The Elusive Mr. Blackburn

    By Andrew Oliver

    WHO was Joseph Blackburn, whom we know as a portraitist in America from 1754 to 1763? Where did he come from, where did he live when in Bermuda and America? Where did he go when he left? Was he married? Had he children? How did he learn to paint? Where are his British portraits? There are no answers to these questions, and it is puzzling to consider how a man who left so many brush marks behind him, could have left so few footprints.

    The first substantial consideration of the artist Blackburn was undertaken by Lawrence Park and appeared in the October 1922 issue of the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, and in a small separate volume a year later. It was entitled “Joseph Blackburn, A Colonial Portrait Painter, with a descriptive list of his works.” It tells us next to nothing of Blackburn’s life because next to nothing was known, but it listed eighty eight portraits attributed to him. At the end of the article Park wrote:

    It is highly probable that as time goes on the mystery which now surrounds Blackburn’s origin and other details of his life will be cleared up, but it is doubtful if many additions will be made to the following list of portraits painted by him during his sojourn in the American colonies.1

    How many of us have fallen into that trap? When will we learn not to say or write such things?

    Fourteen years later, in 1936, John Hill Morgan and Henry Wilder Foote published, also in the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, an article entitled “An Extension of Lawrence Park’s Descriptive List of the Works of Joseph Blackburn.” Mr. Park’s predictions were reversed. One new detail relative to Blackburn’s personal history was discovered, but thirty-eight new portraits were recorded. In the fall of 1976, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, another came to light, long dingily masquerading as by Copley. It is a portrait of Colonel Henry Vassall of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and upon restoration and cleaning the signature “I Blackburn Pinxit” and the date “1757” came out loud and clear. With it is a portrait of his wife, which, as cleaning progresses, may also turn out to be by Blackburn.

    Let us examine the curiously barren personal record of this prolific portraitist. William Dunlap, the diarist-art historian, writing in 1834 of Blackburn, gives him a few lines only.

    Blackburn, all we know is, that he was nearly contemporary with John Smybert, and painted very respectable portraits in Boston.2

    In fact, Blackburn reached Boston in 1754, two years after Smibert had died, but close enough in time to be termed, a century later, “nearly contemporary.” In writing of John Singleton Copley, Dunlap said:

    Smybert and Blackburn painted in Boston, and even if the young man [Copley] did not receive their instruction as a pupil, he saw their pictures, which were more than decent and received the instruction which is conveyed by studying the works of others.3

    Commenting on the artist John Trumbull, Dunlap continued in the same vein:

    The works of Smybert, Blackburn and Copley, at Boston, so immediately under the eye of the young man [Trumbull] doubtless strengthened his desire to become a painter.4

    This, of course, is nothing more than a sort of cumulative conjecture, although it is probably not wide of the mark. And this is all we learn from the first art historian who mentioned Blackburn.

    We get some clues to his activity if we examine only the dates on those of his portraits which are signed and dated. Tradition, not always reliable but often alluring, is conflicting as to Blackburn’s arrival in Bermuda. The Tucker family tradition is that Blackburn was summoned from London to Bermuda to paint the Tucker family, and paint them he did, six or more of them. The Jones family tradition is comparable, that he came at their behest to preserve the likenesses of the Bermuda Joneses—and he did, seven or eight of them. The Jones claim is strengthened by the fact that the earliest date on a Bermuda Blackburn portrait is on that of President Francis Jones, who is shown holding a letter in his hand dated 18 May 1752, the portrait being inscribed and signed, “Natus Decembris 1698/I Blackburn Pinxit 1752.” The earliest Tucker portrait, that of Colonel Henry Tucker, is signed, and dated 1753. The Joneses and the Tuckers were, as we discover of most of Blackburn’s sitters, persons of consequence. The earliest portrait signed and dated by Blackburn in America is that of Mrs. David Chesebrough (Margaret, daughter of Brinley Sylvester of Newport, R. I.); its date is 1754. She too was a person of prominence. This allows Blackburn the year 1753 and parts of 1752 and perhaps 1754 to complete two dozen or more portraits in Bermuda (and undoubtedly some have been lost), an accomplishment which, as we will see, compares favorably with the production of Smibert and Copley.

