Knox, General Henry

Solving the Mystery of Prince

In a search for possible pastels by Prince (see previous post), we corresponded in 2008 with the Prints and Drawings Department of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston but came up empty-handed.

Author J.L. Bell, in a recent blog noted that two unsigned portraits by the enslaved artist had been discovered by Paula M. Bagger at the Hingham (Massachusetts) Historical Society and a signed portrait at an antiques show by Amelia Peck, curator of Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.* Moreover, they were able to fill in some of Prince’s biography. His full name was Prince Demah Barnes, and was in his twenties when he lived with Christian Barnes. From October 1770 to July 1771, Prince went to England with Henry Barnes, and received some instruction from a “Mr. Pine” (possibly Robert Edge Pine). When he returned, Prince apparently made “five pictures from life . . . three of them as good likenesses as ever Mr. Copling took”. [9 March 1772]. Is it possible that two of the five pictures were those of Christian and Henry Barnes? Was one of Elizabeth Smith, who had returned to Boston mid-1771 and had married Ralph Inman on 26 September 1771? Perhaps Mrs. Barnes’s letter of 22 July 1773 to her friend gives a clue:

if you have an hour to spare at any time when you are in Boston you will allow Prince to make some alterations in the Coppy he has taken from your Picture [by Copley] which he says he cannot do but from the life and Please to give him any direction you think proper as to the Dress of the Head. . . .

Did Prince also make a copy of the Copley portrait of Ralph Inman, a pastel now at the Boston Athenaeum? Might he have done portraits of Henry Barnes’s brothers-in-law, Nathaniel Coffin and Thomas Goldthwaite?

What is certain is, that, in February 1773, Prince signed and dated the portrait of William Duguid a Boston merchant (shown).

Soon after, politics and escalating tensions terminated Christian Barnes’s enthusiastic support of her talented slave. In March 1776, Christian and Henry Barnes and their daughter Chrisy sailed for Bristol, England, never to return. Chrisy died of consumption in 1782.

The Barnes house in Marlborough was at first occupied by General Henry Knox. Barnes’s niece, Catharine Goldthwait, who had tried to salvage the estate by petitioning the Court in December 1775, wrote Mrs. Barnes:

All your furniture removed over to the shop chamber, except the family pictures, which still hang in the Blue Room, & the Harpsichord that stands in the passage way, to be abused by the children and servants in passing through. Mr. Knox found it inconvenient to be moving furniture, so has taken nothing but the Linnen, which at this juncture is by far the most valuable part. **

How ironic that Knox, whose own in-laws were loyalists, should be occupying a loyalist house!

It is likely that Daphney remained in the area; she and Mrs. Barnes did communicate from time to time. In April, 1777, Prince, now free, enlisted in the Massachusetts militia. Taken ill, he made his will, which he signed “Prince Demah, limner,” and died in March 1778. ***

On 28 February 1784, Mrs. Barnes wrote Elizabeth “Betsy” Murray, a niece of her friend Elizabeth Smith Inman:

I shall inclose a line to Daphney to desire she would send my Chrisys Picture drawn by her Son, and must beg the favor of you to take charge of it, if Mrs. Forbes [Dorothy Murray Forbes] has parted with her Portrate, she will find upon her arrival the exact resemblance of it, hanging in my Parler dress’d in her white Satten Coat.

Spurred on by Peck’s and Bagger’s discoveries, let’s hope that some of the works by Prince Demah (Barnes) described in the letters cited here will be found.

* “Portraitist and slave in colonial Boston,” in The Magazine Antiques, Jan/Feb. 2015, pp 154-59.
** Nina Moore Tiffany, ed. Letters of James Murray, Loyalist (Boston: Gregg Press, 1972), p. 251.
*** The Magazine Antiques, p. 158.
The quotations from Mrs Barnes are from the Papers of Mrs. Christian Barnes, Library of Congress, DM16.157. The portrait of William Duguid by Prince Demah can be found on the Hingham Heritage Museum website HERE. It is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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