“to-morrow is Dancing day”

Although this excerpt of the letter of ANNE BLAIR to her sister MARTHA BLAIR BRAXTON appeared in an earlier post it seems appropriate to revisit it as it follows the previous post chronologically and is worth repeating. Anne in Williamsburg is describing the education and antics of her sister’s daughter Betsey who is in her charge.

August 21, 1769.. . . . Betsey is at work for you. I suppose she will tell you to-morrow is Dancing day, for it is in her thought by Day & her dreams by night. Mr. Fearson [the dancing master] was surprized to find she knew much of the Minuet step, and could not help asking if Miss had never been taught, so you find she is likely to make some progress that way. . . . her Reading I hear twice a day and when I go out she is consign’d over to my Sister Blair: we have had some few quarrels, and one Battle; Betsey & her Cousin Jenny [Jane Blair, daughter of Judge John Blair] had been fighting for several days successively, and was threaten’d to be whip’d for it as often, but as they did not regard us——her Mama & self thought it necessary to let them see we were in earnest——if they have fought since [I] have never heard of it——she has finished her work & Tucker, but the weather is so warm, what with all ye pains I can take with clean hand’s [sic], and so forth she cannot help dirtying it a little. I do not observe her to be fond of Negroes Company now nor have I heard lately of any bad Word’s [sic]; chief of our Quarrel’s is for eating of those Green apples in our Garden, & not keeping the Head smooth. I have had Hair put on Miss Dolly, but find it is not in my power of complying with my promise in giving her silk for a Sacque & Coat; some of our pretty Gang, broke open a Trunk in my absence and has stolen several thing’s one of wch the Silk makes a part——so immagine Betsey will petition you for some.

Instruction in dancing was commonly given to girls (and boys) from wealthy families as it was considered a social asset and also played a role in the courtship ritual. It is not clear whether the remark about not being fond of the company of Negroes is intended to be positive or negative. The word “now” may indicate that Betsey had enjoyed the company of Negroes and perhaps this was not considered a “good” thing.

More from Anne in the next post including some modern-sounding words.

William and Mary Quarterly, Volume XVI, 1908, 177.

posted June 1st, 2017 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Amusements, Blair, Anne, Braxton, Mary Blair, Education, Virginia

“they say she rules the Roost . . .”

ANN BLAIR wrote to her sister MARTHA BLAIR BRAXTON (portrayed) telling her about the goings-on in Williamsburg, Virginia, in August 1769. Ann obviously has a sense of humor and, in addition, uses some phrases that need explanation or sound modern to our ears. In the first line “I nick’t it” means “I just hit the right moment”. Later Ann says Governor Tryon’s Lady “rules the Roost,” calling this a “pity.” The expression is an old one dating to the 15th century when it referred to the person in charge of the kitchen who therefore “rules the roast.” In the mid-1700s, “roast” morphed into “roost.”

Well! I just nick’t it, governor Tryon [of North Carolina], his lady, and Mr. Edward’s [Tryon’s secretary] was to drink Tea at our House the day we came to Town . . . so that I had an opportunity of hearing the Conversation of this fine accomplish’d Lady. You may remember we heard she took not notice of the ladies; I therefore, resolved in myself to have nothing to say to her, and accordingly took my Seat as far distant from her as the room would permit; but with all my resolution I could hold no longer; the Lady had unfortunately scall’d [scalded] three of her Fingers (I say unfortunately, for else she wou’d have play’d the Spinnet) so that the speediest method of cure became now the Topick; the company agreed it would heal sooner for having ye Skin cut off the Blisters; Mr. Edwards and self as yet, had said nothing about it——to be sure your opinions was necessary——so the Lady call’d first [page torn] who judged it best to let ye Skin remain; next cones the latter, and having view’d the Wound with all the Sagacity of a Surgeon——agreed with Mr. Edwards (as he was singular) in every thing he said exactly. She reply’d with a smile that notwithstanding there was two to one of the opposite opinion, yet her inclination consided much with us; for to own a truth, she was so far a Coward she did not like her Skin to be cut. Thus much for her Fingers; and as to ye Lady herself, I think what was heard to her disadvantage, proves from a little acquaintance to advantage; they say she rules the Roost, it is a pity, I like her Husband vastly; they have a little Girl with them that is equally to be pitied, this poor thing is stuck up in a Chair all day long with a Cotter on [something to hold her in place], nor dare she even to taste Tea, fruit Cake, or any little Triffle offer’d her by ye Company, but to return to ye Lady’s Finger’s——the old Gentleman squeezed her Hand a little too hard in handing her to the Coach (for one of her Delicacy) she, however, had so far the command of herself as not to fall in a Fit till she got to my Lord’s: Pasteur [William Pasteur, a distinguished surgeon of Williamsburg] immediately was Call’d in. who did in one Minute, what had just before caused us a debate of half an Hour long——he perform’d ye so much dreaded operation of Cuting the Skin after wch he was presented with a Guinea he laugh’d & said, he had no objection to be squeezed into another.

