Ingrained in Massachusetts

Daily Draw December 24th, 2012

I picked this randomly from my postcard collection last night.

Attributed to Deacon Robert Peckham (1785-1877), Fitchburg, Worcester County Massachusetts, c 1841
Oil on Canvas, 52 1/2 x 39 1/2 in.


I love the two little girls at the front, one with a cat, and one with a china-head lady doll. The boy seems to be holding…the metal handle of the baby’s pram. I thought originally he might be holding a hoop or scooter to play with, but no, he is taking his responsibilities seriously and keeping the baby safe in her pram, steadying it. It’s an interesting pram with a wicker basket and a large domed hood which looks like it is lined with velvet.

Obviously prosperous and living in a nice home with expensive wallpaper and rugs. They have nicely made formal leather shoes and the one girl’s shoes are blue. Imagine having the money for coloured leather?

Solemn looking children. perhaps they are trying to be good so Father Christmas will come? It is Christmas Eve after all. Sadly, The Farwell Children includes the portrait of a child who had already died at the time the portrait was made. It is the baby Mary Jane who had died in 1841. Perhaps that’s why her brother John holds so tightly to the pram and the children appear so solemn? I think so.

In looking up the town of Fitchburg, which is still relatively small although now a city of 40,000-odd, I find it was named after a man named John Fitch, who at one point in the mid-18th century, was abducted with his family by Native Americans and taken to Canada.

There is a huge rock, carried from the mountains by a glacier, called the Rollstone Boulder in Fitchburg, that was a landmark for centuries to Natives and settlers in the area. It is also home to Crocker Field, the baseball stadium built for local residents in 1918 that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. They have also managed to preserve the Victorian Coggshall Park with miles of trails, bike paths, a lake with a gazebo, and a lovely stone house and picnic grounds. They have many small museums, Civil War memorabilia and such; it looks like a wonderful town to visit.

Robert Peckham really was a Deacon in the First Congregational Church in Westminster, Massachusetts, which is near Fitchburg. He believed in the abolition of slavery and in temperance, and was actively involved in the Underground Railway for slaves escaping from captivity, and used his own house for such purpose. Eventually it caused such a controversy that he resigned his Deaconship and was excommunicated by his church eight years later. Later still, after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, he was reinstated in the church.

He might have known John Thurston Farwell, the father of the children in the portrait, through the church, as Farwell was a Deacon in the First Congregational Church in Fitchburg. Or the Farwell family might just have hired him to paint a commemorative portrait of their children, including the dead baby, because he was known for his charming portraiture of children. No one knows how they connected, but commemorative paintings of dead children were common, and more common still after photography was introduced. I spoke of these cabinet photographs of dead children in my review of the Graven Images Oracle.

Peckham painted several of these so-called primitive, naive portraits or folk art portraits, usually of children. I can see why eventually they attributed this particular painting to him as the clothing and faces are peculiarly like signed work that was long-known to be painted by him. He also apparently made wooden toys for his own nine children and seems, despite his somewhat rigid and radical (for the time) beliefs, to have been a nice Dad who was fond of children and felt much compassion for people in need. One of his boys, who fought on the Union side, died in the wretched Confederate Andersonville prison during the Civil War.

The National Gallery of Art has a downloadable PDF with more information on Peckham and an exhibition of his works they held in 2012. The essay on his life and information on his paintings is fascinating.

According to this essay, the carpet in the picture was probably what is known as an “ingrain carpet”which is a machine-loomed, flat weave carpet with no pile, that is reversible. Some William Morris carpet designs are woven in this way, and one side is a reverse of the other, including the colours. Examples of the Morris flat-woven designs can be seen in his home, Kelmscott Manor. In England they were usually made in the town of Kidderminster, and thus were called Kidderminster carpets.

They look a bit like coverlets woven on a Jacquard loom since the machine was the same. I imagine they used thicker wool in the loom for carpeting. They are not popularly available today but they still make them for historic homes or as reproductions for museums.

An absolutely fascinating draw today, full of the rich and sad history of people, political movements, and long-lost craftsmanship.



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