    There can be seen in Bermuda today, March 1976, in four houses only, nineteen Blackburn portraits, five of which are signed and dated, three not signed but inscribed with the date of birth of the sitter and date of painting, and eleven on which no signature or inscription can be discovered, but most of whose sitters were related by marriage or descent to a nearby signed pendant. A replica of the portrait of Captain John Pigott hangs in a fifth house. Two more, known to have been painted in Bermuda, are recorded as being in Connecticut. Photographs of many of these portraits are in the Frick Art Reference Library in New York and were seen by Morgan and Foote in 1936 in preparation for their article. None of the photographs, however, can fairly reproduce the effect of the ravages of two centuries of Bermuda climate on oil paint and canvas, and on carved wooden frames. Some of the portraits seem worn beyond repair, others might be cleaned and restored, some have been cleaned and restored and in the process cut down so that the original size can only be conjectured. In at least two instances an inscription has been partly obliterated. There is little doubt that careful cleaning might well reveal a signature or inscription on portraits now appearing uninscribed. It is of interest though not surprising that most of the frames are almost identical with those elaborately carved wooden rococo frames that are so familiar on Blackburn’s American portraits. He must have brought a large supply with him to Bermuda, as he was hardly long enough settled there to have been sending to England or even to America for a fresh supply.

    Park in his article on Blackburn in 1922 lists three portraits of members of the Tucker family which were then in Baltimore, Maryland; today they are in Bermuda. Morgan and Foote in 1936 listed seventeen that had been painted in Bermuda, two of which were then in Connecticut. To that list I can add two more now in Bermuda, bringing the total to twenty-two; and there is little doubt that more exist on the island today, and some evidence that a few have been destroyed by fire. Five portraits which I inspected in March 1976 are signed:

    President Francis Jones, listed by Morgan and Foote, is inscribed and signed:

    • “Natus Decembris 1698
    • I Blackburn Pinxit 1752”

    Captain John Pigott (the original), listed by Morgan and Foote, is signed and dated:

    • “I Blackburn 1752”

    Deborah Bascombe (who married Thomas Butterfield in 1756), listed by Morgan and Foote, is inscribed and signed:

    • “Nata 1715
    • I Blackburn Depictus
    • 1753”

    Colonel Henry Tucker, listed by Park, is signed and dated in large letters:

    • “I Blackburn Pinxit 1753”

    Thomas Gilbert, listed by Morgan and Foote but not as being inscribed, is in fact inscribed and signed:

    • “Natus 1704
    • I Blackburn Pinxit [but the date is obscured by the frame]”

    Three portraits which I inspected are inscribed but no signature could be discovered:

    Mrs. Thomas Jones, listed by Morgan and Foote, is inscribed:

    • “Natus Sept 14, 1729 Pinxit Octr 1752”

    Anne Jones, her daughter, listed by Morgan and Foote, is inscribed:

    • “Natus 4 Octr. 1749
    • Pinxit Octr. 1752”

    Mrs. John Harvey, Jr. (Esther, daughter of President Jones), not listed by Park or by Morgan and Foote, is inscribed, though no longer very legibly:

    • “[ ]tus 1731
    • [ ]nxit 1752”

    The rest of the Bermuda Blackburns do not appear to be inscribed or signed and all are listed by either Park or by Morgan and Foote, except one which I inspected and attribute confidently to Blackburn:

    Thomas Parsons, Jr., son of Captain Thomas Parsons, whose portrait by Blackburn (listed by Morgan and Foote) hangs nearby.

    Within the last generation ownership of these portraits has been consolidated so that it is now possible to see all but one, a replica, hanging in only four houses. Yet in almost all these houses there could be heard rumors that there were other Blackburn portraits on the island, known of personally or by tradition.