I have a letter from Sisr Cary, telling me I ought to have been at Hampton, instead of King & Queen [William and Mary], for that there had been the Viper sloop of War Commanded by one Cap: Linsey, a Bror. of Mr. Hood’s. a most agreeable Gentleman; the first Lieut: Mr. Frederick, a relation of the Dutchess of Beaufort——extremely cleaver——and several others equally as much so. She thinks it advisable to go down in readiness for ye next that come’s . . . perhaps if I go down I may be as lucky as Bett, other way’s I most shrewdly suspect I very reluctantly shall join that set of animals destined to lead apes.

Don’t you like Ann’s reference to William and Mary as “King & Queen”? Her comment in the last line means that she may end up an old maid, a reference to an expression common at that time that says in hell bachelors are turned into apes and are led by women who die as maids. More to come.

William and Mary Quarterly, Volume XVI, 1908, 174-76. The portrait of Martha Braxton by John Wollaston is in the collection of the College of William and Mary..

posted May 25th, 2017 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Blair, Anne, Braxton, Mary Blair, Virginia

“I give . . . to my daughter Anne my negro Girl Fanny”

The next post will include a letter from ANNE BLAIR to her sister MARY BLAIR BRAXTON. For this post I am including several provisions of the will of the girls’ father, John Blair Sr, written in October of 1771 and recorded in November of that year in York County court records. Blair, Sr. was a member a prominent Virginia family; he served on the Virginia Council and was for a time acting royal governor. His uncle, James Blair, was a founder of the College of William and Mary. John Blair’s wife had died before him and so, according to his will, Blair’s children, including Anne and Mary, were provided for. All were married except for Anne.

Item. I give and bequeath to my Daughter Anne Blair one thousand Pounds Current Money part of my stock in trade with John Prentis and Company with the profits thereof from the Division made in August one Thousand Seven hundred and Sixty Nine and to my Son James Blair the like Sum of One thousand Pounds part of the said with the profits thereof as to my daughter.

Item. I give to my Daughter Mary Braxton my Negro Gurl called Sall Cooper to my daughter Sarah my negro Wench called Great Hannah and her child Kate to my son James my Negro Barbary and her Child Johnny to my daughter Anne my negro Girl Fanny to each of them and their Heirs forever. . . .

Item. It is my will and Desire that all my Slaves and Stocks of all kinds (including my Horses) not before Disposed of be divided into five equal parcels three of which parcels I give and devise to my Son John Blair and his Heirs forever and the other two parcels to my Son James Blair and his Heirs forever. I have given the Greater proportion of my Slaves and Stocks to my Son John he being my Eldest Son and having already a family and several Children.

I have quoted from Blair’s will because I am constantly jarred by the fact that slaves were commonly bequeathed to family members. I am also distressed at the way they are referred to——the females as “wenches”——and how they are casually listed along with horses and other stock. Slaves were often given as wedding presents: when a slave called Oney Judge found out she was to be given by her mistress, Martha Washington, to her granddaughter Elizabeth Custis upon her wedding, Oney ran away. It was also common practice for a child to be given a slave of the same age as a “present,” perhaps for a birthday.

