Category Archives: art

The Corcoran Gallery of Art

The Corcoran Gallery of Art

I wouldn’t read much into it, it’s progress knock it down, it’s the Last Bookstore in Town
Graham Parker

Learning and writing about Art and History are my serious hobbies. In fact, my main credential for writing this piece is that, like many other people, I am an avid museum goer and also a frequent tourist of Washington D.C. So when I read that the present plan concerning the Corcoran Gallery of Art is described as an act that would have been frowned on by William Corcoran, I could not help but to recoil. This allegation seems to ignore the basic facts of the situation as I understand them. While any change affecting any great institution is sad, my gut tells me that maybe this one is for the best.

I studied the life and times of William Corcoran and the beginnings of the Smithsonian Institution for three pieces I wrote, all of which now appear on this website  ( Dedicated To Art;Why Jackie Kennedy Saved the Renwick at; The Smithsonian Castle: An Allegory at and Follow the Money- The Legacy Perhaps of James Smithson at ). I read Corcoran’s self-published book and cited it. I am familiar with the documents creating  the Corcoran Gallery of Art. In fact, William Corcoran was dead when the present Corcoran Gallery of Art was built, and therefore he could not have any intention as to the present building. As to the art it contains, it seems to me that the plan as I understand it is more of a fulfillment of his wishes than a violation of them.

William Wilson Corcoran (1798-1888) was a dry goods store owner turned banker from Georgetown with untold influence in Washington DC. He made a fortune funding the Mexican American War in 1846-1848.  Although known to be sympathetic to the South in the years leading to the civil war, there is no evidence that Corcoran favored the institution of slavery. The best evidence depicts Corcoran as favoring the continued union of the states through the compromises on slavery and this may have led to his participation in the Mexican-American War. Corcoran was friendly with most powerful people in Washington including Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1846, Corcoran lent his considerable expertise to help build the Smithsonian Castle, a project abhorred by Henry. Joseph Henry wanted the Smithson bequest to fund pure science, but Congress felt that the building of the a large building which would contain a library, museum and art gallery was more in keeping with James Smithson’s unusual alternate residuary bequest “to the united states of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Henry denounced the Castle as a huge waste of money.


William Corcoran loved art and he collected art both for his personal collection and for the nascent Smithsonian Institution. He was probably using his own money for both collections as I have seen no evidence that he received a penny of the bequest monies before buying any art. When he retired from banking as a very wealthy man, Corcoran travelled to Europe with a note of introduction from Joseph Henry, who was becoming well known among scientific circles in Europe due to his groundbreaking scientific work. Corcoran returned from his 1855 trip with the beginnings of the nation’s first collection of art for public display. By this time, Joseph Henry was living in the Castle with his family and he was growing more irritated by the constant disruptions caused by the presence of a library and an art gallery. Corcoran, who lived nearby, kept many of his collected works in his home which, during the mid to late 1850’s, he freely showed to interested parties. As his collection expanded, and perhaps to accommodate Joseph Henry, Corcoran contracted with James Renwick, Jr., the architect of the Castle, to build an Art Gallery near his home. It was to be a structure “Dedicated To Art”, a phrase probably coined by Corcoran, and that was the inscription placed in its façade. This was the birth of the first Corcoran Gallery of Art which is now known as the Renwick Gallery of Art now part of the Smithsonian Institution.

Construction on the art gallery had begun in 1858. It was designed in Second Empire style, a Parisian architectural movement of the time. Although not nearly the size of its Parisian counterpart, the Gallery was dubbed “The American Louvre”, probably as a bit of promotion by Corcoran who showed a grand flair for the artistic and the dramatic. The building was near completion when the civil war broke out in 1861. Corcoran smartly sat out the war by travelling to Europe and his Gallery was taken by the Union Army and used as a supply depot until the war ended. It is unclear what happened to the artwork that Corcoran had collected…where it was stored and if it became further comingled, as obviously art was not the highest priority of the time. We do know that in 1865, the Smithsonian was to have an exhibit of the Native American portraits of John Mix Stanley. Joseph Henry blamed the preparation of that exhibit for the devastating fire of January 1865 which destroyed part of the Smithsonian and countless documents of scientific, historical and cultural significance, including most of the Stanley works and James Smithson’s personal papers. Henry, who never wanted the Castle to be a museum, used the fire as an excuse to jettison the library and the art museum, with many of the Smithsonian art works ultimately ending up in the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Upon returning to Washington after the war, Corcoran moved forward with the idea that an art museum was needed in Washington and in 1869, he deeded the Art Gallery and some of his works to the Trustees of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, an entity he had set up and funded. Although the ownership of specific works in the collection may have been unclear, Corcoran was able to temporarily open the completed Gallery with massive fanfare in 1871. It later began its run as the first art museum in the new country. Corcoran continued collecting art and when he died in 1888 his art collection and that of the Corcoran Gallery proved too large for the building bearing his name. In 1897, a new building was constructed a few blocks away and it not only correctly took the name “Corcoran Gallery of Art” but also again used the inscription “Dedicated To Art” in its façade, as tribute to the vision of its original founder.

The 1869 deed for the first Corcoran Gallery of Art clearly conveys Corcoran’s purpose:

“…in the execution of a long cherished desire to establish an institution in Washington city, to be “dedicated to Art,” and solely used for the purpose of encouraging American genius, in the production and preservation of works pertaining to the “Fine Arts,” and kindred objects…”

Here Corcoran channels the language of the Smithson bequest but leaves no doubt that his building was to be “Dedicated To Art” and not to science or literature, perhaps freeing the Castle from those burdens. Corcoran specifically indicated that admission to the Gallery was to free of charge at least two days per week, a grand gesture of his intent that the inspiration provided by his Gallery might benefit even those who could not afford to pay admission. From the 1870’s to the 1890’s, his vision was fulfilled by the Gallery at Lafayette Square.

If William Wilson Corcoran’s vision was to have great art free and visible and accessible in Washington for the purpose of fostering American genius, he would be well pleased today. Between the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, the Renwick Gallery of Art (currently closed for renovation), The Hirschorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Freer Gallery and the Sackler Gallery, the amount of phenomenal art one can see for free in Washington DC is unbelievable. Other art museums such as the Phillips Collection and, yes, the Corcoran Gallery of Art have contributed to my opinion that Washington DC is the premier city for art viewing in the world (note: as a native New Yorker even I am shocked by this admission; and yes, I have been to Paris and Rome and Florence and Amsterdam…Where is the American Art there?). Only in the National Gallery of Art can you stand in a room with 17 Cezannes…by yourself! I was in a room with more Vermeers than people! A Da Vinci that you don’t need binoculars to see! Don’t get me started on the American Art, from the Copleys to the Warhols…the genius is on display everywhere. And did I mention that most of it is FREE.

If I may digress, the wondrous thing about Washington for art lovers is that most of the tourists who go there, even those who might frequent the art museums of other cities, barely get to all the art museums. Americans and other tourists who have maybe a week to spend in Washington have their itineraries full of other things. Personally, my most poignant moment in visiting Washington was not in a museum, it was on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where at 7 am a small group of tourists presumably from mainland China were admiring our 16thPresident and sharing their thoughts with each other in their native tongue. To my astonishment, one of them stood next to me on the place where Martin Luther King reestablished America’s Creed and as he looked out on the reflecting pool he said in near perfect English “Free at last, Free at last, great God almighty…we are free at last”. In my mind, somehow William Wilson Corcoran with his dedication to something great helped bring Washington to that moment, which still gives me goose bumps and brings a tear to my eye.

All of which brings me to where we are today. For me, ultimately the issue of the Corcoran Gallery is not so much about one man’s vision, it is not about a building and it is not even about art. It is about trust. Since I believe that the National Gallery of Art is the greatest art museum in the world and has helped establish Washington as the greatest city for art in the world, I trust that it will do right by the Corcoran collection.  Others who are against the plan may not share my trust, and perhaps I do not see all that they see or know all that they know.  I can only imagine how difficult it has been for the Corcoran Gallery of Art to function as an independent museum in a town that despite its incredible collections, is not really about art. That is the beauty of the Smithson Bequest and the Corcoran gifts…they have created something much greater than even they could have anticipated in a city that needs great art if only to counter the nonsense that is often associated with some of its other institutions. As times change and politics change and buildings rise and fall, it is the great ideas that move us forward as a civilization. Those ideas may be expressed in our founding documents, the speeches of our great leaders, the advancement in the sciences and in the great art of the world. I trust that this is a move forward and I suspect that William Wilson Corcoran would think so too.


Head of a (Favorite) Negro


Who is the young man painted in John Singleton Copley’s Head of a (Favorite) Negro (1775-1776)? What do we know about him?

Head of a (Favorite) Negro

By Jerry Leibowitz

The portraits of John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) are known to depict the objects that define his sitter in exquisite detail. The included objects often become more important than the face as they reflect on the sitter and help define the personality. This is true from his earliest innocent American works like Boy with a Squirrel and Paul Revere  to his later more complex works in England where his sitters were doled up in their costumes like Lord Mansfield,_1st_Earl_of_Mansfield_by_John_Singleton_Copley.jpg. Although squarely in the tradition of portrait painting, perhaps this focus on objects was a reflection of Copley’s mercantile upbringing in Boston, where he came from a family of shop owners and lived among traders who largely defined their existence by their things. I know of one exception to this rule in all of Copley’s work, a piece so odd that many assume it was a study for another piece. The work is Copley’s Head of a (Favorite) Negro and I submit that not only was it not a study, but that it deserves to be viewed as a masterpiece squarely within the Copley tradition of surrounding a sitter with those objects that reflect on the sitter.

How can this be, you may ask? There are no things. His shirt is but a sack without even a button. He doesn’t even have a body, no arms, no legs. The sitter does not even have a name, at least one that has been associated with the piece since its creation. No things. Nothing.

But look again at what he has. He appears to possess a pleasant disposition under a delightful scruffiness. Under his ragged shirt we see the wisp of a white collar. I see an expression of longing in his sad eyes. His past is summed up by a scar, maybe a few. Painted in 1775 or 1776 we do not know much about this young man, not even his name or his age. We do know now that his life already happened, more than two centuries ago. What kind of life was it? Isn’t he like he is any young man you might see on the street today, full of promise but mostly full of questions. This painting is modern and timeless, a great step forward from the more wooden characters of Copley’s acclaimed American works.

You may see something else, but here is what I see. In 1776, when the portrait was painted, British officers began returning from the War in America bringing with them slave children who ran away from their owners for the promise of freedom in England. By 1775 it was well known in America that in 1772 in the high courts of England, slavery had been declared odious and against natural law and that once a slave set foot on English soil the slave would become free. As a strategy to quell the Revolution, the British urged adult male slaves to escape from their masters and join the British Army and the slaves were promised papers declaring their freedom upon completion of their service.  Some younger slaves who yearned for freedom but who were too young to be trained as soldiers also escaped from their circumstance and hung out with British units hoping to be brought to a free life in England. They were promised nothing else. I see in this young man such a slave child who made it to England. He had nothing except what he had. And while he may have owned no things at least he was owned by no one else; Copley urges us to reckon his existence unbound and untethered.

John Singleton Copley had been America’s foremost portrait painter in the years prior to the American Revolution. He was largely self-trained and although well-paid he felt stifled by the lack of culture if not by the barbarity of Americans and longed for the education and experience that England and the rest of Europe offered to a working artist. Invited to England by the American artist Benjamin West, who had successfully made his transition to England years before, Copley first journeyed to see the great works of art in France and Italy in 1774 before settling in England. His joyous The Copley Family (1777) records the reunion of his family in England. Although considered as a conversation piece, I suggest that it is a self-portrait in the Copley tradition of a sitter being surrounded by his things…in this case his wonderful family. In England, Copley was ready to begin the second phase of his artistic life as a working artist.

In that context, painting Head of a Negro in 1775-6 may seem an odd choice. One would think that Copley would establish himself by doing what he did best, painting portraits of wealthy aristocrats which clearly this young man was not. Or, he would focus on Historical or Religious paintings, as had Benjamin West, as these genres were considered the highest form of art at the time. Perhaps it is for this reason that Head of a Negro has been considered a study, especially since the same character seems to appear as a dominant force in the wonderful Watson and the Shark (1778), produced at around the same time.

What I see is Copley exploring the idea of freedom. Benjamin West was encouraging his students to be free to develop their own styles and no painting suggests the possibilities of freedom more than Head of a Negro. Here was a young man who had been a slave in America, and for Copley that may have been analogous to the constraints he felt as a repressed artist in his native land. Both gave up what they had when they arrived in England. While the young man likely gave up nothing of worth in America and owned nothing more than an idea of freedom, Copley left behind a life, and he brought with him his wonderful family and a trade. Yet, in essence both arrived without a name and without a past as Copley’s success in America was unimpressive in the mother land. If Copley was going to succeed it would be on the basis of his skills. So too with this young man. The young man’s body, which had no doubt been his most important asset in America, was not going to be meaningful now in civilized England. If he was going to succeed it would be through his demeanor shown in that great face, and his style represented by the wisp of fashion peeking through his neck. The scar near his eye shows that his past was never to be far away; it could burden his soul or inspire it. We hope that this young man lived a great life and fulfilled the destiny Copley saw in his face in 1776, oddly the year when all the talk of freedom in his native land ultimately proved to be a ruse to those like himself who stayed behind.

Interestingly, art historians generally divide Copley’s work by his move to England. There is the American Copley whose portraits spoke to a burgeoning American ethos. And there is the British Copley, whose works display more freedom of purpose but are not universally considered his best works. Freedom is a tricky thing; a yearning deep within the soul. Here is where the analogy ends; we know with certainty that whatever befell this free young man in England was better than his life had he remained a slave in America. Contemplating both the artist and the subject must lead the viewer to contemplate “freedom” itself, what it means today and what it meant as a new country was wrestling with the concept in the late 18th century. New America, itself, should have better contemplated the concept, lest it would not have chosen a path of slavery and oppression. I see that scar visible even today. So look again at the Head of a (Favorite) Negro; there is much to see.

Bust of a Man, the Sequel- Bill Richmond Strikes Back

Bust of a Man, the Sequel- Bill Richmond Strikes Back

  “There are some things you can’t cover up with lipstick and powder…”

Elvis Costello

“They call it the rope-a-dope. Well, I’m the dope. Ali just laid on the rope and I, like a dope, kept punching until I got tired. But he was probably the most smart fighter I’ve ever gotten into the ring with.”