    About one-half of all of Blackburn’s known portraits are signed, and a few of the Bermuda portraits, and no others, include the date of birth of the sitter. Blackburn’s Latin was faulty, for he described Mrs. Thomas Jones as “Natus . . . 1729” and Mrs. Nathaniel Butterfield as “Nata 1715.” In one instance he substituted the word “Depictus” for his customary word “Pinxit.” Another peculiarity of the Bermuda portraits is that most of those that are signed are signed in much larger letters than appear on any of his American paintings.

    By placing dated portraits in chronological order, and by positioning (if we may use that term) his sitters geographically (from external evidence), it is possible to hazard a guess as to where the artist lived in America from time to time, the exceptions or cases which seem to violate the rule being instances where the artist or subject traveled afield for the event. Those who can recall the delays and hazards of coach travel in America in the mid-eighteenth century can weigh the significance of the exceptions. It appears in general that Blackburn painted in Boston—what we might today call Greater Boston—from 1754 to 1757, and in Portsmouth—which would include Exeter and Newburyport—from 1758 to, say, 1763, when we believe he returned to England. We date his departure from a discovery made by Morgan and Foote many years ago in England among the papers of the Warner family, five of whom had been painted by Blackburn in Portsmouth. The discovery was a document which proved to be the financial account of Jonathan Warner with his London agents, Messrs. Trecothick and Thomlison, which recorded an item reading:

    1764 January, to Cash Paid his Bill to Josh Blackburn £265

    Jonathan Warner’s portrait and that of his wife had been painted in 1761, and it is difficult to account for the three years’ delay in payment. The discovery was trebly of interest. It put the artist back in London by January 1764, it added confirmation to what had once been open to question, that his name was Joseph, and it tells what he was paid for a portrait. A previous discovery had confirmed two of these facts: a bill, published in the Brooklyn Museum Quarterly in 1919, reading:

    Portsmo July 12 1762

    Received of Jono. Sayward Esq by the hands of Joseph Barrell, Ten guineas in full his Daughters Picture

    Jos. Blackburn6

    Sayward’s daughter’s portrait is dated 1761, payment was made in July 1762. Ten guineas for one portrait, £26 for two. What were probably Blackburn’s last American paintings were his portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Cutts. They were married in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 8 December 1762 and promptly moved to Samuel’s house in Portsmouth. The two portraits must have been painted either in the last days of 1762 or early in 1763. All of these circumstances would seem to put the artist’s departure for England in the year 1763.

    But these were all late discoveries. A century ago, after investigation of the artist’s career by H. W. French in 1879, it was concluded, possibly on a misreading of his signature or a supposed New England influence visible in his portraits, that his name was Jonathan B. Blackburn and that he was the son of the itinerant Connecticut artist Christopher B. Blackburn. This conclusion was readily accepted and for some years Blackburn portraits in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and elsewhere were so attributed and labeled. Then in 1918 Lawrence Park discovered in Brooklyn on the portrait of Andrew Faneuil Phillips the signature “Jos Blackburn,” which was unmistakable and in his usual hand. This first established his Christian name. The later discoveries confirmed it. Further research uncovered two newspaper notices which, though not conclusively tied to our man, are more than likely speaking of him. The Boston Gazette for 17 November 1755, when we know Blackburn was painting in Boston, advertised that two letters were held in the Post Office, one for “Mr. Blackburn” and one for “Joseph Blackburn.” Six years later, when we have every reason to believe he was active in Portsmouth, the New Hampshire Gazette for 30 October 1761 mentions a letter on hand for “Jos. Blackburn.” There is little doubt that he was about.

    By good fortune three letters mentioning Blackburn have survived the two centuries since he returned to England. One, dated “Boston February 1757” commences “Dear Mr. Curwen.” That would have been Samuel Curwen of Salem, Massachusetts, the diarist, and the letter appears to have been written by one of his sisters-in-law, Mary Russell. It proceeds:

    I should have answered your letter long before this had I known when we were to come to Boston but you know I am a Femme Covert and cannot act for myself. There is no reading but law among us so you must not wonder I use these terms. I am entirely of your mind that it is quite time your pictures were finished. I hope to have the pleasure of waiting on you to Mr. Blackburn’s very soon in order to their finishing. In the meantime, I am dear Sir. . . .7

    One of the pictures she was referring to was undoubtedly that of Abigail Curwen, Samuel’s wife, which has long been lost, though a copy of it (from which it is not hard to conclude that the original was by Blackburn) hangs in the Essex Institute in Salem. No trace of the portrait of Mr. Curwen has appeared.