Source for the will is John Blair House Report, Block 22 Building 5 Lot 36 Originally entitled:
“John Blair House Colonial Lot 36 Block 22,” Mary A. Stephenson, 1963, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library Research Report Series—1493, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library, Williamsburg, Virginia, 1990.

“Absconded”

My friend Louise North sent me a note in regard to the last post on Titus Kaphar’s painting of George Washington, specifically the title of the painting “Absconded.” She reported: “Finally got a chance to look the word (absconded) up in my OED:

1. transitive——to hide away; to conceal (anything).
2. reflexive archaic——”Before Saturn did abscond himself from the beams of the Sun.”
3. intransitive——to hide oneself; to retire from the public view: generally used of persons in debt, or criminals eluding the law.

The first meaning makes perfect sense in the Washington portrait: the figure is absolutely silent and conceals his ownership of slaves. Yet their names hang from his mouth. Powerful image.”

I agree.

Here is another painting by Titus Kaphar, this time of Andrew Jackson with the lower part of his face similarly obscured by streamers representing his slaves. This is the man whom Donald Trump admires, who, he says, could have prevented the Civil War!! Jackson, by the way, died 16 years before that conflict.

posted May 12th, 2017 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Jackson, Andrew, Kaphar, Titus, Washington, George

“Dismantling History” —Titus Kaphar

My friend and colleague Louise North recently commended to my attention an American artist named TITUS KAPHAR. Indeed, upon examination, I find his work fascinating as it frequently deals with history—myth and misremembered—often focusing on the dark sides of events and those we revere as heroes. His paintings are frequently three dimensional or sculptural in nature; there are often layers which peeled away reveal previously hidden or unacknowledged facts or qualities.

In an article in the Art21 magazine dated Dec 2, 2015 called “Dismantling History: An Interview with Titus Kaphar with
Lindsey Davis,” Kaphar says:

I’ve come to realize that all reproduction, all depiction is fiction – it’s simply a question of to what degree. As much as we try to speak to the facts of a historical incident, we often alter those facts, sometimes drastically, through the retelling itself.

Understanding this has given me the freedom to manipulate, and change historical images in a way that recharges them for me. Knowing that artists throughout time who have attempted to retell history have always embraced, whether consciously or unconsciously, a degree of fiction, in order to achieve the sentiment of the facts is liberating.

Kaphar credits his art history education at Yale with fostering his belief that “obvious oversights in the canon were regularly understated, suppressed or ignored.” He set out to challenge the viewer, to probe beneath the surface, to gain new insights into the character of his subject. Two paintings strike me as especially provocative since their subjects have figured in this blog.

We sometimes forget that George Washington, the father of our country and acknowledged as its greatest president, was an active slaveholder. When he died there were 317 slaves at Mount Vernon, more than half of whom were dower slaves from his wife’s estate. Kaphar’s image reminds the viewer of this. The lower half of Washington’s face is masked by streamers attached by (real) rusted nails imprinted with names of slaves and excerpts from ads placed for their recovery. The work’s title “Absconded,” in all likelihood refers to the slave whose name features prominently, one Oney Judge, who in fact did escape and fled to New England. In spite of Washington’s efforts, she was never recovered. The Washingtons could not understand why slaves who were not mistreated would want to be free. See posts about Oney here, here, here, and here.

Another slave who also absconded was Washington’s chef, Hercules. Kaphar’s dramatic representation in tar and oil on canvas obscures Hercules’ face; he’s just another slave forgotten by history. See blog posts on Hercules here and here. Compare what is thought to be a portrait of Hercules by Gilbert Stuart with the depiction by Titus Kaphar.

“In the absence of adequate facts, our hearts rifle through memories, foraging satisfactory fictions.”

Read the entire interview with Kaphar HERE.

posted May 5th, 2017 by Janet, comments (1), CATEGORIES: Art, Hercules, Kaphar, Titus, Staines, Ona "Oney" Judge, Washington, George

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