January 1739, Eliza Lucas
After both portraits were complete and Quashee had finished carving a pair of beautiful frames, there was little else to distract from the boys’ pending departure other than deciding where to hang the pictures. Mother auditioned the southern wall in the parlor, then the wall along the stairs, and finally, opted for the interior wall of the dining room. Morning and midday light flooded this wall and, of course, the painter Mr. Theus had cautioned about the damaging effects of direct light. Mother liked the placement, however, and stood firm.
Mother’s philosophy of life often placed the value of daily, casual pleasure above an object’s long term survival, unlike Father who would choose conservation every time. He protested her preferences, calling them ‘extravagant’ and ‘trivializing.’ But Mother wasn’t careless. Rather, she believed that lovely possessions were meant to be enjoyed, even at the cost of a diminished life span. She would hang the portraits where she could enjoy them with every meal — sunlight or no!
Father sometimes acted from a misplaced sense of authority in these domestic squabbles. In this case, I think the fact that these portraits were an extravagance to begin with made it harder for him to agree to the acceleration of their demise. I’m not sure why he offered up resistance, though, even I could see he would not prevail.
Yesterday, while Father was out seeing to the construction of canals along the Upper Field, Mother had the portraits hung. She declared their bottom edges perfectly parallel with the chair rail and beamed with delight. The sun beamed in as well. Even though the light that washed in was the wan light of winter, the sun made me worry, but it also brought the portraits come to life. At tea, Mother offered a stream of comments cheerfully enough, as if there were no undercurrents. Father assumed his place at the head of the table, glancing at the wall. If a man can brace himself without moving so much as an eyelash, my father did so then. Mother wasn’t crowing exactly, but close.
“Now look at those magnolia blossoms on the lower edge of the frame,” she exclaimed between bites of boiled bread pudding. “Our own Quashee’s work! What an expert hand! Why the petals alone make me swoon, never mind the carved stamen! Have you noticed?” Yes, of course we had noticed – on numerous occasions, in fact, each time at her proud insistence.
“It would be proper for the boys to eventually inherit these paintings,” Father said in a neutral manner. Mother grunted and spooned up more pudding. “The hall offers frequent viewing, too,” Father said. “Every entrance and exit affording a glance.” Mother seemed not to hear him. She was enjoying her pudding, making soft, barely audible moans. I believe Mother was using her gustatory pleasure as a means to stonewall him.
Father tried another tack, suggesting the fabrication of small cloth shades. These could be lowered over the canvases on sunny days. A compromise! A creative solution! Mother guffawed. She topped off her tea and then rattled on as though Father had not just spoken.
“Just look how the sunlight shows off all that refined carving!” She adopted her didactic manner — the importance of motifs, shadow and relief, and so on – acting the teacher to her slightly moronic students. Suddenly and with some vehemence, she condemned the shade idea as ‘ridiculous,’ ‘tasteless,’ and ‘a sorely misguided attempt to alter the nature of time’ – which was ironic, given that the commission of the paintings was itself an attempt to arrest time.
I turned to look at the paintings. The likenesses to my brothers were good, amazing in fact, but in the sunlight, which threw the carved wood magnolia blossoms into sculptural relief, it seemed that the frames were the focal point, not the portraits. In fact, the frames overwhelmed the faces that they surrounded. Since Mother’s taste was so often unerring, I thought it might be that I had yet to see the wisdom of her pairing. On the other hand, what if she’d miscalculated and the aesthetic mistake stood as evidence of her deep disturbance at her sons’ imminent departure. They would be gone for years.
Later in the afternoon, I closed the drapes in the dining room, figuring to protect the paintings for at least a portion of the day. The rust-orange cloth glowed with afternoon light, dimming the room somewhat but not entirely. For the first time since the portraits had been hung, I looked at them in the solitude of my own thoughts. There was dear George, chin thrust out, well on his way to becoming a man. It was easy to imagine how he’d look in two, three, even four years. The cheeks would be thinned, perhaps, his hair darkened undoubtedly, but he would wear an expression essentially unchanged.
Tommy was altogether another matter. For the entire sitting, I’d wondered which of my younger brother’s many moods the artist would attempt to portray. Even though Tommy had squirmed, whined, and been peevish, Mr. Theus had seen past all that to my brother’s vulnerability and incredibly enough, captured it. The expression on the canvas suggested tenderness, regret, and fear – the true attitude of an eight year old on the verge of leaving his mother for many years.
For all Mother’s talk about the easy and daily viewing of these pictures, I suddenly wasn’t sure that being reminded of her younger son’s very apparent lack of readiness for a long voyage and extended separation would, in fact, be pleasing to her. Once the thrill and novelty of the portraits subsided, mightn’t that vulnerable gaze accentuate the jagged edges of her broken heart rather than the opposite? How could Tommy’s eyes, rendered so close to tears by the artist’s skillful brushwork, do anything but haunt her?
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Painting from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The painter Copley was born the year before this scene takes place but the quality of both the painting and frame signal the kind of wealth accessible to Eliza’s family. In fact, it’s likely they knew the Isaac Royalls, both families having lived on the tiny island of Antigua for some of the same years. Both families may even have left partly for the same reason — the discovery of evidence supposedly showing that the enslaved were planning to blow up a building during a celebration of King George’s birthday and then take the harbor. That was in 1736.
The Isaac Royall house is situated not far from here in Medford, MA. It’s where I participated in a sleepover with The Slave Dwelling Project (see link on sidebar). Wrote about it here.
Sending children to England for schooling was not uncommon among the colonial upper class. Eliza Lucas herself sailed to England at the age of 11, returning when she was 14.
I believe the record shows that her brothers sailed from Antigua to England and not from South Carolina. One of many things that I changed.
Quash is a real figure of history, a literate bondman with high level carpentry skills. Later on in 1744, when Eliza got engaged to Charles Pinckney, her father and fiancé had a tug of war over him. Eliza’s husband prevailed. Quash was later baptized as John Williams and manumitted by Eliza’s husband and went on to acquire land and slaves and to purchase or free his immediate family members. At some point he disappears from the record, making me wonder if his success was unacceptable to his white neighbors.
See: Red, White, & Black Make Blue / Indigo in the Fabric of Colonial South Carolina Life by Andrea Feeser.