    A second letter is addressed to Judge Chambers Russell and is undated. “Dear Chamy,” it commences,

    You forgot to tell me how and when you would be sent for. I send Juby for your orders. Have you sat for your picture? Is the mouth placed in the proper order? Do your eyes roll about? Tell Mr. Blackburn that Miss Lucy is in love with his pictures, wonders what business he has to make such extreme fine lace and satin, besides taking so exact a likeness.

    It is thought your lady makes the worst appearance in Mr. Blackburn’s rooms, that she is stiff and prim and wants an agreeable something but that may be and yet a good likeness. I hope you will excuse the freedom from yours and your Lady’s

    Aff. Friend

    Mary Russell8

    The two Russell portraits are known. That of Judge Russell, supposedly intended to have been large sized, was apparently never completed, and the canvas was reduced to an oval and by tradition finished by Gilbert Stuart, which seems most unlikely.

    The third letter was written in Bermuda, undated but endorsed “Received 8th Oct. 1805,” addressed to “Dicky,” presumably Richard Darrell, father of Chief Justice John Harvey Darrell. It is unsigned and reads in part:

    When Blackburn, a painter, that you may have heard of was here, he was supposed a master of the trade. My father called on him to scour the pictures but he said he could not, they were masterpieces.9

    The pictures sought to be “scoured” were portraits of Sir Robert Clayton (1629–1707) and his wife Lady Clayton, born Martha Trott (1643–1705), both of which had been painted in England. From the fact that Blackburn was unwilling to scour the two portraits, it might perhaps be argued that he was an American by origin and not sufficiently familiar with British paintings to be willing to undertake to scour one.

    Scarcely a dozen portraits painted by Blackburn in England after 1764 have come to light. Louisa Dresser reproduced six in an article in the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society in 1966 and five of these were signed and dated between 1768 and 1777.1 But can it be that one who had been such a prolific portraitist before going to England could have painted only a dozen or so portraits in the fourteen years thereafter? If he should turn out to be of American origin, that would account for the fact that no British portraits painted prior to his visit to Bermuda have appeared. But where are his later British portraits? This is part of the Blackburn mystery. John Hill Morgan reported searching the records of Suffolk County, Massachusetts (which embraced Boston), grantor and grantee indexes, probate records, lists of witnesses to wills and names of legatees—all fruitless. A generation later I can report doing the same, and adding to the search the indexes of civil suits before the supreme judicial court in the counties of Suffolk, Old Colony, Hampshire, Berkshire, and Worcester and the so-called Maine counties—all with the same result. Blackburn’s name does not appear in the public records of Bermuda and there was no newspaper in Bermuda when he was there. Neither is there any mention of the man in Horace Walpole’s Anecdotes of Painting in England. Apparently he did not buy, sell, or own real property in New England, he was not involved in law suits, and if he wrote letters, and it would seem that he must have, they have not come to light. How can so little be known of a man who painted such a crowd of canvases? Aside from the few facts mentioned above, it could be said of Blackburn as that traveler from an antique land said of those two vast and trunkless legs of stone of Ozimandias, king of kings, standing in the desert, “Nothing beside remains!” Nothing, that is, except some one hundred and thirty or more portraits, to which we must now turn.

    Cast your mind back to the Boston of 1754 and look about you for an artist to paint your wife’s portrait. Nathaniel Emmons, the first native born New England portraitist, only three of whose portraits survive, died in 1740. John Smibert, who had arrived in Boston in 1728, was a prolific portraitist but because of failing eyesight stopped painting portraits seven or eight years before Blackburn arrived and died two years before his arrival. Robert Feke painted his last Boston portrait in 1749, then left the city, and died about 1752. John Greenwood commenced portrait painting in 1745 but left Boston in 1752 for Surinam, never to return. Copley was only fifteen years old. Joseph Badger, alone, who had been a house painter by trade, was active in the field. His portraits were no match for the fashionable, sophisticated brush of this new artist from Bermuda and England. The field was wide open; Blackburn entered the lists and made the most of it.