George Foreman

Author’s note 11/13/14: The Getty website has removed references to Northamptonshire.

Bill Richmond (1763?-1829) made his name as a boxer nicknamed “The Black Terror” but he was much more than that. As a boxer and a boxing instructor in England he invented defensive boxing or at least brought it to the professional ring.[i] Before Bill Richmond, boxing was a sport of offense where large brutal white men would go at each other bare fisted until one died, or at least could not continue the fight. Bill Richmond’s style of laying back and taking punches to tire out an opponent was taunted as unmanly; but it allowed his much smaller frame to defeat larger opponents. After Bill Richmond, boxing became the “sweet science” where tact mattered almost as much as strength. But Bill Richmond was much more than even that.


I have touched on the incredible life of Bill Richmond in my pieces located here and here and here I have suggested that the sculpture known as Bust of a Man located at the Yale Center for British Art may be a sculpture of Bill Richmond as a young adult and the similar work located at the Getty Museum is a worthy copy. Neither the Getty nor the YCBA agrees with my assessment of their sculptures and recently the Getty has “conserved” its Bust of a Man obfuscating any inquiry into the truth of the work. The purpose of this piece is not to rehash my arguments but to explain why they are important.


Bill Richmond was born a slave in America, although facts about his childhood as a black slave in the mid-18th century are naturally uncertain. As a teenager he had to choose sides in a Revolution. Does he stay with the Americans who were spouting on and on about freedom and independence but showed little inclination towards his freedom? Or run away at the risk of death to join the British, who first enslaved his people and were now only recently extending a promise of liberation to those who came over to their side. He choose the latter and by his sheer will and accomplishment perhaps as both a fighter and a brilliant joyous soul ended up in the presence of a wealthy British General who was to become the Second Duke of Northumberland. That General left the war theater for England in 1777 and took with him the young teen. The General made sure that his ward was given opportunity, sending him to the ancestral family home in Yorkshire to learn the trade of furniture making. That young teen came back to London destined for greatness, ultimately fighting for the boxing championship of England. Despite his fortunate later upbringing, it was not an easy life for Bill Richmond and he had the scars to prove it. He was a former slave brought to a foreign land, with no known family but for the Northumberlands. He was taunted both in and out of the ring for his boxing style and his life well lived, and he often returned the taunts with a pummeling sometimes of several men at a time. He probably never had official papers or even a name in England, since in America he was too young to have joined the British Army and only slaves who became soldiers actually received papers of freedom and a British identity. As an adult, he probably was illegally in England and subject to recapture because when the Americans won their War they demanded return of their lost property, including slaves.[ii] As an owner of a tavern in later life after his career in the ring, he told stories of his many tribulations. With his perfect body, incredible work ethic and quick wit, if there ever was an American who deserved to be cast in stone, Bill Richmond was it.


The literature on the Bust of a Man at the Getty which purports that it is an original work by Francis Harwood dated 1758 makes no sense. There is a bit of evidence, rejected by art historians, which shows that the sitter for the piece was likely Bill Richmond and that the piece was created later than the 1758 date now clearly engraved in the base of the Getty piece as a result of the “conservation”. The Getty would have you believe that their piece is an original masterpiece in an otherwise undistinguished oeuvre by a copier and a forger. Their response to my evidence was akin to telling me that I misunderstand 200 years of Art History, something to which I would completely agree with if everyone else would concede that they believe in 300 years of mangled American History. In their “Conservation” they apparently oiled the bust like a slave ready for auction; filled in the holes which clearly showed it to be tan stone painted black and not black stone as they have long claimed; “fixed” the date so it reads more clearly; and perhaps glued it to its socle for a reason that may only be known to them. But, after all, it is their sculpture and they could use it as a doorstop if they wish. I never claimed to have the definitive answer as to the nature of the work but I remain somewhat convinced that the 1758 date on the Getty piece is wrong, and that the sculpture is a copy of a work from life which depicts the brilliant boxer and worthy man Bill Richmond as a youth and the finished original work is the “copy” located at the Yale Center for British Art. But The YCBA doesn’t seem to believe me either, insisting that their work is a Harwood studio copy of the Getty work. The Getty, now having touched up their piece, appears to have taken a more active role in obfuscating any truth of the sculptures. If they understood anything about Bill Richmond, they would know that they are fighting a losing battle.


First the stupid stuff. The present online description of the piece on the Getty Museum website still indicates that the piece is carved from Black Stone. [iii]. According to their conservation notes this is not true as the piece is carved from a tan sandstone shellacked to look like black stone.[iv] The myth of it being made from black stone may have been necessary to improve its provenance as an 1865 catalogue refers to a sculpture being made from Black Marble and the Getty claims that this is their piece. Of course, that is the site which catalogues the piece as (obscure first initial) Richmond the Pugilist. The myth of the black stone has been retold in several of the leading publications on the sculpture so the fact that it just isn’t true will be not make the truthiness of the assertion disappear. Just by itself, the notion that a sculpture was one thing made to look like another thing already casts some doubts as to its authenticity. Add to the fact that its purported sculptor, Francis Harwood, has been labeled as someone who succumbed to copying and forging[v], and I begin with the notion that any piece signed by Francis Harwood might be a copy or a forgery. Talented as he might have been, there is little in his oeuvre to suggest he was capable of producing this as an original piece. That assessment is not mine but is rife throughout the literature.


In its provenance of the piece, The Getty Museum website also includes a new reference to the piece having been located for a time at Stanwick Hall, Northamptonshire, England. I assume this was a stupid mistake and not another attempt to obfuscate a truth. There are (or were) two Stanwick Halls; the one in Northamptonshire still stands and has absolutely nothing to do with this piece. The other Stanwick Hall in Yorkshire, Richmond, England was demolished in the 1920’s. It was a secondary seat of the Dukes of Northumberland who were intimately connected to Bill Richmond and to this sculpture. That is where Bill Richmond likely lived and where the sculpture was found and twice catalogued, although whether it was the Getty piece or the YCBA piece that was actually catalogued remains a mystery. Moving the sculpture and the Northumberlands to Northamptonshire may be no more than a research mistake, but it does serve the purpose of suggesting that it was not found in Richmond, England, where Bill Richmond lived and likely took his name, and therefore was not a depiction of Bill Richmond. While I have always conceded that the sculpture may not be a depiction of Bill Richmond, creating false facts and having them repeated does not serve the inquiry well.


So what is there to make of the decision by the Getty to “conserve” their Bust of a Man? Well I always thought the purpose of conservation of a piece of art was to return it to its original form. Why then glue it to the socle? Is that original? Why tinker with the date? Where is the evidence that the date was on the original piece? I can point to two catalogues IN THE GETTY PROVENANCE which do not indicate that the piece was dated. One did not include the name of the sculptor and it called the stone black marble and not painted sandstone. I understand why they filled in the holes and oiled it up, that was probably the same thing that Francis Harwood did to make it look more like the original.


So why is this important? Frankly, like most of you reading this I really do not care who sculpted the original Bust of a Man or when it was sculpted! What I do care about is American History. Americans are quick to blame the British (or the Dutch) for slavery in America. It is true that these powerful nations introduced slaves to America and many of their citizens became wealthy through the slave trade and the toil of enslaved workers. But at some point, before the American Revolution, the Americans took control of their destiny as slave holders and then kept the institution alive without foreign intervention for another 100 years. Before the American Revolution, The Colonists, especially in the wealthy South, resisted any effort by Great Britain to control their laws even though members of its ruling class were all British citizens. As the abolitionist movement was growing in Britain, including the 1772 ruling in Somersett’s Case which outlawed slavery on English soil, the Colonists were  formulating their escape from any notion that they were subservient to the British Crown or Parliament. The great thinkers of the South where the majority of slaves toiled, espoused the notion of local rule on issues including slavery. The largely mercantile North, which was also getting rich off the slave trade and the toil of enslaved workers, was either gullible or complicit. It is likely that the American Revolution was then, in part, a victory of slave holders and mercantile interests over humanity and civilization. In this narrative, Bill Richmond, a slave child, and General Percy, the Second Duke of Northumberland, represent the British movement towards a more civilized world. The fact that a very wealthy British Duke would bother to commission a sculpture of his black ward in the 1770’s or 1780’s shows a relationship that is much more familial than that of servant to master. In this narrative, the sculpture becomes a tangible presence and a symbol of the move towards civilization and America’s resistence to the tide of history. Little wonder then, that the narrative has been rejected and the sitter in the sculpture remains just another nobody without a name.



Bill Richmond suffered many indignities in his life and rose above them all. The notion that the Getty may be adding another now by dressing him up and further stripping his name from the work is of little import. If they are doing it purposely to deceive they are very small. If they are ignorant, they are not alone. Personally, like every one of my grey hairs, I think that the piece before conservation had an incredible story to tell and some of that story is now lost (or embellished!)The Getty should be aware that the truth, like Bill Richmond, is just doing the rope-a-dope. The brutish powers will tire of telling their false stories of America, and true heroes like Bill Richmond will take their place in the pantheon of Great Americans, replacing a host of slave owners who have been given a pass despite their unforgivable acts. Remember, the Getty is just a few turns from Hollywood where nobody ever let the truth get in the way of telling a good story. Bill Richmond’s day will come because he was a legendary man and as we all know in Hollywood they always print the legend.[vi]


[i] See T.J. Desch Obi, Black Terror: Bill Richmond’s Revolutionary Boxing, Journal of Sport History, Spring 2009 at 99. See also website:

[ii] Our first President championed this cause.

[iii] Accessed on October 28, 2014

[iv] I requested a copy of the notes but I have not yet seen them. See Commentary by Chi-ming Yang

[v] Thomas Hoving, False Impressions, (Simon and Schuster 1996) at 64-66.

[vi] The great movie of American myth is John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance which famously concludes with the line “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.

Encouraging American Genius

Encouraging American Genius

                                                                                                                By Jerry Leibowitz

 We are stardust, billion year old carbon We are golden, caught in the devil’s bargain And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Joni Mitchell

 I have been thinking about what it means to “encourage American Genius” since I wrote my last piece on the Corcoran Gallery of Art (See  ). William Corcoran used the phrase in the deed donating what became the first independent Art Gallery in America in 1869, stating that his gift was:

“…in the execution of a long cherished desire to establish an institution in Washington city, to be “dedicated to Art,” and solely used for the purpose of encouraging American genius, in the production and preservation of works pertaining to the “Fine Arts,” and kindred objects…”

The phrase and the words “Dedicated to Art”, which is displayed on the façade of both the original and the present Corcoran Gallery acquired in 1897, has popped up in the controversy about the future of the present Corcoran Gallery of Art, which seeks to terminate many of its operations. In using the phrase, I see Corcoran as reiterating a strand of American thought that went back at least to 1760, the year that Benjamin West left Pennsylvania to view the great art of Italy, never to return. Despite, or because of, our view of our founding as something inspired by divine intervention, we often fail to see the America that was born of a brutal and barbarous nature, where much of its wealth was extracted from the enslaved to the utter disregard if not the benefit of its founders. Early America was a cultural wasteland which many of the best minds of our early generations chose to leave to pursue their craft. While the civil war did not solve America’s problems, after the war William Corcoran was among those calling for the next America to be better than the last; through art, through culture and through the development and encouragement of American genius.

The cornerstone of the Second America arguably was laid in England in 1791 with a painting by Benjamin West entitled “Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden”.  As if by my design, the painting now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D. C. Obviously, this was a subject that had been covered numerous times before; it is one of the most familiar and iconic images in western thought. Yet, as the NGA website points out…”West’s Expulsion contains two motifs not found in Genesis or any traditional pictures of the theme: an eagle swoops upon a helpless bird, and a lion chases frightened horses. In general terms, such beasts of prey imply the destruction of harmony that resulted from Original Sin.” The eagle became the bird emblem of the United States of America in 1782. Its placement in the work calls to the viewer the America that Benjamin West had left over thirty years before. Perhaps the lion represents the slaveholders and the horses represent their slaves.[i] West, who was a Quaker and was adamantly anti-slavery, had left America as a British citizen and ended up in England where he rose to the highest level of his craft, a friend and Court painter to King George lll. West was not the only American artist who left his native land; he was soon followed by John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart, and John Trumbull all of whom sat out the Revolutionary War in England. They were eventually followed to Europe by virtually every great American artist of the 19th and early 20th century, each of whom studied or lived in Europe for a considerable period of their artistic development. We know a little of why these early American artists left America; Copley called his native country barbarous and limiting to his craft; Trumbull may have been a spy for America, having served as aide-de-camp for George Washington for a short time early in the War; Stuart was a bit scattered and was perhaps looking for some stability abroad. I suggest that Benjamin West invited this community of artists to England to “encourage American genius” in a place removed from America’s original sin, its toleration of slavery. When the smoke from the American Revolution had cleared, Trumbull and Stuart returned to America fully formed as artists giving America its first artistic life, one couched in love for the new country. It was as if Benjamin West sent out these emissaries of art to go forth and multiply and breed American genius. It is likely that Gilbert Stuart, having lived among those who were a part of the antislavery movement while in England[ii], returned to America as an emissary for that movement, often discussing political subjects with those who sat for him. Trumbull went on to document America’s founding, and established the first University Art Gallery at Yale largely to collect his own works. West and Copley stayed in England and continued their artistic pursuits. West’s views against slavery were quite well known and clearly contributed to his historic and religious themed works. Copley explored the humanity of the slavery issue in his works including Watson and the Shark (1778; also at the NGA!, The Head of a Negro (1777-1778;  and The Death of Major Peirson (1783, In retrospect then, Benjamin West put out the first call to “encourage American genius” just at the time that the founding fathers were beginning their experiment with self-government but were unable or unwilling to recognize that the flaws in their work would render America spiritually damaged and eventually hurl the country towards self-destruction and civil war.

I have written previously of the bequest of James Smithson, and how that gift was intended to propel America out of its barbarous nature (See Follow the Money- the Legacy Perhaps of James Smithson, Under Smithson’s will of 1826, his money was given “to the united states of America to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Arguably, as I suggest in Legacy, it was the knowledge diffused by that institution that made the end of slavery inevitable, since knowledge is the ultimate cure for ignorance and indifference. While the cure for America turned out to be unbelievably painful, it must be recognized that by 1860 the disease was quite severe. All of the compromises which let slavery continue and expand in America, going back to compromises made in 1775, had rendered the country spiritually depraved. Despite all the progress being made in the Arts and the Sciences, the use of forced labor to create wealth had rendered the country unholy, and that evil was a limiting restraint on the creation of true American genius. The end of slavery through the civil war gave America a new chance, and men with foresight were not about to let the moment slip by doing nothing.

