Perhaps my favorite part of serving as Executive Director of the Society is working with and acquiring our collections. Lewes has such a diverse history and our collections are so varied and have arrived here in so many different ways that it is always exciting when someone calls or stops in with material we may be interested in. This past summer was no different when the phone rang on a hot August afternoon.
Lewes resident Michael Hershey contacted the Society and informed us he was leaving Lewes and asked if we would be interested in two portraits his father purchased at auction in New York in the 1960s. We asked if he could bring them to our office and were we in for a special surprise!
The portraits are dated 1789 and are of Susan Moore and her son, James Moore. Each are pastel on paper and measure approximately 10″ x 18.5″ and are oval in shape, typical for the period. On the reverse they are attributed to a “Mr. (or M.R.) Town, an artist who does not appear in inventories nor in the Catalog of American Portraits.
Fortunately, the paintings did contain some information on the reverse. From James:
“James Moore of Lewes, Del.
June 1789 aged 22
Painted by [Mr.?] Town”
born 1764 died 1820
Mary S. Moore bequeths this portrait of her
father to her cousin Mary Ellis
And from the reverse of Susan’s:
Susan Moore, Lewes
born [blank] died 1821
aged 82 or 84
Mary S. [T.?] Moore bequeths this
portrait of her grandmother
to her cousin [illegible] Ellis
Some initial research has yielded little about the pair but we do know that Moore was not a common surname in Lewes during the period. A James Moore – who was listed as aged 22 at the time the portrait was painted – is listed as a member of a volunteer militia company at Lewes during the War of 1812 and is listed in probate records as the son of David Moore. Hopefully, David Moore’s will will shed light further light on the family and possibly could possibly confirm that this is the same James Moore by listing Susan as David’s wife.
Seemingly having reached an impasse, we contacted Dr. Ellen Miles of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in Washington, DC, where former Society Trustee and benefactor Robert Gordon Stewart had worked as Senior Curator for the greater part of his career. Dr. Miles invited the Society to bring the portraits to DC for closer inspection. I visited with Dr. Miles and other staff at the NPG on December 16 and was treated to some great insights about our paintings.
The portraits themselves are remarkably different. Susan’s portrait is very finished and is clearly done by a very skilled hand. Her dress, hair and posture are very English, leading the Smithsonian staff to wonder whether or not they may had been painted in England. Other period pastel portraits in the Mid-Atlantic do not exhibit the same refined features as the portrait of Susan Moore. James Moore’s portrait is not as fine; the propotion of his head to body is awkward and the placement on the paper is too low. Details in the dress and face are incomplete. The discrepancy in quality is a true mystery.
Conservation work is needed; the frames need to be filled in and the painting touched up. It appears that there are some small holes on Susan’s portrait and some tears that were previously mended on James’s. In both cases, it appears the paper may have bonded in spots to the glass; the glass covering Susan’s portrait appears to be original or, in any case, late 18th or early 19th century glass. The portrait of Susan Moore is in remarkable shape and the pastels are in excellent condition considering their age. The curators and conservators at the NPG agreed with our assessment that the Society has acquired two treasurers that not only allow us to look at the faces of 18th century Lewestowners but are wonderful examples of 18th century portraiture. In fact, the portraits became the oldest in our collection of known Lewes residents.
The portraits are the Gift of Michael Hershey in Memory Abigail Rickert Hershey and are part of Society accession 2010.26. As we continue to delve into who James and Susan Moore were and the identity of a possible artist, we will keep you informed!
— Michael DiPaolo, 21 December 2010