile Advertiser lying around when they framed this painting.

Of course, it’s also plausible that someone trying to create a fake artifact from the Revolution a century or more afterwards found an old business newspaper to slip inside the frame and give it an air of antiquity. But if I were to fake a painting—not that I’ve ever tried that, no, not me—I’d choose scraps of newspaper that had dates on them. Not scraps that would require a not-yet-invented computerized database to identify.

TOMORROW: The Pitcairn watercolor on the market.


Peter Ansoff said...

Just to play devil's advocate: could the painting could have been painted in 1774-75 and framed (or re-framed) by a collector in 1810?

J. L. Bell said...

Certainly. The date of the newspaper scraps show that the painting could not have been framed earlier than 1810, but that doesn't mean the painting could not have been made earlier. Or that the framing could not have been done much later.

I can imagine a wide range of possibilties. A forger in 1880 could have produced the painting and presented it as made in 1775, using an antique newspaper in the frame with the year removed to make it look more authentic (not realizing the detail of the long S).

An authentic 1780 watercolor of a British army officer in Crown-occupied New York could have been later mislabeled (nefariously or not) with the names of Pitcairn and Revere.

Christian Remick could have painted Pitcairn in 1780 and given the result to Revere for engraving, but the silversmith never got around to that task and eventually passed the artwork to an acquaintance who believed Revere himself had painted it.

Revere might have drawn Pitcairn's image carefully following a British engraving of a mounted officer that we just haven't found yet, and Phyfe acquired it as a souvenir of a fellow Scotsman.

All we can be sure of is that the picture surfaced in 1922 looking like it does now, with 1810 newspaper scraps inside its frame.

John L. Smith said...

YOU, Mr. Bell, are the Sherlock Holmes of Colonial Works! We all know it, but your micro-examination of Pitcairn's watercolor reconfirms this all over again! This is exciting! HUZZAH!

J. L. Bell said...

Aw, shucks, John. As I said, I've just learned to search for text in historical databases. (That'll be part of my presentation at History Camp in Cambridge next weekend.)

Joe Bauman said...

Brilliant detective work!

Byron DeLear said...

Sleuthing par excellence!