William Corcoran was intimately familiar with the Smithson bequest, having worked with Congress on establishing the Smithsonian Institution. He provided expertise on the building of the Castle which housed the entire Institution. As a Southern sympathizer who helped foster the compromises in the 1840’s and 1850’s that made the civil war inevitable, Corcoran had some fault to bear in the ugly matter. His fortune had been made in banking largely by funding the Mexican American War in 1846, which provided for the expansion of the country deemed necessary for the continuation of slavery.  While many in the south were devastated by their loss of autonomy through the Civil War, Corcoran came to recognize that without the burden of the slavery issue which could only divide America, the great days of America lay ahead. In 1869, he found himself on the other side of the civil war with a ton of money, a passion for art, and a new blank canvas to create the Second America as a far better place than the first. His gift of the Corcoran Gallery of Art reflects that hope. Where Smithson used the word “knowledge”, a word which connotes something quantifiable and exact, Corcoran’s vision was for “Art” and for “Genius”, concepts which are exquisite and unquantifiable. The Civil War provided redemption from America’s original sin and perhaps Corcoran’s own sins, and now it was time for grace and return to the garden.

It is with all this in mind that I contemplate again the status of the present Corcoran Gallery of Art and specifically what it means to “encourage American Genius”. As I noted in my last piece, I am quite certain that the art from the Gallery will be fine under the care of the National Gallery of Art. The building which houses the Gallery is of no moment here, since it was constructed after the death of William Corcoran and could not have been a part of his vision. But the concept of “Encouraging American Genius” remains to me as important and elusive as ever. We still live in the Second America. We have had our share of genius yet we remain far from the garden. So how do we now encourage American genius?  Arguably “genius” is not developed at all it just happens from time to time. Maybe the MacArthur Foundation has it right…wait for someone to do something great…call it “genius” and throw money at it. But I am not sure that works either, since if I won a MacArthur grant I would probably change the name of my website to and never be heard from again. (Note to MacArthur Trustees: That last comment was just literary license. If I were to receive a grant I would churn out the genius stuff like you wouldn’t believe!). William Corcoran may have had a reasonable notion as to what it meant to “Encourage American Genius“ as shown by his help establishing artists of the Hudson River School, but it is also true that much of what he collected were secondary works. That is not a knock on his talent or ideals, but more a statement on the elusive nature of encouraging genius.

An Art School, a Museum, a studio…whatever. The chance of anyone finding and encouraging true American artistic genius remains slim. The job of the artist is to turn out the work; whether it is genius or not is usually judged by posterity which sometimes takes an awfully long time to answer. For every Michelangelo there is a Van Gogh. William Corcoran must have known all this when he gave his gift. Perhaps with his gift he was trying to follow the mold set by Benjamin West in the 1770’s. The modest building he gave may have been well suited to the task of encouraging American genius in 1869. Perhaps the biggest mistake made by the Trustees of the Corcoran Gallery of Art was when they moved to larger quarters in the late 19th century and are now burdened by something large and unwieldy. But then again, the late 19th century was a time of big ideas, and Corcoran liked living large and probably would have blessed the expansion. But 19th century ideas may not be relevant to our times and our William Corcorans should not be tied to them. How we encourage our 21st century American geniuses is a mystery to me. Still, like the accurate compass which gives direction to this website, William Corcoran pointed the country in the right direction. Hopefully his legacy will continue to lead us back to the Garden.


[i] In the Zong decision (1783) slaves were thrown off a ship in peril and later claimed as a loss under an insurance policy. Lord Mansfield was called to decide if the jury was correct in ruling for the slaveholders… “that the Case of Slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard.” Lord Mansfield reversed, ruling against the slave holders. History has (incorrectly, in my opinion) somehow attributed the analogy of slaves to horses to Lord Mansfield, which is unlikely given his ruling in Somersett’s case (1772) declaring slavery to be odious and therefore unsupportable on English soil. See my piece on Lord Mansfield at and the recent biography by Professor Norman Poser entitled Lord Mansfield, Justice in the Age of Reason (McGill-Queen’s University Press, Canada 2013). The facts of the Zong Case were so horrible that the analogy resonated throughout the antislavery movement in England, leading to British withdrawal from the slave trade in 1807. In 1780, John Trumbull painted George Washington with his slave on a horse, equating the two as servants to their master,

[ii] See Follow the Money- The Legacy Perhaps of James Smithson,

Who Is James Renwick (and what are his plans)?

Who is James Renwick and What are His Plans?

by Jerry Leibowitz



Image Downloaded with permission from the Smithsonian Institution website

Who is James Renwick? This is not an Ayn Rand question about a fictional engineer. There was an engineer turned architect named James Renwick (1819-1895) who designed several of the most iconic structures built in America’s early years, including the Castle at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C., and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. While still a teen or a young adult, he graduated with a Master’s degree in Engineering from Columbia College, NYC, where his father with the same name was his professor. Not being the first Junior/Senior or Younger/Elder in this world, you would think that the two of them could be kept straight.

In 1853, probably as a result of a partial forced retirement, Columbia College commissioned a painting of its prestigious professor, James Renwick, Sr. to be done by John Whetten Ehninger. The painting is listed in Columbia’s current inventory, as well as an inventory from 1908, but to the best of anyone’s knowledge it has not been publicly displayed. As of this writing, the image on that painting remains a mystery. For years, if you googled James Renwick, Jr., the architect, you would eventually see the above copied image with an attribution that it was an Ehninger portrait from 1853. That was the attribution used by the Smithsonian Institution on its website.  Renwick designed two important Smithsonian buildings, the Castle and the suitably named Renwick Gallery. The attribution claimed Renwick was holding a plan of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

I noticed a few things about the portrait that made me wonder how it could be a portrait from 1853. The most glaring oddity was the age of the subject. In 1853, James Renwick Jr., was 34 years old. The subject of the painting seems much older than 34 years old. Even more significant was the drawing that Renwick was holding. Work did not begin on St. Patrick’s Cathedral until 1858. Could he have drawn a plan for St. Patrick’s Cathedral and then had his portrait done with that plan all by 1853? That would be news to anyone who studied the history of the Cathedral. Well anything is possible, I guess. But more on that later.

The plan of St. Patrick’s Cathedral displayed by Renwick in the image does not look much like St. Patrick’s Cathedral as constructed. In fact, it does look like an early unconstructed plan of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, similar to the beautiful rendering of a plan drawn and signed by James Renwick presently located in the Archbishop Hughes room of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The most distinct difference between the early plan and the Cathedral, as constructed, is that the early plan had two different spires while the Cathedral as built had two matching spires. But why would there be a painting of an older James Renwick (no longer Junior after his father died in 1863) holding a plan for a Cathedral that was not built? He seems to be deliberately showing us the plan, but why?

Before I addressed that question, I examined images of all other churches built by Renwick to see if the plan he was holding was for another building. Calvary Church, in lower Manhattan, once had two spires since removed, but it is clearly not as large as the Church in the drawing. Not only could I not find another structure that was close, but it occurred to me that if you were going to have your portrait taken and you were going to be holding a drawing of one of your works, you would have some reason for the drawing that you pick. Renwick was a man who left few clues to his motivations, so it was left to me to try to figure it out.

So what is it? Well, as usual, I have a theory.

The next time you are at St. Patrick’s Cathedral (after the monumental restoration), look up at the stained glass windows and among the incredibly beautiful religious symbols captured in the glass, done largely by Nicholas Lorin in France, you will see the very image of James Renwick, Jr. that is on the image copied above (although he is holding a different plan, see below). He is even wearing the same shirt and tie. How did he get up there????

The story that I understand is that Renwick, a Protestant, and Archbishop Hughes, the moving force behind the construction of the Cathedral, were incredibly simpatico on how St.  Patrick’s Cathedral should look. Both wanted a huge Cathedral that would be welcoming to Catholic immigrants and could be seen for miles around. It was a “spare no expense” project, even though the Catholic Church was small and cash-strapped in mid 19th century New York City. Begun in 1858, the project proceeded well through donations largely through the strong will of the Archbishop until the civil war broke out in 1861 when virtually all construction in the city was halted. Archbishop Hughes died in 1864 and his successor, Cardinal McCloskey, tinkered with the design before construction was restarted. It was probably he who nixed the idea of two different spires in favor of the more balanced similar spires that were ultimately constructed. Renwick did not like the several changes made to his original plan, and displayed his concern by giving the Cathedral a stained glass window in 1879 which tells the very story! He made it a part of the patron saint St. Patrick stained glass window as if to make sure that it would be installed and be noticed. In one of the most brilliant moves in architectural history, James Renwick placed himself and Archbishop Hughes and Cardinal McCloskey and Nicholas Lorin in a stained glass window with two plans to the Cathedral; the one he and Archbishop Hughes are excited about and the one held by Cardinal McCloskey that was ultimately built. Up there the revised plan is barely acknowledged. In big letters you can see below their images the immortal words… “FROM JAMES RENWICK”.

I suggest that the above googled image of James Renwick tells the same story. I believe there was a photograph taken of Renwick in the 1870’s holding a drawing of the Cathedral he and Archbishop Hughes wanted to construct. A copy of that photograph was given to Nicholas Lorin to model Renwick for inclusion in the infamous stained glass window.  I saw a copy of that photograph somewhere in the Renwick archives either at Columbia University or at the Smithsonian. As Renwick got older, he still ruminated about the plans for his masterpiece which were not built. From the 1870’s photograph, in 1929, an artistic family member named Howard Crosby Renwick produced the oil portrait of Renwick holding his best laid plans, to be seen for eternity. Unfortunately, that painting, as well as the Ehninger portrait of his father, is out of public view and were it not for the stained glass window, this story would remain largely untold. I did finally see the 1929 oil portrait of James Renwick holding the drawing of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It is in storage at the Avery Library of Columbia University, New York City.  Who is to say if the portrait or the photograph came first?  Somewhat at my urging the attribution of the portrait has changed, at least on the Smithsonian site, but who can correct such things in all of cyberspace, as if such a thing matters.

For history’s sake I suggest one further theory. I do not believe that Renwick produced any plan for St. Patrick’s Cathedral as early as 1853 or 1854. My research indicates that Renwick may have been approached about the commission earlier, but I doubt that any plan existed much before 1857 when Renwick’s plans were accepted by Archbishop Hughes and made public. I suspect that it is confusion with the Ehninger painting of Renwick, Sr. from 1853 which has led to the supposition that there was a plan for St. Patrick’s Cathedral at that early date. I would welcome seeing proof of the contrary.

I began my fascination with the life and work of James Renwick after discovering a Scrap Book purportedly belonging to Renwick amongst items belonging to my wife’s family. If you look closely at the blue portfolio belonging to Renwick in the infamous stained glass window below, perhaps you see a long book sticking out. Could it be? Why not? A Scrap Book for eternity.

Bust of a Man…Alternate version

See Bust of Bill Richmond?  at for the primary version…and The Sequel…Bill Richmond Fights Back

Bust of a Man…Alternate version

My inquiry into the sculpture known as Bust of a Man begins with the known facts. There are two similar sculptures known a Bust of a (Black) Man. One is unsigned and is at the Yale Center for British Art. A lesser one, to my eye,  is at the Getty Museum and is signed “Francis Harwood fecit.”, meaning “I did that!”. The latter is dated 1758. Francis Harwood was a British sculptor who worked in England and Italy from the mid 18th century to his death in 1783. It appears that he was quite adept at making copies of the great sculptures of the world. He did not make his works to deceive, rather he made his living fulfilling the wishes of patrons who wanted copies of the great classical sculptors for their private collection. He was more craftsman than artist, and any assumption that he did the original work located now at the Yale Center because he signed a copy  must be addressed in the context of the reality that he was not that talented. The Yale Center at some point changed its attribution from “Francis Harwood” to “Studio of Francis Harwood” perhaps due to the conflict between the signed and dated lesser work and the realization that it had an unsigned copy by a better sculptor who, they may have surmised, must have worked with Francis Harwood. I suggest otherwise.

What if the signature and/or date of the Getty sculpture is wrong? Since the Getty bust seems most likely a reworked copy of the Yale bust, it seems quite plausible that Francis Harwood created the Getty sculpture, not from a live sitting, but from the existing Yale bust. That is what Francis Harwood did for a living. The date is quite another story. If the Yale bust was created prior to 1758, the identity of the sitter and the sculptor would remain a mystery. I submit that the date on the Harwood copy may be wrong, purposefully wrong. If the two sculptures were actually of a later date, some progress could be made as to the identity of the sitter and the sculptor.

We begin with the assumption, supported in the literature, that the sitter was associated with a Duke of Northumberland, one  of the richest men in the world.  Famously, an American slave who was to take the name “Bill Richmond”, was brought to England around 1777 by Hugh Percy, who was to become the Second Duke of Northumberland. Percy was a General in the British Army who participated in several of the early conflicts of the American War For Independence, including the Battles of Lexington and Concord. He quickly grew fed up with the war and due to disagreements with his Commander, he returned to England while the war was still in its early stages. The slave Bill, of somewhat indeterminate age, impressed the General with his quick wit and his ability to defend himself with his fists. It was not uncommon for British officers to return to England with former slaves who attached themselves to British units as a means of escaping from their horrors. At certain points in the War, both sides promised freedom to slaves who served as soldiers in their army. To the degree that some of these men were runaway slaves or not classified as soldiers, their status after the war was uncertain. In 1772, a lower court judge in England issued an opinion in the matter of Somersett’s Case, which held that since slavery was abhorrent to British law, any slave who is on actual British soil is a free man while on British soil. With the protections afforded by this precedential decision and those provided by the wealthy Duke of Northumberland, Bill Richmond now in England, became educated, acquired a trade, and otherwise seemingly  took his place as a free British subject . Later in life, he revolutionized the sport of boxing and once fought for the title of Champion of England. I suspect that the Yale sculpture was carved at the time Bill Richmond was growing into his adult self, possibly 1781. The scar above the eye and the sculpture’s physique speak to Bill Richmond’s past as a slave or fighter. In the latter part of the 18th century there were several sculptors who could produce such a masterwork and the Dukes of Northumberland were famous for their discerning eye and willingness to spend considerable money on their art. With the surrender of Cornwallis in 1781, Britain and France, while technically still at war over the American conflict, were able to resume a certain amount of trade. The great sculptors of France, most specifically Jean Antoine Houdon, were exploring the issue of slavery in their works. In 1781, Houdon carved a bust of a black woman, thought to be a study for the “attendant” in a fountain sculpture of a bather, of which only the head remains and is located at the Musee municipale Ancienne Abbaye, Saint-Leger, Soissons. This sculpture was later used by Houdon in an allegory of slavery and freedom. As can be seen from the recast sculpture, now in the Musee Nissim de Camondo, Paris, this sculpture is the spiritual kin to the Bust of a Man at Yale and may well have been done by the same sculptor at approximately the same time.

