Groton, MA c. 1888: The Caroline Estelle Mudge Lawrence Photo Album

Somewhere around 1887 or so, possibly earlier, Caroline Estelle Mudge Lawrence familiarized herself with the then-still-arcane process of photography and, to my reckoning, did something which for the time was quite unusual: she took pictures. Of her land. Her neighbors’ land. Animals she and others owned. Her husband, her children, her friends. Domestic life, well before the turn of the last century. It was, in a phrase, a thoroughly modern thing to do, and it was way, way ahead of its time.

Here, for the sake of preservation, and for the fun of seeing the daily reality of a family approximately 130 years ago, is the album…

(A brief editorial note: these are going up un-captioned. I’ll try to get names, places, etc. attached ASAP.–LSL)

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The Lost Sargents: ‘Recovering’ the Destroyed Portraits of Mr. And Mrs. James Lawrence

In 1881, the American artist John Singer Sargent painted dual portraits of husband and wife, James and Caroline Estelle Mudge Lawrence.

Much to many people’s everlasting grief, however, in 1939, both paintings were destroyed in a fire in Aunt Libby’s [Elizabeth Prescott Lawrence Emmons’] apartment.

For most of my life, it was my understanding that any substantive idea of what those paintings might have looked like had been lost, along with the originals, in the flames.

Over the last year, though, I have found two photographic reproductions of Estelle’s portrait, and one of James’  portrait. After some truly sparing and minimalist work in Photoshop, I offer them both below.

The best image of Estelle’s portrait came from a .pdf of an old Metropolitan Museum of Art catalog which had featured the painting: Memorial Exhibition of the Work of John Singer Sargent (January 4 through February 14, 1926). You can see a copy of it here; scroll to Plate 6.

The background, by the way, was described by contemporary viewers as being a brilliant red. Looking at the monotone image below, I can almost see the cadmium in my mind’s eye.

 

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John Singer Sargent
Mrs James Lawrence
1881
61 x 45.7 cm
Oil on canvas
Signed and dated upper right: John S. Sargent 1881
Destroyed by fire at Hingham, Massachusetts, Nov 21, 1938

 

The image of James’ portrait came from a photograph taken by Estelle herself. It was easily discernible on the far wall in an interior shot of the Lawrence Homestead at Groton.

 

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John Singer Sargent
Mr James Lawrence
Exact dimensions unknown
c. 1881
Oil on canvas
Destroyed by fire at Hingham, Massachusetts, Nov 21, 1938

 

(Post Script: the newspaper article on the fire that destroyed the paintings can be accessed here, and here.–LSL)

Charles Redington Mudge, As Photographed By John Adams Whipple

At some point in the course of the war, Charles Redington Mudge sat for the well-known photographer, John Adams Whipple.

During that time, Whipple made several plates. At least three that I know of. One of Mudge standing, and two sitting.

In the preceding post, I showed the standing pose. But by far the most common, and emotionally resonant, are the two that show  Mudge seated– one with his hand under his chin, the other with his hands folded on the table.

There are many versions of the “hand under chin” frame. Most of them are cropped and low resolution. Good at best, not great.

In the early 2000s, I took a period print of this frame, currently in a family residence, to be archivally re-matted, and I used the opportunity to make a high resolution scan of it. This particular print is quite large and may actually have been part of the studio’s retouch process. A grayish wash or ink has been directly applied to the paper, smoothing out both Mudge’s uniform, and the drapery over the table.

Here below, is a version of that scan, sized for the Web.

 

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J.E. Peabody and the Cambridge Crew of 1873

At some point in his education, J.E. Peabody spent a year in England at Cambridge University, and, as an elite oarsman in his own right, was allowed to row on their crew.

We still have the team photograph, which several years ago I made the executive decision to disassemble and copy.

For a long time, I had no idea which of these men was our ancestor– I had only seen pictures of Peabody in his elder years, which wasn’t much use.  Then I happened across another photo from his college days, this one helpfully labelled by my Great-Uncle John. And now we know: Peabody is in the back row, second from right.

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Before coming out from the glass… Pretty rough.

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Out of the glass… Better.

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Gertrude (Lawrence) Peabody

Gertrude Peabody’s memory was virtually erased from our family’s oral history, for reasons that can be only guessed at, and restoring a sense of who she was has been difficult. The scraps that follow represent all the fragments I have been able to assemble. Perhaps someone will turn up a collection of her letters, or some other trove, and someday we will have a chance to know her a bit better…

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There is a wonderful sepia photograph, retouched with pastel, of Gertrude Lawrence Peabody in the dining room at Dark Harbor. It belongs to Lee Albright. It shows the same strong face and jaw so admired in Grandfather [James Lawrence 1907-1995—LSL].

Gertrude Lawrence Peabody for WORD file

Lee told me, in August, 2001, that she had often looked at the portrait and wondered how Gertrude had died, since she was only 28. She said that Grandfather had often wondered the same thing. This piqued my interest, and I then began the process of looking into not only how this woman died, but who she was while she was alive.

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Castle Freeman’s Portrait of William Hickling Prescott

The following biographical sketch by Castle Freeman appeared in HARVARD magazine, in 1996, and is a very nice, almost conversational, immensely readable introduction to this man. (Used here by kind permission of the author.)

 

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Best remembered as the author of The Conquest of Mexico, W.H. Prescott was the preeminent American historian in an age when works of history took up more space in the literary world than they do today. The son of a well-to-do lawyer prominent in civic affairs, whose own father was one of the heroes of the Battle of Bunker Hill, Prescott received the expected Greek and Latin schooling as a boy and entered Harvard at 15.

It was at Harvard that Prescott suffered the injury that did so much to shape his life and work. He was hit in the left eye by a piece of hard bread during a food fight. Eventually the other eye was also affected. For the rest of his life, his weak and painful vision meant that he could seldom read for more than a couple of hours a day and couldn’t see to write. A part of his fame has had to do with the notion that Prescott was a blind genius, conjuring in utter darkness the vivid scenes of his great histories. In fact he was never completely blind, but the obstacle to his chosen work was not much less than total blindness would have been.

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A Portrait of Family Life

While of course Abbott Lawrence accomplished an enormous amount in business, and in civic life, and even international relations, he was also a husband and father. Here, as an assemblage of cut silhouettes, is a hint of his life at home, at No. 5 Park Street.

It is an image I enjoy immensely.

 

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“The Family of Abbott Lawrence, In Their Library, 5 Park Street, Boston” by Auguste Amant Constant Fiddle Edouart, from Wax portraits and silhouettes, Massachusetts Society of the Colonial Dames of America, 1915

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