AN EXTREMELY RARE AND IMPORTANT PORTRAIT MINIATURE OF THREE YOUNG SCHOLARS SEATED AROUND A TABLE.
This miniature is a truly remarkable documentary piece. Basil Long who wrote his monumental "British Miniaturists" in 1929, had ventured an opinion that the miniature was painted in the British West Indies and the miniature was illustrated in Donough OBriens Miniatures in the Eighteen and Nineteen Centuries as Jamaican. Now, following extensive research by Mr. Mario de Valdes y Cocom, a historian of the African Diaspora, and help from Albert Sack in establishing the origins of the 'Maryland' furniture, this miniature has been established as American with a probable identity of these young men now known.
The three boys possibly are the inheritors of Portland Manor, Annapolis, the once proud possession of the Darnall dynasty of Maryland. The white boy in the center is Richard Bennett Darnell, the first cousin of the two bi-racial boys, Nicholas and Henry Darnell. Their father, Bonnet Darnell, was a descendant of Philip Darnell, a relative and secretary of George Calvert who would later be created first Lord Baltimore, while their mother, Susan, was a slave of their father. Bonnet Darnell was the godfather of Richard Bennett Darnell, and it is possible that Bonnet Darnell gave a title to Portland Manor to his godson as a baptismal present.
Interestingly, Susan was very possibly a descendant of Ann Joice who had come to Maryland in about 1680 with Lord Baltimore. Because he had brought her from Barbados via London, her family later attempted to use the Mansfield decision of 1772 to claim their freedom from the Darnels. As Joices children and grandchildren are all referred to as "Mulattos," we should not be surprised if they were actually a part of the extended Darnell family. Bennett had succeeded to Portland Manor after two older brothers died and who, like himself, never married but left legacies to support the children they both had fathered with slave women on their estate.
For Nicholas & Henry Darnell, despite inheriting an important estate, neither their wealth nor their descent from one of the most influential families of Maryland was a guarantee that the rights and benefits their father had gone to such precautions to secure for them would be respected. John Francis Mercer, the former governor of Maryland, in a letter to Captain Paul Cuffe, stated that . . . in consequence of the deep rooted and indomitable prejudices of our country, their situation here is surrounded with embarrassment and their wealth accompanied by their color is a constant source of the most malevolent jealousy, amongst the decay and profligate of both complexions.
Paul Cuffe who had been asked by Mercer to assist him in placing the boys in the North wrote in early 1815 that The 2 boys are at school 7 miles out of Philadelphia and information can be obtained concerning the boys by inquiring of Benjamin Tucker School master Phila . . . .
All odds are that neither Nicholas or Henry Darnall left any descendants. Nicholas spent the rest of his life in Philadelphia and never married, perhaps too confused by issues of class and racial identity to do so. In the 1850 census he can be located besides one of the richest white men in the Bristol district of the city. He was residing with a young family of Irish immigrants and the only person of color in the vicinity. It appears that Henry was dead by 1829.
The three boys are seated around a table, the eldest boy seated in a chair, wearing a blue coat and waistcoat with a white shirt with a lawn collar and holding a book. The other two boys are wearing tucked jackets with white lawn collars. There are burgundy velvet drapes in the background.
The horizontal oval miniature is set in an unusual black wood frame with brass mat and two "acorn" hangers. On the reverse are two old collection labels, one rectangular with No. 285 remaining visible and another with '9 remaining. Also the remainder of a piece of paper which says Miniature Portrait of Three Boys/Seated at a...(?)Artist Unknown/[circa 1820]/Mr. Basil Long of the Victoria & Albert Museum/ventures the opinion that it was probably painted in one of the British...(the rest is missing). (Basil Long wrote his monumental "British Miniaturists" in 1929.) Sarah Coffin is of the opinion that the miniature is of the 1835 period.
Dimensions: Miniature: 7 x 5 3/4 inches.
Provenance: Collection of E. Grosvenor Paine.
Literature: O'Brien, "Miniatures in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth
Centuries", London, 1950. Page 156, illustrated plate 125.