The American victory in its War for Independence led to another adventure in the life of Bill Richmond. The darndest thing happened…the victorious Americans who were all about freedom wanted their slaves back. In the years between the British surrender of 1781 and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the status of slaves under the control of the British was uncertain. The British insisted on honoring their commitment to those slaves who fought as soldiers in their army and papers were issued on their behalf. Yet in the confusing time, even some freed blacks with papers were re-enslaved. Bill Richmond had not been a soldier and had no papers, but at least he was in Britain where he had some security. Yet there was well reasoned apprehension on the part of many in Britain that in any treaty which would ultimately be signed, Britain might agree to relinquish its  former slaves who had no papers. I presume that neither the (soon to be) Duke nor Bill Richmond was keen on seeing slave Bill returned to slavery in America. As wealthy as the Northumberlands were, Lord Percy was politically and socially vulnerable because of his quick exit from the war theater. It would not look good for a British General to violate the terms of a treaty. Bill Richmond needed an identity that would protect him from deportation just in case the worst political result was negotiated. Enter Francis Harwood.

Francis Harwood had spent his life providing reasonable facsimiles of classical sculptures. Now, in the early 1780’s he was near the end of his life and was about to produce his greatest work. Much was at stake. I suggest, with absolutely no proof, that Francis Harwood copied the masterwork Bust of a Man and signed it, verified it, and falsely dated it. It gave Bill Richmond a false ID. I admit that the date of 1758 was farfetched, as the subject was a man who clearly was younger than that, but the concepts involved in providing a false ID had not yet been perfected. The scar above the eye and impressive physique would testify to the fact that it was Bill Richmond. The year 1758 may have been picked because it predated any American conflict and would therefore provide an unassailable cover. It also may have been inserted to establish a twenty year absence from America, which is often a statutory period for the abandonment of property. Thankfully, we know of no attempt to “repatriate”  and re-enslave Bill Richmond. However, we do know that the Treaty of Paris of 1783 is a convoluted document which many believe required all British officers to return their slaves to their “rightful” owner.


To sum up, I believe that the Yale Center for British Art has a sculpture entitled Bust of a Man, which depicts the bust of a former slave who came to be known as Bill Richmond. It is an important piece of American History as well as a sculptural masterpiece. It was probably created in the late 1770’s or early 1780’s and just might be(sorry YCBA) French. The Getty Art Museum has a copy of that sculpture, probably created in 1782 or 1783, created and signed by the lesser British sculptor, Francis Harwood. It was purposely misdated. The Getty sculpture is less of a sculptural masterpiece, yet quite possibly it is one of the most important pieces of art in American History if for no other reason that it is one of the first examples of what was to become an American institution…the phony ID. The spiritual sisters of these sculptures are located at the Musee municipale Ancienne Abbaye, Saint-Leger, Soissons  and the Musee Nissim de Camondo, in Paris. Further investigation should be undertaken to determine if they were created by the same hand.

Below: The Francis Harwood Bust of a Man at the Getty, The recast Houdon, the original Houdon and the YCBA Bust of a Man



Zoffany or not Zoffany: That is NOT the question

Zoffany or not Zoffany: That is NOT the question

by Jerry Leibowitz

It’s like I’m stuck inside a painting that’s hanging in the Louvre, my throat starts to tickle and my nose itches but I know I can’t move…   Bob Dylan

In my pretend job as art investigator, I often call upon myself to solve great mysteries of the art world. (See Who is James Renwick and what are his Plans? and Bust of Bill Richmond?).  I’d like to think my specialty is American art from 1770 to 1800, especially those works done by expatriate artists residing in England. In the London studio of American born Benjamin West, a favorite of the King, American born Gilbert Stuart, John Singleton Copley and John Trumbull all honed their craft. All four left America prior to the Revolution for gritty London, ostensibly because there was so little worthy art to study in Colonial America. I have long suspected there were other reasons to leave and that each artist has a special story largely lost in the telling of their history.

This brings us to the mystery of who painted the following portrait:


Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray (by an unknown artist, formerly attributed to Zoffany) from the collection of the Earl of Mansfield, Scone Palace, Perth 

  The portrait has taken on a new significance since the relationship between the two women is explored in the recently released motion picture Belle. I have seen the movie but have not seen the portrait except online. Still I am undaunted to name its artist. I am quite convinced it is the work of John Singleton Copley, circa 1782.

Here’s why. Copley had motive, opportunity, and capability and it is consistent with his work and his temperament.

Although the ages of the sitters cannot be precisely determined, Both Dido and Lady Elizabeth were born in the early 1760’s, placing them about 20 years old at the time I believe the portrait was painted. Seems plausible. Copley painted Lord Mansfield in full attire about 1782:


It certainly would have given Copley the opportunity to paint the two nieces under his care at the same time. The painting of the nieces must have been a private piece since it apparently never left the possession of the Mansfield family. For whatever reason, the artist and subject chose to keep its creation a private matter. Other paintings of Lord Mansfield exist, but none of those painters have quite the story of John Singleton Copley, a story which might have lead the artist to depict the two women as shown.

Looking at the Dido/Lady Elizabeth painting, one notices that the white woman is painted with a dark background and the black woman is painted on a light background. In essence it is like two paintings, each of which wonderfully brings out aspects of the sitters. An examination of Copley’s work shows that when he painted white subjects (obviously most of the time), he often painted them with dark backgrounds. On the rare occasion that he painted a black subject, he would use a light background. As seen in the known Copley masterworks shown here, at least twice he found a way to do just that in the same painting.

In the Dido/Lady Elizabeth painting, Lady Elizabeth appears altogether comfortable in her traditional pose in her fine dress. She is portrayed as intelligently reading and reaching out to Dido with an innocent depiction, much the same way as numerous portraits of the era. Were the other subject a white sister or cousin, her depiction would be unremarkable.

But Dido…she has things to do. She’s carrying her prop in a manner that says to me…”let me put this down and do something important”. She is not quite comfortable just sitting there for all eternity. She does not seem to show scorn or distaste for Lady Elizabeth, just a desire to get out of the frame as quickly as possible. She is painted as vivacious and interesting in contrast to the more wooden Lady Elizabeth. There is no sense that one is more important or worthy of a portrait than the other, just that they are two quite different people with different approaches to life.

The attribution to Zoffany seems logical since he was known to paint interesting conversation pieces including people of different races. Here is his Portrait of Claude Alexander painted in India about 1783:

Depending on your view, one look at this painting either proves or disproves the Zoffany attribution of Dido/Lady Elizabeth. I note that the dog looks more engaging than the dark-skinned man. The depiction of Lady Elizabeth seems to be in his style, but there is nothing in his oeuvre that brings to mind this depiction of Dido. I trust the experts who have doubted this attribution.

I suggest that it would take an artist with what we might today call a social conscience or awareness to capture this scene depicted in Dido/Lady Elizabeth. Perhaps Lord Mansfield or the sitters chose the style, and they were paying the bill, but it seems more likely that the scene was set by the artist, the creator who solved the white/black issue in such a unique way. There were numerous portrait painters who had the technique to paint the scene, but really only John Singleton Copley displayed the suitable social conscience. (See Zoffany continued)

Zoffany continued

This is a continuation of

Three Copley paintings come to mind. First, is the painting commonly known as Watson and the Shark, (1778) which hangs in the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


Here with poor Watson in dire straits, a black man is among those taking aggressive action. Prior to this painting, in the rare case where a black person appeared in a piece of art, it was either as a caricature or a servant. Copley was having none of that. This black man was an equal in the task and a central figure in the work. In addition, like the Dido/Elizabeth work this painting shows both people in action and the more wooden observers. The scarf of the black man blows in the wind emphasizing movement, much the same way as Dido’s lace. Both paintings seem to deemphasize any racial aspect, as if the artist knew that race would be their defining point whether he emphasized it or not. Even today, both paintings are examined as statements of racial politics; I imagine it was more so in the time they were created. Perhaps the clever de-emphasis of race by Copley reflected his Massachusetts egalitarian upbringing in a country that was divided on the issue of race.

In Copley’s The Death of Major Pierson, 6 January 1781 (1783) a black man avenges the death of a great soldier on the battlefield of a skirmish between the British and French on the Isle of Jersey during the American Revolution:

Although not a British regular the black man surely fights like one. Copley has his face stand out against the white background of battle haze. Once again, his race is both significant to the painting and insignificant in his display of bravery and fortitude. Has anyone noticed the blue plume prominently displayed on his headpiece? Yes that is Dido’s plume as well. Perhaps that is a symbol of some kind of equality. Copley’s depiction of one black man bravely fighting on the side of the British speaks volumes about his view of the contradictions of the American Revolution and its notion as a struggle for liberty and equality.

While historical painting was considered the highest form of art at the time, portraiture and conversation pieces were how most artists made their livings. In The Copley Family (1776-1777) Copley depicts the reuniting of his family in England with fantastic joie de vivre. The oldest daughter poses quietly like Lady Elizabeth, while the rest of the family is in a whirlwind conducted by the artist himself, standing in the background:

Copley’s young son, here in his mother’s arms, would go on to become Lord Chancellor of Great Britain. As a chief judge, he was imbued with an egalitarian sense that he must have picked up from both his father and the loving mother and sisters that surrounded him. And there it is again…the blue plume later worn by Dido in her portrait. Here it is lying on the ground with a discarded doll, perhaps here a reminder of the country left behind and the issues that plagued it.

England in the 18th century was not a perfect place, but it was light years ahead of America when it came to race. There was already an established antislavery movement grappling with the horrible fact that much of the world’s economies relied on slavery and the slave trade. We are told that Benjamin West and the expatriate artists that studied under him in London left America because of the lack of artistic opportunities. Yet I find it impossible to fathom that these men with an artistic sentiment did not also find it difficult to live in a land where so many were oppressed solely because of their color. There are traces of their concerns in each of their works. Whether John Singleton Copley or Johann Zoffany or someone else painted Dido/Lady Elizabeth is not really the important question. Yet, to me, it does matter if it was intended to be a light conversation piece painted by a European like Zoffany, or a deeper statement about America, painted by an artist who felt the need to leave his country. I wonder if we will ever know.

Follow the Money- The Legacy Perhaps of James Smithson

Follow the Money

The Legacy Perhaps of James Smithson

By Jerry Leibowitz


Knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom…

                                                                                                     Frederick Douglass


Ever since the British burned the White House down, there’s a bleeding wound in the heart of town…

                                                                                                                Bob Dylan, Narrow Way (2012)


The most vast and incredible complex of museums in the world sprang from the bequest of a man who was born and lived in Europe and had never been to America. He never showed any special interest in what was then a very young country. It remains an enduring riddle of the Smithsonian Institution as to why James Smithson would leave a vast estate to found an Institution he would never see in a place he had never been. The colorful common narrative concerning his bequest goes like this.[i] James Smithson was of noble British lineage being an illegitimate son of the First Duke of Northumberland, a wealthy Lord who fathered children both inside and outside of his marriage. Upon the Duke’s death, his first son born inside the marriage received his bounty and title. Those children born outside the marriage, including James Smithson, received no more than a modest stipend. James Smithson’s mother, also possibly of noble blood, lived a convoluted if not a troubled life which did not show evidence of luxury. When he was not gambling, James Smithson spent most of his life in France among the scientific elite while also maintaining close ties to the British scientific community. He never married or was known to have any particularly close friends in America or elsewhere. His scientific accomplishments were of dubious value both scientifically and financially.  Smithson had a brother from his mother, who possibly was also the son of the First Duke of Northumberland.[ii]  Smithson’s will, dated October 23, 1826 and probated November 4, 1829, bequeathed his entire residuary estate to the son of this now deceased brother provided that the nephew have adult surviving children “legitimate or illegitimate”. The will provided that if the nephew died without such an heir, the residuary estate was to go “to the united states[iii] of America to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”  Life ensued. The nephew died in 1837 without heir. And the rest, as they say, is history.[iv] The money that originally funded the Smithsonian Institution has generally been considered to be from a source unknown to us. Here I explore where the Smithson money might have come from and if it can be determined who really is the source and true benefactor of the Smithsonian Institution.

There is quite a cast of characters in the James Smithson story. There are nobles and wannabes. Patriots and sympathizers. Insiders looking out and outsiders looking in. In short, the family here is like many families and their story would not be so unique or important were it not for the museum complex that bears the Smithson name. When Richard Rush of Philadelphia, special envoy of the United States, loaded the James Smithson bequest of L100,000 British Pounds onto a boat in Britain in 1838 bound for the American Treasury, that was real money then, enough to fund quite an Institution.  Is it good enough to say that the legacy came from James Smithson without showing the source of the money? If the James Smithson estate and subsequently the Smithsonian Institution was funded with someone else’s money perhaps that person deserves some recognition too. Perhaps there was a special reason for this bequest which has remained hidden throughout these years. As always, the best way to get to the truth in Washington is to follow the money.

