January - A Forgotten Family Story

Like a collection formed on any topic you care to name, I am conscious a collection
may seem boring to anyone else viewing the collection. Equally, comments made about their own personal collection made by the owner, can often be seen as a tirade from an obsessed nutter! Nevertheless, these three miniature portraits seem to deserve some scene setting.

Portraits are often considered as a third or fourth class area of art collecting, after landscapes, sculpture, and modern art, with those three not necessarily in that order.

Portraits are unfashionable partly because in the 21C we are bombarded with high quality images of people, for example television presenters prattling away (I mean the images are high quality, not the presenters, presenters rarely have high quality comment!). Also photographs are so easily captured, now even using a cell phone.

However, if you will forgive this "obsessed nutter", I think people who reject portraits in favour of landscapes, sculpture, and modern art, do not give the portrait art form sufficient credit. A portrait benefits from study beneath the superficial features and colours. At the risk of sounding hackneyed the Mona Lisa is looked at in this manner, with endless speculation about what the sitter was thinking during the process.

A portrait reflects a sitter at a moment in time, with the sitter's expression comprising their reflection on life events past, flavoured by an expectation of life events to come.

I was conscious of the poignancy of this when researching the three miniature portraits from one family shown here and as the pieces came together. Only their names were known when my research commenced. In fact it is fortunate that the three miniatures are now together, as they were offered separately at auction. Hence my bidding was nervous, as I feared I would be outbid on one or other of them.

They all have the date December 25 on the reverse, two in 1925 and one in 1927, thus were obviously all Christmas presents. I have since found there was a second daughter and a son, hence there must be two more miniatures somewhere.

The sitters are a successful businessman from Massachusetts, whose paternal ancestors reached America prior to 1638. He is depicted in 1925 aged 50, at the peak of his career. His wife and daughter were both members of DAR and hence committed to the history of their families. In 1926 the family donated an organ to their local church in memory of their ancestors. Also in 1926 they purchased and refurbished a local historic home which they donated to the community.

One can interpret the commissioning of the miniatures as a reflection of their commitment to history and an expectation they were part of a continuing dynasty, with the miniatures to become treasured family heirlooms for generations to come.

This comes through in their dress and their expressions, but at the same time, particularly with the mother and daughter, one can sense a little nervousness about the future.

Jane, the mother displaying serenity, but thinking about her three children and wondering if they will marry well.

Deborah, the daughter at age 23, nervous with thoughts of her own marriage, and fears about future motherhood.

With Charles the husband, there is an air of confidence, pride in his accomplishments, knowledge he has been successful in a business he commenced twenty years earlier, and a belief he can cope with any issues arising in the future.

With the benefit of hindsight, we viewers know the Great Depression is looming, but they had no knowledge. Nor did they realise that Charles, the husband would die suddenly in 1932, probably as result of stress from labor strikes at his factories during the Depression.

Nor do they realise that the, probably barely known to them, future husband of their elder daughter, Dorothy, will need to assume operating control of the business on Charles' death. Nor that the business will boom during World War II, and boom again during the Korean War, with a 1953 Time Magazine article praising the modern management techniques used within the business.

They do not realise that ten years after that in the 196o's, the business will be on its knees and need to be sold. They would have reacted with disbelief to know 600 fire-fighters from 66 communities fought a disastrous fire in 2001 which destroyed the total mill.

Deborah does not realise that she will marry, but that her husband will die young in 1950 leaving her childless and a widow for 50 years.

Nor do the family realise that the these three miniatures, intended to be proud family heirlooms for future generations of DAR, will be sold by Deborah's estate, when her nieces and nephews have no use for them.

In view of the apparent abandonment of the family miniatures by their relations and the crumbling nature of their family history, it has been rewarding to research the family. And now to be able to publish some background to the aura of combined confidence and nervousness, apparent in their expressions when the miniatures were painted in 1925 and 1927.

This little essay has deliberating omitted full names, to help focus on the portraits themselves, but much about the family, their identities, and the business, can be seen in the American 3 Gallery at View This includes a link to a video of the fire.

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