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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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

An American Artist in London

Yesterday I quoted a Boston News-Letter advertisement about a black man making portraits in Boston in 1773. I also noted how Prince Demah (Barnes) painted William Duguid in February 1773, according to a note on the back of that portrait, acquired just a few years ago by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

We also have a May 1773 letter from Christian Barnes of Marlborough to her friend Elizabeth (Murray Campbell Smith) Inman to sit for a portrait by her former house-servant Prince the next time she was in Boston. So Prince Demah (Barnes) was definitely working as a painter in Boston in early 1773. How did he come to that business?

According to Christian Barnes, her husband Henry (shown here, courtesy of the Hingham Historical Society) bought Prince before 1769 “not solely with a View of Drawing my Picture but I believe he has some design of improving his Genius in painting.” She described Prince as the son of another family slave named Daphney and “Born in our family.”

As noted by Amelia Peck and Paula M. Bagger in the current issue of The Magazine Antiques, Prince therefore appears to be the child mentioned in this record of a baptism at Trinity Church in Boston on 23 May 1745:
Dafney an adult & Prince negroes.
In that case, Prince was at least in his early twenties when Henry Barnes acquired him from relatives.

In 1769 and 1770 Christian wrote to her friend Elizabeth Smith in London about Prince’s progress as a portraitist. She sent a sample of his work to Smith, and speculated about whether “Mr. Copling” (John Singleton Copley) might train him. So we know the Barneses were seeking opportunities for Prince to learn more.

In those same months Henry Barnes was under attack as one of the few holdout importers of goods from Britain, contrary to Boston’s non-importation agreement. In early 1770 he was called an enemy of his country, threatened with tar and feathers, and found his horse had been attacked that way. That hostility calmed down after Parliament revoked the Townshend duties (except for the tea tax) and removed troops from Boston.

In autumn 1770 Henry Barnes sailed for London, as reported in the 11 October Boston News-Letter. Peck and Bagger report that in February 1771 Barnes wrote to Elizabeth Smith that he’d found an art tutor for Prince in London: “Mr. Pine who has taken him purely for his genius.”

Peck and Bagger conclude that was probably Robert Edge Pine (1730-1788), an established portraitist. Some authors suggest that Pine himself had African ancestry through his father, the engraver John Pine, but that tradition seems to be based simply on how he looks in one engraving, not on his genealogy. Barnes actually wrote that he didn’t want Prince to “converse with any of his own colour here” in Britain. Ironically, while Henry and Christian Barnes eventually became Loyalists, Pine went the opposite way: after the war he moved from his lifelong home in London to Philadelphia.

Henry Barnes returned to North America with Elizabeth Smith and her relatives in the summer of 1771, as stated in the 15 July Boston Evening-Post. Evidently he brought Prince Demah back as well. It wasn’t until the next year that James Somerset’s case made slavery unenforceable in Britain, but Barnes might have emancipated Prince or come to some sort of understanding. The young man appears to have acted as an independent craftsman in the following years.

Thus, Prince Demah had indeed received a little assistance from “one of the best Masters in London” before advertising his skills in Boston, though a few months in 1771 was hardly comprehensive training. Peck and Bagger report that X-ray analysis of the three portraits linked to Prince Demah shows that he used a different technique while painting Duguid than appears inside the picture of Christian Barnes, which is almost certainly a copy of one by Copley. Frankly, I find the body proportions of the Duguid painting to be awkward, but the costume and setting are more ambitious.

All this means that Prince Demah traveled to London to make artistic connections before Phillis Wheatley made her famous trip in 1773, and before Copley first visited the imperial capital in 1774. Indeed, his experiences there might have helped to inspire their journeys.

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