Jacques-Louis Macie later James Lewis Macie later James Smithson sometimes Monsieur de Smithson, or Seigneur Anglais (1765?-1829)

James Smithson had a lot of names to choose from to name his potential institution. It could have been “Macie’s” or “The Hungerford” or perhaps “Percy’s Place”. It was not until he was an adult that James chose to be Smithson. James Smithson’s putative father was born Hugh Smithson in 1714.[v] When Hugh Smithson married the wealthy and well-connected Elizabeth Seymour in 1740, he took her family name of Percy.[vi] So when James was born in or about 1765, his putative father’s name was no longer Hugh Smithson but Hugh Percy.[vii] James Smithson’s mother was not Hugh Percy’s wife. She was Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie, having been born Elizabeth Hungerford Keate before taking her husband’s name when she married John Macie. Hungerford was a family name from her mother’s side tied to royalty and great wealth. Her father was a Keate, a respectable family but not wealthy. John Macie, her husband who was also respectable but not wealthy, had died in 1761.  So when James was born about 1765 he was not a son of Macie who was long since dead, in fact he was not a James. Although British by blood, James Smithson was born in France, probably due to the more liberal attitude there to out of wedlock birth.[viii] James Smithson was given the name of Jacques-Louis Macie.[ix] A total fabrication. “Louis” was probably an homage to the current French King.[x] Jacques was brought to Britain and naturalized there as a youngster. In England, he was given the name James Lewis Macie[xi], which he carried through his young life until he changed it to James Smithson as an adult in 1801. In his later life in France and perhaps Italy, he was known to spruce up his name to Monsieur de Smithson, or use the French term for an English gentleman, evoking an aristocratic air mixing his French and British heritage.[xii]

In his youth, James seemed to have a ready source of funds. He attended the finest schools, most notably Pembroke College at Oxford.[xiii] Presumably, his funds came from his putative father. Although already quite wealthy, with his marriage Hugh Smithson/Percy had become one of the richest men in the world.[xiv] But since Hugh Smithson never acknowledged James as his son, and there is scant proof that he provided for this putative son, it is possible that those ready funds came from James’ mother, either through her connection to the Hungerfords, or the Keates or the Macies.[xv]

James Lewis Macie, later James Smithson, studied the sciences, specifically Chemistry and Mineralogy.[xvi] He was well known in the scientific communities of England and France. Yet there is no evidence to suggest that his scientific accomplishments were such that they could have made him wealthy through his own toil. His greatest scientific legacy was probably the discovery of a mineral ultimately named Smithsonite. Interestingly, James Smithson had nothing to do with that discovery which was made by a French mineralogist after Smithson’s death who named it Smithsonite in tribute, apparently without any financial recompense to James Smithson, deceased.[xvii]

For much of his life, James Smithson was a notorious gambler. While most gamblers die without a farthing in their pocket, it remains a possibility that Smithson made his fortune on the gaming tables of Europe.[xviii] Yet, by most accounts, James Smithson did not lead the life of a wealthy man.[xix] Although he often lived well, it seems that the mention in his will of founding an Institution was the first indication that he believed he had access to great wealth. The most likely conclusion is that Smithson’s wealth was not his own but came to him in the 1820’s when he was an older man. It must have come to him in a way that he could not lose it in European gambling halls. But if it was family money, which family was it? And how did it get to America, specifically Washington, instead of its more logical destination back into the family from whence it came?



Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie (later Dickinson) 1728-1800[xx]

It is one thing to fund an education and quite another to fund an Institution.[xxi] James Smithson’s mother may have had some connection to the wealthy Hungerfords, but there is no evidence that she was an heir to any of its great fortune which may already have been dissipated.[xxii] It is noted in James Smithson’s will that his mother was a “niece” of Charles the Proud, who was tied to the Seymour/Percy wealth that eventually found its way to Hugh Smithson.[xxiii] The mention of that connection in the will appears to be more about blood than money, since there is no evidence that Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie was an heir to any of that money either. As for Keate, her father, his family was respectable but not wealthy.[xxiv] Former husband John Macie? He was long since dead and left her money to live very comfortably, but not extravagantly.[xxv] In 1768, When James was about three years old, Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie married John Marshe Dickinson, probably due to a pregnancy that did not result in childbirth. Although there may once have been some family money, John Marshe Dickinson was in debt and more concerned with acquiring money from his wife than providing for her. Their stormy relationship, which included litigation between them, ended not in divorce but with the death of John Marshe Dickinson in 1771. It is unlikely that Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie Dickinson received anything from his estate that was not previously hers.[xxvi] However, a child was born to her one month after Dickinson’s death. Although she was now again using the name Elizabeth Macie, she named the child Henry Louis Dickenson, apparently a play on the name of her deceased husband Dickinson.[xxvii] When Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie formerly Dickinson died in 1800 she left James Macie, later Smithson, little more than a story. The story was that he was a Smithson[xxviii] and perhaps she told him that his brother, Henry Louis Dickenson, was one as well. It was only then that James Macie successfully petitioned to use the name James Smithson, to perhaps more actively seek recognition as a Smithson[xxix], this despite the fact that his putative father was long since dead.

Hugh Smithson later Percy- First Duke of Northumberland (Third Creation) 1714-1786

The accepted story is that James Smithson was the illegitimate child of Hugh Smithson, later Hugh Percy, later the First Duke of Northumberland.  However, there is no known birth certificate in France for Jacques-Louis Macie and the college records of John Lewis Macie are silent as to the name of his father.[xxx] The best evidence of a liaison between Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie later Dickinson and The First Duke of Northumberland comes from the will of James Smithson, written many years later, which boldly asserts that The First Duke is his father.[xxxi] While James Smithson was there, at his birth, it could hardly be said that this assertion in his will is based on James’ firsthand observation, and not just a story told to James presumably by his mother, perhaps on her death bed.  Since The First Duke was fantastically wealthy, this parentage, if true, could explain a possible source where James Smithson would acquire sufficient assets to fund an Institution. But if true, then it is strange that The First Duke never acknowledged James Smithson as his son, since he did acknowledge two daughters who were born of his acknowledged mistress, Margaret Marion.[xxxii] Nor did The First Duke acknowledge that he was the father of Henry Louis Dickenson, the second child of Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie. He never acknowledged that Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie was a paramour. A connection between James Smithson and his (perhaps) full brother Henry and The First Duke could explain how Henry Louis Dickenson’s son, Henry James Dickenson (sometimes Hungerford, sometimes Baron Henri (Eunice?) de la Batut)[xxxiii], would be the primary residuary beneficiary in the will of James Smithson and heir to a great fortune presumably of Smithson/Percy origin.

The First Duke of Northumberland was a man of learning and a patron of the arts.[xxxiv] Yet it does not seem that the idea to fund an institution in America for learning or the arts could have come from him. Although he was somewhat of a free thinker when it came to the American Colonies[xxxv], he showed no special affinity for the young country. Having died a short time after the British defeat in the American Revolution, his life was far removed from the more widespread sympathy for America that developed in Britain after the War of 1812.[xxxvi] James Smithson’s money may have been Smithson/Percy money, his blood may have been Smithson blood, but the concept of the Smithsonian Institution at Washington, in America, did not likely emanate from Hugh Smithson, later Hugh Percy, The First Duke of Northumberland.

Hugh Percy, born Hugh Smithson, The Second Duke of Northumberland (1742-1817)

Like his father, The Second Duke of Northumberland was born Hugh Smithson. In 1750, several years after the First Duke married Elizabeth Seymour, the elder Hugh Smithson took her family name, Percy, as his own. At that time, both he and his young son from Seymour became Hugh Percy. Hugh Percy, the younger, was heir to the great Percy wealth and the title of Duke of Northumberland.[xxxvii] As a young man, he was known to have lived a wild life.[xxxviii] He became a British Officer who fought against the French in the Seven Years War and despite possible reservations concerning British policies he was sent to the American Colonies in 1774 as a General in the British army.[xxxix] It was there that he participated in the Battle of Lexington and Concord and the Battle of Long Island. He was peculiarly absent from the Battle of Bunker Hill and arrived at the Battle of Brooklyn just after that battle ended.[xl] He left America in 1777 supposedly due to a disagreement with General Howe.[xli] Having been married in 1764 he divorced his first wife in 1779, with whom he was childless, claiming her adultery.[xlii] He immediately married again and had five children of this marriage survive to adulthood, including his oldest son who was to become the Third Duke of Northumberland, and a younger son who ultimately became the Fourth Duke of Northumberland. Yet, were it not for his half-brother, James Smithson, there would be no need for this family story to be retold here.[xliii]

The Second Duke of Northumberland is one connection between James Smithson and the United States of America. Both before and after his participation in the American Revolution, Hugh Percy, the younger, later the Second Duke of Northumberland, demonstrated occasional respect for the rebels across the ocean.[xliv] There were continuous hostilities between Britain and America after the American Revolution[xlv], but the Second Duke of Northumberland was never one to push for more war. When the War of 1812 broke out, probably over misunderstandings of intentions[xlvi], The Second Duke was an older man. Although presumably loyal to the crown and of such great wealth that his opinion mattered, there is no indication that he supported any continued hostilities against the former British colonies.

Slave Bill, later Bill Richmond, nicknamed The Black Terror (1763?-1829)

General Hugh Percy returned to England from the war within America in 1777 with a slave named Bill who was reported to be about thirteen years old. Any facts about the young life of Slave Bill in America were probably construed as none were known with any certainty. It has been written that he was born a slave to a minister in Staten Island (also known as Richmond NY).[xlvii] It has been written that he was a shipyard laborer originally from Richmond Virginia.[xlviii] It has been written that he was born a slave to a preacher in Georgia.[xlix] There is reliable evidence that he was a very jovial lad in America but, when prodded, could beat up multiple men at one time.[l] This report leads one to question his age as only thirteen when he left America in 1777. While much of the literature indicates that in England the Second Duke kept him as a servant, this is probably untrue. Once in England, the Second Duke of Northumberland saw to it that he was educated and taught the trade of a cabinet maker.[li] Formerly Slave Bill, now Bill Richmond, he lived as a respected black man in England, a life which apparently included an occasional pummeling of those who showed offense at his existence.[lii] Although the sport of boxing was gaining popularity in England, there is no evidence that Bill Richmond was a boxer as a young man and did not become one until he was encouraged to do so by wealthy friends. His first known fight was in 1791 and he is not known to have professionally fought again until 1798.[liii] In fact, boxing was illegal in England. Bill Richmond was quite old for a boxer when he took up boxing and yet had great success as “The Black Terror”.  There is general agreement that he may have become boxing champion of England if he had started boxing earlier.


Bill Richmond’s great contribution to boxing was that he changed the sport from a purely offensive sport to a thinking sport[liv]…hence it has become known as “the sweet science”. He ran a boxing school for many years which catered to students of all classes, from the nobility of Lord Byron to former slaves, one of whom famously fought for the championship of England.[lv] When authorities finally began cracking down on the brutal sport, Bill Richmond bought a well attended pub in the heart of London and lived the good life of a former sporting legend. There is little dispute that he was a beloved great fun smart guy.[lvi]


The presence of Bill Richmond and other successful former slaves helped turn the discussion of slavery from an intellectual pursuit into an immutable truth. Anyone who came in contact with Bill Richmond had to have learned the obvious; that no man was born to be the slave of another. His life well lived must have contributed to the change of thought in England and the ultimate end of the Slave Trade and slavery itself. That the wealthy and powerful Second Duke of Northumberland treated Bill Richmond much like a family member  must have impacted positively on his sons,  the Third Duke of Northumberland(1785-1847) and his brother, the Fourth Duke of Northumberland (1792-1865). I submit that their well-documented abhorrence to the institution of slavery would play a role in the disposition of the money that would fund the Smithsonian Institution.

Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) and Dolley Madison (1768-1849)

There is an interesting connection between the Second Duke of Northumberland and the United States of America in the person of the great portraitist, Gilbert Stuart. Although born in Rhodes Island, Gilbert Stuart moved to England before the American Revolution presumably to avoid the growing troubles.[lvii] Having studied in England under America’s first great expatriate painter, Benjamin West, Gilbert Stuart had some early success. Yet, due more to his lack of discipline or business sense rather than ability, his success quickly turned to dire financial straits.[lviii] The Second Duke of Northumberland, and a few of his friends showed up at Gilbert Stuart’s studio one day in 1785 to help him out of his troubles. When Gilbert Stuart refused their offer of a bailout, these English gentlemen suggested that they sit for portraits, to be paid in advance. These portraits solved Stuart’s immediate financial problems. These men also connected Stuart with the cream of British society whose portraits he painted and for which he was paid handsomely.[lix] The Second Duke of Northumberland had two portraits done by Stuart in 1785 and remained a steadfast patron and possible friend of the artist, housing him for a while at the Duke’s magnificent country house outside London.[lx] In 1787, The Second Duke also commissioned Stuart to paint his children in a family portrait depicting his future heir at age two being fawned over by his three older sisters.[lxi] It has been noted that the face of the young Lord Percy is not well defined and too similar to the faces of the other young children. While this has been attributed to a possible lack of interest on the part of Gilbert Stuart in painting a child’s face[lxii], perhaps Stuart had something more existential in mind. To a portraitist, the face is the key to the soul. Just as you must make your own name for yourself, so too must you grow into your own face. Stuart would not develop the features of the young Lord…that was something that the young Lord would have to do for himself. Presumably this great work hung in a place where it continually reminded young Lord Percy to make something of himself or be a faceless nobleman resigned to the back pages of history. Shortly after he painted this masterwork, Gilbert Stuart left for Ireland and ultimately went back to America, where he became the foremost portraitist of America’s founding families.

There were few Americans of any note who did not sit for Gilbert Stuart after he returned to America in 1793. Among the many others, he painted James Madison and Dolley Madison in separate portraits in 1804.[lxiii] Most famously, Gilbert Stuart painted several series of many paintings of George Washington based on sittings beginning in 1795. The Lansdowne Portrait, or perhaps a Stuart copy of the original, was hanging in the White House during the term of James Madison and the War of 1812. The Godmother of American art and historical preservation, Dolley Madison, knew just what it was and who it was by when she famously saved it from destruction in 1814.[lxiv]  The British attacked and burned all the major buildings in Washington D.C., including the White House, apparently without any tactical reason for the attack. The portrait of George Washington was saved…but like the then current President and his heroic wife, after the War of 1812, it too was essentially homeless until Washington D.C. could be rebuilt.

Meanwhile, in England, The War of 1812 was not universally supported. By 1815, while the British were prideful in their military prowess in having defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, they were also weary of war in general, having been in a continuous state of war on various fronts for as long as most in Britain could remember.[lxv] The War of 1812 seemed to have little clear purpose on either side, apparently resulting from a mutual mass of confusing intentions.[lxvi] Although Washington D.C. was the new capital of the young country, it was not considered a valuable military target. Even in Britain, many thought that the burning of Washington was a vulgar act.[lxvii] With the end of hostilities in America and Europe in 1815, both continents entered a period of relative quiet.[lxviii] This time of peace opened trade routes blocked by war[lxix] and led to a period of relative prosperity. By 1817, Britain and America were at peace, Dolley Madison was revered, Washington D.C. was being rebuilt, and America still did not have a suitable place to safely store its treasures. Many of Gilbert Stuart’s portraits were naturally dispersed throughout the country in the homes of their patrons.  None of this could have been lost on the Second Duke of Northumberland, or on his heir, the Third Duke of Northumberland, Lord Hugh Percy, who succeeded to the title and great wealth upon his father’s death in 1817.

