A painter and his subject’s humble origins
Over the next week, we will be pairing excerpts from Jim Johnston’s From Slave Ship to Harvard with the historical comic strip “Flashbacks” by Patrick Reynolds. Together they tell the story of Yarrow Mamout.
By the time he met Yarrow Mamout in January 1819, Charles Willson Peale was wealthy, famous, respected, and aging. In addition to being an artist and portrait painter, he had served as an army officer during the Revolutionary War and a state legislator in Pennsylvania. On top of this, he was a scientist, inventor, diarist, museum director, polymath, and entrepreneur. Peale brought all of this not only to his decision to paint Yarrow but also to the artistic choices he made in capturing Yarrow on canvas, an image that mixes Peale’s life experiences and views and Yarrow’s visage and personality.
Peale’s origins were humble. His father, also named Charles, had been born in England. As a young man, the elder Peale had taken financial liberties that resulted in conviction for embezzlement and a sentence of death. He secured the option of emigrating to America instead. Like so many others, such as Ninian Beall and Yarrow Mamout, the father of the great artist came to Maryland more or less involuntarily as a convict.
After completing his sentence of servitude, the senior Peale became a schoolteacher and married Margaret Triggs in 1740. Charles Willson was their first child, the middle name coming from relatives in England. The boy was born in 1741 in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, near the town of Centreville on the Eastern Shore, a peninsula, connected to the mainland at the north, but separated from the rest of the colony by the Chesapeake Bay. After young Charles was born, his family moved to nearby Chestertown.
Peale’s father died when Charles was only eight years old, leaving the family without a breadwinner. His mother therefore decided to move to the larger, colonial capital of Annapolis on the west side of the Chesapeake and take up work as a seamstress. There were only 150 or so houses in the town, but it was livelier than Centreville or Chestertown.
The family was timely assisted by a young Annapolis lawyer named John Beale Bordley. He had once been a student of Peale’s father. The elder Peale had been like a father to Bordley, and so, for the rest of his life, Bordley returned the favor by helping Charles Willson.
As chance would have it, then, Peale was living in Annapolis in June 1752 when Yarrow was brought there as a slave aboard the Elijah. There is no record on the matter, but one can imagine the boys of the town going to the harbor as soon as the slave ship dropped anchor. Other memories of life in Annapolis and the wonders that came in from the sea did stick in Peale’s head. For example, years later he fondly recalled a boyhood experience of hearing a newly arrived ship’s captain read from a foreign newspaper: “The manly expressive sweetness of his voice seems still to vibrate in my ears even at this distant period — and I have enjoyed the remembrance of it a thousand times.”
James H. Johnston, an attorney and journalist, has published extensively on national affairs, law, telecommunications, history, and the arts. His contributions include papers on local Washington, D.C., history, Yarrow Mamout, and an edition of The Recollections of Margaret Cabell Brown Loughborough. He is the author of From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family.
Instead of entertaining readers with make-believe characters, cartoonist Patrick Reynolds draws history. His “Flashbacks” about historical figures and events are carried in Sunday papers around the country. Recently, Reynolds has retold the story of Yarrow Mamout, relying in part on articles by Jim Johnston. The Washington Post in Yarrow’s Georgetown and the Staten Island Advance for New Yorkers carried the series. Reynolds makes quality history accessible to young readers as well as to adults.