Henry Louis Dickenson (1771-1820)

Like his father, I mean his brother[lxx], Henry Louis Dickenson had a career in the military. As a young man, his exploits on behalf of the British military took him to many parts of the world.[lxxi]  Like James Smithson, he spent most of his later life in Paris where he fathered a son by his long time paramour.[lxxii] The best evidence shows that he lived comfortably but he was not a man of great wealth. When he died he entrusted James Smithson with his modest estate and directed that the money be used to care for his son. It is understood that James Smithson fulfilled this obligation and also, from time to time, provided for the boy’s mother, who went on to marry and have other children. There is speculation that it was the estate of Henry Louis Dickenson that provided the bulk of funds that became the vast estate of James Smithson[lxxiii], but this speculation is without proof and is specifically discounted in the last paragraph of the James Smithson will. In any event, even if it were true, it could only be that Henry would have acquired any such substantial wealth from the very same sources as those mentioned in this inquiry. The only difference might have been that if James Smithson died before Henry Dickenson, the Smithsonian might have been called the Dickensonian, although more likely, it would not exist.

Henry James Dickenson sometimes Henry James Hungerford, sometimes Baron Henri, or Enrico (maybe Eunice) de la Batut (1808-1835)

Under the commonly accepted scenario, the son born to Henry Louis Dickenson, and given the name Henry James Dickenson, was a direct male blood descendant of Hugh Smithson, later Percy, The First Duke of Northumberland. Henry James Dickenson was a boy when his father died and was provided for by James Smithson in accordance with the will and estate of his father, Henry Louis Dickenson. Henry James Dickenson was approaching the age of majority in 1826 when James Smithson wrote his will. Perhaps there was already a sense that he might not procreate.[lxxiv] He was a young adult when James Smithson died, having taken the name of Henry James Hungerford for a short time perhaps in deference to the wishes of his uncle who was providing for him and naming him as his heir. After Smithson’s death, Henry James Hungerford rejected the Hungerford name and the Dickenson name and took the last name of the man to whom his mother had married. After all, Dickenson probably identified himself as French, not British, since he had lived in Paris during his young life. As an adult he travelled under the glorified name of Baron Henri de la Batut, and in Italy was known as Baron Enrico de la Batut, perhaps (but maybe not) later mistranscribed as Baron Eunice de la Batut.[lxxv] Although apparently of a sickly nature, he lived large from the interest he was receiving from his father’s estate and the estate of James Smithson.[lxxvi] All he needed was a child, whether legitimate or illegitimate, for his family to acquire the great wealth found to be in the James Smithson estate. It was not to be. He died in 1835 without issue, and the money went to the alternative residuary beneficiary in the will of James Smithson, the united states of America.



Hugh Percy, The Third Duke of Northumberland (1785-1847)

So what happened to that adorable two year old child painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1787 in his portrait of the children of the Second Duke of Northumberland? With all those adoring sisters and all that money you could have guessed that he would become a spoiled selfish obnoxious British gentleman. You would have guessed wrong. By all accounts the Third Duke of Northumberland was kind and generous. His obituary was to say “…In the administration of his large income, his Grace was generous without ostentation, and the extent of his liberality was commensurate with the ample means at his disposal. In his domestic and social relations he was truly beloved, and nothing appeared to afford him greater happiness than his being the cause of happiness in others.”[lxxvii] Although he was not known to be politically active, as a young Member of Parliament in 1807 Hugh Percy aggressively pushed for a measure that would ban slavery in any British colony, a measure that went to defeat.[lxxviii] The anti-slavery faction in Parliament did succeed in a lesser but important goal of passing the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which largely banned the trading of slaves in the British Empire.[lxxix] In 1825, after he inherited the title of The Third Duke of Northumberland, he was named the British envoy for the coronation of the new French King, Charles X. He paid for the elaborate trip with his own funds despite not being required to do so. By all accounts he strengthened the new peace that existed between England and France.[lxxx] In 1829, he spent a year in the difficult position of Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland at a time when the issue of Catholic Emancipation and other rights was hotly debated. Although Tory by nature, he was quiet on most issues and did not appear to be an obstacle to the reforms of the age.[lxxxi] Where his father was known to be prickly and domineering, it seems that, at least after his father died, the Third Duke of Northumberland was considered competent and fair-minded.[lxxxii]

The Coronation of King Charles X took place in France in the spring of 1825. The Third Duke of Northumberland arrived in Paris several months early and enjoyed the company of French High Society. He lavishly spent his money.[lxxxiii] In 1825, James Smithson lived in Paris, as did his nephew Henry James Dickenson. There is no known record of a meeting between The Third Duke and Smithson or Dickenson. Neither is there any evidence of animosity between them.[lxxxiv] It was shortly thereafter that Smithson left Paris for England and wrote the will which contained the first mention of the wealth that would ultimately pass to become the Smithsonian Institution. Given the nature of the Third Duke as a quiet conciliator who freely spent his money to achieve his goals, and Smithson’s first reference to apparent new found wealth, I suggest that the most logical explanation of the known facts is that in 1825 in Paris there was an important meeting between the Third Duke and James Smithson.[lxxxv]

There would have been much to discuss. James Smithson was a scientist with a known passion for mineralogy and was friendly with many leading botanists.[lxxxvi] The Third Duke’s wife also had a known passion for botany[lxxxvii], and her mother was a respected mineralogist, an interest she was known to have shared with her children. Both James Smithson and Henrietta Clive, the Countess of Powis, had massive collections of minerals from around the world.[lxxxviii] There appears to have been a shared interest in archeology and art. If such a meeting occurred there would no doubt be a discussion of science and family and money. Smithson would have been especially concerned to provide for Henry James Dickenson, which would likely have been quite agreeable to the Third Duke. Although Henry James Dickenson was not eligible to inherit the title of Duke of Northumberland, his blood was Smithson blood.  In 1825, the Third Duke was childless, as was his brother, Algernon Percy. Unfortunately for the Third Duke, since both he and his brother did not have legitimate sons, upon his death and the death of his brother, the title and the great Percy wealth would go to his cousins, the legitimate male heirs of the brother of the Second Duke. This side of the family apparently did not share many of the worldly views of the Third Duke and his family.[lxxxix]  There is ample evidence that the families did not get on well.[xc] This could be a reason why the Third Duke was happily spending so much of his money. Why retain assets which will eventually go to an unloved cousin when the money could be put to a better use? Passing a large amount of money to a Smithson blood heir through the eventual Estate of James Smithson would be a clever way for the Third Duke to honor his family without being accused of wasting the estate of his cousin. But there was a problem. If Henry James Dickenson was given the money outright and died without children, all that money would likely end up in Dickenson’s heirs. This could ultimately be Dickenson’s mother, now known as Mary Ann de la Batut as a result of her recent marriage, or her family. It is unlikely that the Third Duke or even James Smithson would countenance that, so some acceptable alternate beneficiary had to be devised.

Here the commonly accepted story is that James Smithson was a man of science who was going to leave his wealth to the British scientific community by naming the Royal Society of England as his alternate beneficiary. It is thought that at some point Smithson was offended by that organization which caused him to change his alternate beneficiary to the United States, even though he had little connection to that new country.[xci] The problem with this theory is that until 1825, there is no evidence that James Smithson had any great wealth. Nor is there real evidence of a dispute between Smithson and the British scientific community. Nor is there any evidence of a prior will. The more logical scenario is that there was a grand agreement between James Smithson and The Third Duke of Northumberland regarding the Smithson estate. The naming of the united states as alternate beneficiary was not an act against the Royal Society. It was not the act of an insane person, as some thought Smithson must be. It was not an act of revenge against the British or French aristocracy. It was an act of reconciliation between the Third Duke of Northumberland and the United States of America. Under this agreement, the estate of James Smithson was to be funded not with the money of James Smithson, which was limited if by then it existed at all[xcii], but with the real Percy/ Smithson money, provided that Smithson name the united states as the alternate beneficiary. Here we recall The Second Duke’s respect for the former colony of America and his possible reassessment of his actions in fighting on the wrong side in the American Revolution. Perhaps The Third Duke was compensating for Britain’s needless confrontations with the former colony and especially the senseless burning of Washington in the War of 1812. Most notably, America still had no safe place to hang those wonderful portraits that Gilbert Stuart painted of all the great Americans. Remember, after the White House burned down, the Lansdowne portrait of George Washington was essentially homeless, and the Stuart paintings of its heroine, Dolley Madison[xciii], and her husband James, as well as numerous others were barely accounted for. The Third Duke’s paintings by Gilbert Stuart were safe in his Norman castle and in his home outside London where they could be enjoyed by the Third Duke and be a source of inspiration to him. Perhaps America needed a Norman castle of its own to house its great treasures. And what James Smithson was to receive from this grand agreement is obvious to us now.  A name that will live forever.[xciv] Yes, with the naming of the great institution of knowledge, Smithson won the name game.


The Money

It is unlikely that James Smithson saw much of the Percy/Smithson money in his lifetime. I suggest that The Third Duke was too clever to hand over major assets to an inveterate gambler. It is likely that as part of the bargain Smithson received enough to live well and by all accounts that is what he did. That good life included travel to Italy, where he died in 1829 with a receipt for the will in his pocket. We know that Henry James Hungerford never saw the real money. Upon learning of the Smithson bequest to him, he went to London to claim his interest in the interest, and went on his truly merry way. Since “the money” was in a trust controlled by bankers, we do not really know what would have happened if an heir to Henry James Hungerford was born and showed up to receive it. Maybe it would have been there, maybe not.

John Singleton Copley(1738-1815); John Singleton Copley, Jr., later Lord Lyndhurst (1772-1863); Henry Brougham later Baron Brougham and Vaux (1778-1868); the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (founded 1825); Nassau William Senior(1790-1864);  Richard Rush(1780-1859)

I bequeath the whole of my property of every nature & kind soever to my bankers, Messrs. Drummonds of Charing Cross, in trust, to be disposed of in the following manner, and I desire of my said Executors to put my property under the management of the Court of Chancery.


                                                                                                Will of James Smithson


Reading the will of James Smithson, it is easy to gloss over the seemingly meaningless language and focus on the presumed intent of the bequest.  But the Chancery Court of England was an exacting place, and its results were never certain.[xcv] In the Smithson will there are actually several conflicting beneficiaries and fiduciaries. As a result of its imperfections, the bankers, the unnamed “Executors”, The Court of Chancery, the High Chancellor, the King of England and any proven residuary beneficiaries could all claim some right to determine the disposition of the assets. The Court of Chancery was the forum to resolve such conflicts and the High Chancellor was the head of the Court of Chancery. At relevant times in this saga, from 1825 to 1837, the High Chancellor of the Court of Chancery was either Baron Henry Brougham, a virulent opponent of slavery[xcvi], or Lord Lyndhurst, a/k/a John Singleton Copley, Jr., son of the expatriate American painter.[xcvii] The Master of Chancery who presided over the case was Nassau William Senior.[xcviii] I submit that either of these High Chancellors or the presiding judge could have stymied the attempt of the United States to acquire the “Smithson” funds. To the contrary, they each had a personal stake to see that the Smithsonian Institution was to be formed as a place for the diffusion of knowledge.


Henry Brougham was a British lawyer and scientist who was a founding member of both the Anti-Slavery Society in 1823[xcix] and the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in 1825.[c] The Anti-Slavery Society was given great credit for the enforcement of the end of the British involvement in the slave trade, as well as the ultimate legislation which banned slavery in all British Colonies in 1832.[ci] The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge was part of an educational reform movement which provided guidance for the education of the common masses who could not afford the expensive British educational system.[cii]  That the abolition of slavery and the push for education through the diffusion of knowledge were linked was no accident as it became understood among many in Britain that the institution of slavery could only be abolished by knowledge and reason.[ciii] Nassau William Senior, a lawyer and leading economist of the era who presided over the case of the Smithson will, would give lectures at Oxford about the unproductive nature of slavery as a means of creating wealth.[civ] Senior was a friend of Alexis de Tocqueville, the liberal French analyst who was later to be famous for his incredible perceptions into the beauty and problems with the American form of government. Senior went on to write perhaps the most scathing anti-slavery treatise ever published.[cv] This plan of attack on slavery through education, while already successful in England, was not well developed in America in the 1820’s and 1830’s probably due to the fact that the American economy was much more dependent on slave labor than most other nations. Perhaps that was exactly the reason why men and women who were anti-slavery needed to provide for the diffusion of knowledge to the American continent.


It was equally true that in the 1820’s and 1830’s America did not have a single museum or other institution where its citizens and budding artists could view or learn about the great art of the world. There was a sense that any American with an inclination towards art had to travel to Europe or be stifled in their art education.[cvi] During the American Revolution, American born artists John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart, and John Trumbull all worked at or about the London studio of the great American expatriate artist, Benjamin West, who had found favor with the King of England. While Stuart and Trumbull eventually made their way back to America and great success, Copley, who did not like to travel[cvii], never returned to his Boston home and raised his family as British subjects in London. Copley expressed a significant distress about having had to leave America to further his career as an artist.[cviii] Copley’s view of America could not have been lost on his son, who dabbled poorly in the arts but found his calling as a great litigator in the British courts. He first rose to the position of High Chancellor in 1827 and he and Lord Brougham alternated in that position for the next several years.[cix] It seems clear that all the problems with the wording in Smithson’s will were not going to stop Copley, Jr., now Lord Lyndhurst, Lord Brougham or Nassau William Senior from sending the pile of money over to America to fund the diffusion of knowledge. I suggest that the money was released to the United States because that is where several important men wanted the money to go. Although the litigation over Smithson’s will took several years, many were impressed by just how quickly the British courts reached the surprising positive result.[cx] The gift of these men to America was a great strategy…science, art, knowledge; welcome America to the modern world.


What assurance was there to guarantee that the Americans would do right by the money? Really none.[cxi] But the presence of just the right agent in England litigating to acquire the money on behalf of the United States had to suffice. Richard Rush had numerous credentials that must have impressed those that were deciding on the fate of the money.  An attorney and diplomat living in Washington D.C., Rush demonstrated the desire to increase and diffuse knowledge through his work as an early member of the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences. That society noted the importance that such an institution must exist at the seat of power to be influential among the powerful.[cxii] As with many great men perhaps his best credential was his father, Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who really believed that all men were created equal and fervently fought for the abolition of slavery at the earliest inception of the new country.[cxiii]  It is generally acknowledged that were it not for the presence of Richard Rush at the litigant’s table, it is unlikely that the United States would have been successful in its attempt to acquire the Smithson bequest.



The will of James Smithson is an intriguing document. Despite its great importance, it was clearly not written by a skilled professional. It recites a questionable family history which does not serve a legal purpose. It contains words that have legal connotations which make no sense in the context of the document. Were it not for some guiding hand the document could easily have been declared void and the money, if it really existed, could have gone wherever the court ruled.  I submit that the money went exactly where it was supposed to go, presumably under the watchful eye of the Third Duke of Northumberland. For all of its flaws, I believe that in its naiveté the will of James Smithson conveys its greater truth. It gives insight to what James Smithson and perhaps the Third Duke of Northumberland were thinking in 1825. It is about family ties and blood and titles. It is about legitimacy and illegitimacy. It is about England and France and the united states. To any who doubt this analysis I ask why the will contains the words…”at Washington”. Why not New York, the bustling head of commerce of the young nation which stayed fairly loyal to Britain during the revolution and remained a great trading partner? Or perhaps Philadelphia, if the point was to honor the great intellectual and scientific center of the new world.[cxiv] I submit that the words “at Washington” were not James Smithson’s words; they were words dictated by The Third Duke of Northumberland to satisfy his personal aims. After the War of 1812, much thought was given to remove the Capital of the United States to another place.[cxv] But it was Washington which the British needlessly burned to the ground in 1814. It was Washington where Dolley Madison saved the Gilbert Stuart portrait. Frankly it was Washington, the man, who himself who was the subject of the portrait that was saved, a portrait which now symbolically represented the treasures of the new country. The institution of slavery, while abhorred in most of the world, still existed and was acceptable in Washington.[cxvi] Perhaps a contrary institution of knowledge was needed there. An institution of knowledge that could speak truth to the political power of the young country. After all, it was the British who first brought slaves to the new world and grew wealthy off their toil. If the goal of The Third Duke was reconciliation and the advancement of civilization, then Washington is where the Smithsonian Institution had to be. The Third Duke of Northumberland was of Smithson blood as well, and it is not lost on me that he died in 1847, the year this new castle with his former family name was constructed at Washington. As Richard Rush was resolving the case of the probate of the will of James Smithson, he wrote a letter which indicated that his inquiries had led to the conclusion that the money was generated from “the ample provision made for him [James Smithson] by the Duke of Northumberland…”[cxvii] It was presumed this meant the First Duke which is where his cursory inquiry might have lead. As for me, I can imagine the Third Duke of Northumberland standing at the London Docks, perhaps with Lord Lyndhurst, Lord Brougham, and Nassau William Senior, smiling as he watched the crates containing 105 sacks of gold being loaded onto an aptly named ship, The Mediator, thinking that this was a good start but there was much work to be done; a castle to build, knowledge to be diffused, and ignorance to be destroyed.


[i] For all facts relating to the life of James Smithson see Nina Burleigh, The Stranger and the Statesman, (New York: William Morrow, 2003) and Heather Ewing, The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian, (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2007). These biographies of James Smithson are incredibly complete and fascinating. Ewing traipsed around Europe and America looking for and finding every imaginable piece of primary source information. Writers like me who write fluff like this are in great debt to workers like these, even as we take the liberty to reject some of their conclusions.

[ii] See William J. Rhees, James Smithson and His Bequest, Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1880) 1.

[iii] The lack of capital letters in “united states” is taken from the hand drawn copy widely dispersed on the Smithsonian Institution website. It is also written without capitals on the officially copied document available at the national archives in London; website Whether either of these reflects the document drawn in Smithson’s own hand is subject to debate. See Smithsonian Institution Archives website

[iv] An early attempt to discern this history is located in Rhees, supra at 1-25.

[v] For a useful family tree that was invaluable to this work, see Ewing 350-353.

[vi] Ewing 22.

[vii] When Hugh Smithson took the Percy name, he agreed to pass it only to the children of Seymour. Ewing 22. It is unlikely that James would have been legally permitted to change his name to Percy, although illegitimate daughters of the First Duke were Philadelphia Percy and Dorothy Percy. Burleigh 76.

[viii] Burleigh 47-48

[ix] No known birth certificate exists. Ewing 33.

[x] King Louis XV was king of France from when he was a boy in 1715 to his death in 1774.

[xi] Ewing 33.

[xii] Ewing 278 Burleigh 146.

[xiii] Ewing 48-53.

[xiv] Burleigh 20.

[xv] See Burleigh 89.

[xvi] Burleigh 93-96.

[xvii] Ewing 343.

[xviii] Burleigh 152.

[xix] Burleigh suggests that Smithson was wealthy and receiving substantial regular income although it is unclear where the money might have come from. 153-154. There is a theory that Smithson curbed his gambling, a theory which is unconvincing to me. Burleigh 156.

[xx] Rhees, page 1, noted that information concerning the mother of James Smithson was quite limited. This was rectified by Burleigh and Ewing, from which much of this information was taken.

[xxi] Burleigh implies that the Smithsonian was funded with Hungerford money; Burleigh 64. For reasons herein, I disagree.

[xxii] Ewing 25.

[xxiii] Ewing 27

[xxiv] Ewing 24.

[xxv] Ewing 28 Burleigh 26.

[xxvi] Burleigh 63.

[xxvii] The Dickinson chapter of Elizabeth’s life is recounted in Ewing 35-43.

[xxviii] Burleigh 42.

[xxix] See Ewing 23.

[xxx] Burleigh 53. Ewing 51.

[xxxi] Smithsonian Institution website,

[xxxii] Ewing 45.

[xxxiii] Burleigh 191.

[xxxiv] The best that money could buy. See Burleigh 32-35. See also Rhees 51-54.

[xxxv] Ewing 82. See also Letters of Hugh Earl Percy from Boston and New York 1774-1776, Edited by Charles Knowles Bowlton (Boston: Charles E. Goodspeed 1900 D. B. Updike The Merrymount Press 1902) 16. Website:

[xxxvi] David Hanna, Knights of the Sea, (USA: NAL Caliber, 2012) 158. Jon Latimer, 1812 War With America(London England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press Cambridge Mass; 2007) 156.

[xxxvii] Ewing 22, 118.

[xxxviii] Burleigh 109, 112. See also Stephen Conway, ‘Percy, Hugh, second duke of Northumberland (1742–1817)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2006. Website:

[xxxix] Carrie Rebora Barratt and Ellen G. Miles, Gilbert Stuart (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University Press, 2004) 68. See also History of Parliament, British Political, social and Local History; website: See also Letters of Hugh Earl Percy from Boston and New York 1774-1776 Edited by Charles Knowles Bowlton (Boston: Charles E. Goodspeed 1900 D. B. Updike The Merrymount Press 1902) 16.

[xl]Letters, supra. No. XXIX, 68.

[xli]Letters, supra. 79.

[xlii]See Stephen Conway, ‘Percy, Hugh, second duke of Northumberland (1742–1817)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2006 Website:

[xliii] See Rhees 54-56.

[xliv] Burleigh 111. In Rhees 56 it was noted that upon his return to England,”He was the first to suggest making peace with the colonists…” See also Letters, supra at 22.

[xlv] David Hanna, Knights of the Sea, (USA: NAL Caliber, 2012) 158. Jon Latimer, 1812 War With America (London England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press Cambridge Mass; 2007) 5.

[xlvi] See Hanna 8, 124.

[xlvii] See T.J. Desch Obi, Black Terror: Bill Richmond’s Revolutionary Boxing, Journal of Sport History, Spring 2009 at 99. See also website:

[xlviii] See website:

[xlix] Bob Mee, Bare Fists, The History of Bare-Knuckle Prize-Fighting, (Woodstock and New York: The Overlook Press, 2001) 60. See also Nat Fleischer and Sam Andre, A Pictorial History of Boxing, (New York: The Citadel Press, 1959) 26-27.

[l] T. J. Desch Obi, at 100-101 refers to unruly Hessian soldiers. Mee, supra, refers to “three drunken English soldiers in a bar”. See also John Dizikes, Sportsmen & Gamesmen, and (University of Missouri Press 2002) 203.

[li] T. J. Desch Obi at 108.

[lii] T. J. Desch Obi at 108.

[liii] See James B. Roberts, Alexander G. Skutt, The Boxing Register, International Boxing Hall of Fame Official Record Book, (Ithaca New York: McBooks Press Inc. 2006) website:

[liv] T.J. Desch Obi, Black Terror: Bill Richmond’s Revolutionary Boxing, Journal of Sport History, Spring 2009.

[lv] T.J. Desch Obi, at 110.

[lvi] There are several accounts of the life of Bill Richmond, each with varying facts. For one particularly interesting account see Kevin R. Smith, Black Genesis, A History of the Black Prizefighter 1760-1870. (Lincoln Nebraska: iUniverse Inc 2003) 12-26. website: See also John Dizikes, Sportsman & Gamesmen, supra.

[lvii] Charles Merrill Mount, Gilbert Stuart, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1964) 36.

[lviii] Mount 103-115.

[lix] Mount 116, and Carrie Rebora Barratt and Ellen G. Miles, Gilbert Stuart (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Yale University Press 2004) 28.

[lx] Barratt and Miles 28-30.

[lxi] Barratt and Miles 72, 73. The great art collection of the Second Duke of Northumberland was housed both in his country home called “Syon” and in his ancestral home, Alnwick Castle, which has recently gained notoriety as a prop in the Harry Potter movies. It is a real Norman Castle known to exist for nearly a millennium.  The Smithsonian Castle, which was built in 1847, in part to house the great art collection of America, bears some similarity in design. To my frustration, I have not been able to find any direct connection between the two, either in the Smithsonian Archives or in the available information regarding James Renwick, Jr., architect of the Smithsonian Castle.

[lxii] Barratt and Miles 72.

[lxiii] Barratt and Miles 257.

[lxiv] Andrew Tully, When We Burned the White House, (London: Anthony Gibbs and Phillips 1961) 135. But see Glenn Tucker, Poltroons and Patriots, (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Marrill Company, Inc., 1954) 573.

[lxv] Latimer 389.

[lxvi] See Hanna 115-119, 165. See also Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812, A Forgotten Conflict (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989).

[lxvii] Tully, 212.

[lxviii] Tucker 667.

[lxix] See Hanna, 136, 155. Latimer 391.

[lxx] How much of this is history and how much is a story, as they say, based on real life? I am searching for a reasonable explanation of all things and cannot agree that the available evidence points to a conclusion that James Smithson and Henry Louis Dickenson were full brothers and sons of the First Duke of Northumberland. Why then, would the First Duke fail to acknowledge his sons the way he acknowledged the two daughters of his mistress, Margaret Marion? Why would he not publicly recognize Elizabeth Macie as a paramour if he were cavorting with her, at least on and off, for many years? Why are the family records relating to this period destroyed?(Ewing 32) It is my theory, with but flimsy proof, that Henry Louis Dickenson was the child of a liaison between Elizabeth Macie and The Second Duke of Northumberland which would make him both the half-brother(on his mother’s side) and half-nephew(on his father’s side) of James Smithson. He would still be in the direct male bloodline of Hugh Smithson, whether fathered by the First or Second Duke of Northumberland. In 1770 The First Duke was 56 years old, Elizabeth Macie Dickinson was 42 years old and The Second Duke was 28 years old and already a war veteran. A fourteen year difference either way. As we might now say, they were all adults and stranger things have happened. Perhaps families are entitled to keep their secrets, even families of great wealth who fund great museums. Ewing (page 349) refers to an engraved portrait of “The Duke of Northumberland” found among the items belonging to the son of Henry Louis Dickenson at the time of his death and eventually turned over to the Smithsonian. Interesting, but not dispositive, is the question of which Duke was pictured. I could footnote this footnote and note that the theory that James Smithson was the son of the First Duke of Northumberland is also based on somewhat flimsy proof, although much more logical in the context of events (See Burleigh 42-43). Maybe, just maybe, he too is also the son of the younger Duke, who was in his early twenties in 1865 and newly married to a woman he would eventually divorce (In this regard one should note Burleigh 81, where it is noted that there was quite a resemblance between Smithson and the Second Duke of Northumberland).  Since the same conundrum exists about the origin of the large estate of James Smithson whether he and/or Henry Louis Dickenson was fathered by the First or Second Duke of Northumberland, the mention of this theory is but a distraction best left in this footnote that perhaps nobody will read.

[lxxi] Rhees 1.

[lxxii] Henry Louis Dickenson never married the mother of his son. He travelled quite a bit. It might be interesting to explore the possible ramifications of this putative son not being his natural son, but I have done more than enough of that for one essay.

[lxxiii] Rhees 1.

[lxxiv] Burleigh 192.

[lxxv] Ewing 316(see footnote 2 therein). See also Burleigh 9. See also Rhees 23-24.

[lxxvi] Ewing 316. Burleigh 191-192.

[lxxvii] The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume 181, by John Nichols 421. People tend to say nice things about you in your obituary but other evidence indicates that in this case this assessment appears to be accurate.

[lxxviii] See The History of Parliament, British Political, Social & Local History.

[lxxix]See 1807 Commemorated, The Abolition of the Slave Trade. Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past
and the Institute of Historical Research, 2007. Website:

[lxxx] Ewing 296.

[lxxxi] The Gentleman’s Magazine, supra.

[lxxxii] The History of Parliament, supra.

[lxxxiii] Ewing 296.

[lxxxiv] Smithson remained close to Margaret Marriott who was an accepted member of the Percy household until her death in 1827. Ewing 149-150.

[lxxxv] We all have our theories. Burleigh suggests that before he died the First Duke may have “handed to young Macie or his mother various untraceable but redeemable bank bonds and annuities.” Burleigh 77. 

[lxxxvi] Ewing 135, 138.

[lxxxvii] The Clivia (Clivia nobilis) was named in honor of Lady Charlotte Florentia Clive, Duchess of Northumberland.

[lxxxviii] As to Smithson, Ewing 268. As to Lady Henrietta Clive, See The National Museum of Wales, Rhagor, explore our collections; The Fabulous Mineral Collection of Lady Henrietta Antonia Clive, Countess of Powis.  Website:

[lxxxix] As Lord Lorraine, a cousin edited a book entitled Speeches in Parliament (Bosworth and Harrison, London 1860) made by his father-in-law, Henry Drummond, Esq. These were religious zealots who may not have appreciated the more worldly lives of the Third or Second Dukes of Northumberland, or those of their family.

[xc] The History of Parliament, supra website:

[xci] The unlikehood of this theory is explored in Burleigh 17.

[xcii] I cannot rule out that the Third Duke bailed out James Smithson, who probably went through what little he had, much in the same way his father bailed out Gilbert Stuart.

[xciii]Dolley Madison was a slaveholder who notoriously did not provide for manumission of her slaves upon her death. I choose to comment little on this other than to note that some issues seem to appear to be more complicated to those involved in them as opposed to those separated by oceans or centuries… Others clearly knew better.

[xciv] A famous though questionable quote of James Smithson is “The best blood of England flows in my veins; on my father’s side I am a Northumberland, on my mother’s I am related to kings, but this avails me not. My name shall live in the memory of man when the titles of the Northumberland and the Percys are extinct and forgotten.” See Rhees 2 and Ewing 8, footnote 10.


[xcv] See Webster Prentiss True, The Smithsonian Institution, located on the website of the History of Science and Technology at the University of Wisconsin Digital Collection; website:  229-234.

[xcvi] See Encyclopaedia Britannica website:

[xcvii] The Late John Lord Campbell(Ed. by Mary Scarlett Campbell) Lives of Lord Lyndhurst and Lord Brougham, (London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1869) website:

[xcviii] William Jones Rhees, James Smithson and His Bequest, (Smithsonian Institution, Washington 1880) 28. Rhees incorrectly refers to this eminent economist as Nassau William, Sen. His last name was Senior.

[xcix]Encyclopedia of Antislavery and Abolitionedited by Peter P. Hinks, John R. McKivigan, R. Owen Williams (Greenwood Press: Westport Connecticut, 2007) 127-129. website:

[c] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, contribution by Rosemary Ashton. Website:

[ci] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, contribution by Catherine Hall. Website:

[cii] See Ashton, ODNB, supra.

[ciii] See Hall, ODNB, supra.

[civ] See Nassau William Senior, Three Lectures on the Rate of Wages (Albemarle-Street London: John Murray 1830). Website:

[cv] Nassau William Senior, American Slavery (Longman, Brown Green, Longmans & Roberts, London: 1856). Website:

[cvi] See Paul Staiti, Accounting For Copley, a chapter in John Singleton Copley in America by Carrie Rebora and Paul Staiti, Erica E. Hirshler, Theodore E. Stebbins Jr., Carol Troyen (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1995). See also Jules David Prown, John Singleton Copley In America 1738-1774 (Harvard University Press Cambridge Massachusetts 1966) at 17.

[cvii] Richard Klayman, America Abandoned (University Press of America, Lanham, New York London, 1983) 2.

[cviii] Klayman, supra, 3, 61.

[cix] Jules David Prown, John Singleton Copley In England 1774-1815 (Harvard University Press Cambridge Massachusetts 1966) 383.

[cx] True, supra, 233-234.

[cxi] Any study of the legislative history of the Smithsonian Institution demonstrates that it was a wonder that it ever was built, let alone that it would become successful in its mission.

[cxii] Richard Rathbun, The Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences (Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 101, Washington 1917) 7, 20.

[cxiii] David Freeman Hawke, Benjamin Rush, Revolutionary Gadfly (Indianapolis & New York: The Bobs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1971) 104-105.

[cxiv] A similar point was made by Burleigh at 213.

[cxv] Tully 203-209.

[cxvi] Latimer 316

[cxvii] Burleigh 200.

Bust of Bill Richmond?

Bust of Bill Richmond?

by Jerry Leibowitz

(See also Bust of a Man…Alternate version at and The Sequel…Bill Richmond Fights Back )

“I’m not made of iron or steel or stone or gold or bronze or wood, I’m Just Your Man”…    Graham Parker

My inquiry into the sculpture known as Bust of a Man begins with some known facts. There are two similar sculptures known as Bust of a (Black) Man. One is unsigned in black limestone and is at the Yale Center for British Art. A lesser one, to my eye, is at the Getty Museum and is signed “Francis Harwood fecit.”, meaning “I did that!”. The latter appears to be in painted sandstone and dated 1758. The Yale Center assumes it has a copy of the Getty work, and assumes it to be a Harwood studio copy. I suggest otherwise.

I submit that the Bust of a Man at the YCBA may be a work of the great French sculptor, Jean-Antoine Houdon, and the sitter is possibly a former American slave who came to be known as Bill Richmond. At the time I believe it was created, between 1777 and 1781, Bill Richmond was in England without official papers or a legal identity. The Bust was catalogued as that of “Negerin“, a possibly derogatory term for a person, usually a woman, of African descent. The catalogued work is in gypsum and I suspect that the black limestone work at the YCBA was derived from it as was a method of operation for Houdon. It is noteworthy that two other significant works of the time which depict black males as subjects, John Singleton Copley’s Head of a (favorite) Negro and Watson and the Shark also have unnamed black subjects. Interestingly, it is quite possible that the person who came to be known as Bill Richmond was the sitter or model for these works as well (note the suspicious scar!), but I leave that astounding notion for further investigation and comment.

Francis Harwood was a British sculptor who worked in England and Italy from the mid 18th century to his death in 1783. He was quite adept at making copies of the great ancient sculptures of the world. For the most part, he did not make his works to deceive; rather he made his living fulfilling the wishes of patrons who wanted copies of the great classical sculptures for their private collection. Some of his work was signed, some was not. Some was created by his hand, some by his active studio in Florence which catered largely to British tourists on their Grand Tour. There are those who suggest that Harwood may have used his talent to dabble in fraud and forgery and believe that some works in major museums thought to be ancient are the product of his hand. His reputation was of a questionable character of the sort that might misdate his work for whatever economic reason he might have. Any assumption that he did the work located now at the Yale Center because he may have signed a similar work must be addressed in the context of the reality that there is scant evidence that he was that talented as an original artist. In a bit of circular logic, I suggest that the date on the Getty Bust must be wrong since Houdon could not have produced his original work before 1758 and Bill Richmond was not in England before 1777.

We begin with the assumption, supported in the literature, that the sitter was associated with the Northumberlands, one of the richest families in the world. An American slave of approximately twelve to fourteen years old who was to take the name “Bill Richmond” was brought to England around 1777 by Hugh Percy, a British Lord who later became the Second Duke of Northumberland. Lord Percy was a General in the British Army who participated in several of the early conflicts of the American War for Independence, including the Battles of Lexington and Concord. He quickly grew fed up with the war due to disagreements with his Commander. Lord Percy returned to England while the war was still in its early stages. The slave, of somewhat indeterminate age, impressed the General with his talents which included a quick wit and his ability to defend himself with his fists. It was not uncommon for British officers to return to England with former slaves who attached themselves to British units as a means of escaping from their horrors. In 1772, a high court judge in England had issued an opinion in the matter of Somersett’s Case, which held that since slavery was abhorrent to British law, a slave who finds a way to sacred English soil is free while on English soil. With the protections afforded by this precedential decision and those provided by the wealthy Northumberlands, the former slave was brought to London, where he lived among a circle the acquaintances of Lord Percy which  included several expatriate artists connected to Benjamin West, including Gilbert Stuart and John Singleton Copley. The former slave was sent by Lord Percy to the Percy ancestral home in Yorkshire where he became educated, and acquired the family  trade of a cabinet maker. At some point he returned to London where he seemingly took his place as a free British subject. Later in life, as Bill Richmond, he revolutionized the sport of boxing and once fought for the title of Champion of England, a title he likely would have won had he began his boxing career as a younger man. Before Bill Richmond, boxing was purely an offensive sport of brute force. Richmond, a welterweight by today’s standards, added a defensive aspect to the sport which enabled him to successfully defeat bigger and stronger foes. He is largely credited with turning the sport from one of brute force into “the sweet science”. Bill Richmond later became a boxing teacher, an instructor to both former slaves and English gentlemen such as Lord Byron. For a time he also owned perhaps the first sports bar in London where he would regale his customers with the stories only he could tell. There is little dispute that he was a beloved great fun smart guy.

I suspect that the YCBA sculpture was carved at the time the former slave was growing into his adult self, possibly 1781. The scar above the eye and the sitter’s physique speak to his past as a slave or fighter in America. In the latter part of the 18th century there were several sculptors who could produce such a masterwork and the Northumberlands were famous for their discerning eye and willingness to spend considerable money on their art. With the surrender of Cornwallis in 1781, Britain and France, while technically still at war over the American conflict, were able to resume a certain amount of trade. The great sculptors of France, most specifically Jean Antoine Houdon, were exploring the issue of slavery in their works. In 1781, Houdon carved a bust of a black woman, thought to be a study for the “attendant” in a fountain sculpture of a bather, of which only the head remains and is located at the Musee Municipale Ancienne Abbaye, Saint-Leger, Soissons. This sculpture was later used by Houdon in an allegory of slavery and freedom. As can be seen from the recast sculpture, now in the Musee Nissim de Camondo, Paris, this sculpture is the spiritual kin to the Bust of a Man at the YCBA and may well have been done by the same sculptor at approximately the same time. In his early catalogue of the works of Houdon, Charles Henry Hart lists a work called “Negerin” under the category of “Busts of Men”. To my knowledge, this work is unaccounted for and may be an early plaster version of the work later produced by Houdon or his studio in black limestone which is at the YCBA . If not Houdon, I can suggest other great artists who could have had a hand in creating the Bust at the YCBA.  Joseph Wilton and Joseph Nollekens, each did work for the Northumberlands; as did Antonio Canova whose early sublime busts were created during this period.  Interestingly, Nollekens held Francis Harwood in low esteem and both he and Houdon were plagued by copiers such as Harwood whose copies of their works, whether purposeful or not,  were attributed as original works. It is possible that Harwood signed his copies to placate the true artists. It is also possible that for economic purposes dates were added later and it is these dates which continue to confuse art historians and add uncertainty to the true nature of the works.

There is some thought that both the Getty and YCBA Bust of a Man are unfinished because they do not bear the identity of the sitter, which would have likely been carved into the base upon completion. But what name did the former slave who came to be known as Bill Richmond have in 1781? Official papers could not be issued on his behalf as the British government only issued papers to those slaves who fought as soldiers for the British Army and not to runaway youths who attached themselves to  the British in an unofficial capacity. In 1781, the victorious Americans who were all about freedom were demanding return of their “stolen property” including their former slaves. The Treaty of Paris of 1783 included a convoluted provision which many thought required the British officers to return their former slaves, at least those who did not serve as soldiers. As wealthy as the Northumberlands were, Lord Percy was politically and socially vulnerable because of his quick exit from the war theater. It would not look good for a British General to violate the terms of a treaty. This young former slave suddenly had a questionable status in England which did not include a real identity. That is exactly how the sculpture depicts him. As a slave child he had no official name in America. Once in England, no papers could be issued on his behalf. In reality, in 1781 he was a young adult without a name. In fact, it may have been his questionable status which had prompted the Northumberlands to move him from cosmopolitan London to rural Yorkshire where he could not easily be found and claimed by some former owner.


Upon the 1863 death of Algernon Percy, The Fourth Duke of Northumberland and younger son of the Second Duke, at least one of the two Busts was catalogued. The catalogue of the Fourth Duke’s property at Yorkshire, where Bill Richmond once lived, lists the sculpture as “A fine bust in black marble-W. Richmond the Pugilist-on Italian marble plinth”. The Getty thinks this is their Bust, but I find that questionable since there is no mention of Harwood, no date, and it is my understanding that the Getty Bust is not black marble but painted sandstone. I suggest that this more accurately describes the YCBA Bust! The existence of the 1865 catalogue strongly suggests that Algernon Percy thought the sitter to be Bill Richmond. As a teenager Algernon Percy undoubtedly knew Bill Richmond well and probably went to see him box as did many noblemen who were great fans of boxing (Put up your Dukes!). I suggest that this catalogue presents the best evidence of the identity of the sitter. The fact that the Bust turned up in Yorkshire where Bill Richmond was known to have lived in 1781 also speaks to him as its likely sitter. Upon the death of Algernon’s younger wife in 1911, a Bust in her possession was catalogued as “A carved Black Marble Bust of a Negro, 27 in. high, by F. Harwood, on circular marble plinth”. No date is given. Perhaps this is the Getty Bust. The YCBA Bust, if owned by the Northumberlands, would probably have left the Northumberlands hands after 1865, when the title of Duke of Northumberland fell into the hands of distant cousins, and much of their valuable art collection was sold. The “Houdon” Bust was largely unaccounted for until acquired by Paul Mellon and later the YCBA. The Dowager Duchess retained the Harwood Bust which has found its way into the Getty collection.

Bill Richmond spent his life making a great name for himself. He was born and lived his early life without one. Algernon Percy, a respected worldly man also known as “Algernon the Good” for his good works, apparently believed the bust to be that of the boxer Bill Richmond. But now, due to a date placed on a sculpture possibly by a suspected forger, the art community has taken Bill Richmond’s name away from the sculpture and ironically has left it as nameless as the young slave. They may be right that Bill Richmond was not the sitter. I have tried to read all available information on the subject and I remain unconvinced either way. To me, until proved otherwise, I think the sculpture at the YCBA should be titled as follows:

Bust possibly of W. Richmond the pugilist, as a youth circa 1778-1781. Artist unknown, possibly after Houdon’s “Negerin”. Disputed by 1758 date and signature of Francis Harwood on similar work.

To sum up, I believe that the Yale Center for British Art has a black limestone sculpture now entitled Bust of a Man, which possibly depicts a former American slave who came to be known as Bill Richmond. It may be derived from an original Bust by Jean-Antoine Houdon catalogued as “Negerin”. The original Bust was probably created in the late 1770′s or early 1780′s for the Second Duke of Northumberland, who freed the former slave and brought him to England. The Getty Art Museum has a copy of that sculpture in painted sandstone, incorrectly labeled as black stone, signed by the British sculptor, Francis Harwood bearing the date 1758 which appears suspect. The spiritual sisters of these sculptures are located at the Musee municipale Ancienne Abbaye, Saint-Leger, Soissons and the Musee Nissim de Camondo, in Paris. Further investigation should be undertaken to determine if they were created by the same hand.



Below: The Francis Harwood Bust of a Man at the Getty, The recast Houdon, the original Houdon and the YCBA Bust of a Man