    E. P. Richardson, the arch-art-historian of this period wrote of Blackburn:

    When one sees a pair of Blackburn portraits in their rococo frames. . . one discovers the secret of his success. However unsatisfactory as studies of character, his portraits are pretty and graceful decorations compared with Greenwood and Badger.2

    He was a “craftsman-painter rather than an artist,” “practicing [his] art with skill rather than feeling, using a decorative portrait formula which varied little from one sitter to another.”3 He has often been called a drapery painter. Richardson adds, “His work seems today so thin and lacking in characterization that one finds it hard to believe they once seemed fresh, gay and fashionable and exerted an immense influence.”4 His effect on Copley is obvious. Richardson says that Blackburn by his works offered suggestions which Copley “seized on greedily, absorbed and quickly transcended.”5 This is no doubt true, although we could wish that Copley had said it. In due time, of course, Copley went far beyond Blackburn. It was perhaps the competition with Copley that drove Blackburn first to Portsmouth and then back to England.

    Blackburn’s artistic ancestry has long been considered to have been English and to have stemmed perhaps from Hudson and Highmore. Strong exception to such a theory was taken in 1945 by C. H. Collins Baker, who detected in Blackburn’s work more of what he considered to be the New England tradition than any influence of Hudson or High-more.6 It is not known where Blackburn came from, and Baker suggests that there might be some merit to H. W. French’s theory of a Connecticut origin, although French was clearly mistaken as to his name. But there can be little doubt that his style was fully developed when he arrived in America from Bermuda. He never really changed thereafter, he never developed—facts which make it almost impossible to date his unsigned paintings stylistically. As Waldron Phoenix Belknap so clearly pointed out, albeit posthumously, Blackburn did as others were to do and as others had done before him; he used British mezzotints of portraits by Kneller and others as prototypes for his own paintings. No doubt he kept by him ready-painted studio portraits, lacking only the face, and milady and her handsome merchant prince husband could take their pick of pose and costume, and they were not infrequently virtually duplicated. The portrait of Mrs. David Chesebrough painted in 1754 and that of Mrs. William Greenleaf done in 1757 are almost identical. So also are those of Mrs. Andrew Oliver, Jr., and Mrs. James Pitts, both painted in 1755, both stemming from a mezzotint after Kneller’s earlier portrait of Sally Salisbury. Examples could be multiplied.

    Blackburn was adept at painting lace and jewels. Mary Russell wonders “what business he has to make such extreme fine lace and satin?” But he followed his own formula. His merchant gentlemen hold letters in their hands, backgrounds suggest landed estates, we see books, paper and pens, his young men display a dashing quality in their brilliantly colored brocade waistcoats, wired so as to flare out and be conspicuous. His ladies are serene, at most sweetly amused. He was proud of his ability to paint hands, rarely resorting to the various tricks for concealing them. Although his men are thought to be better likenesses, his habit of painting his ladies with averted face but eyes turned toward the viewer adds a charming coyness.

    Theodore Bolton wrote of him, in 1930, that

    he recorded in detail on canvas, the social history for 9 years of a highly sophisticated, cultured, and wealthy society of which we are only now learning more—so much of its tradition and very existence having been destroyed by the turmoil of the American Revolution.7

    Bolton did not know, what Belknap later discovered, of the British prototypes of so many American portraits; yet at least Mary Russell could marvel at the artist’s “taking so exact a likeness.”

    It has been aptly said that in contemplating mid-eighteenth-century New England, we look back on the “elegance of Feke,” the “grimly realistic Smibert,” the “uncharming Greenwood,” the “naive Badger,” and then the new standard of grace and innocent beauty that appears from the brush of the elusive Mr. Blackburn. No matter that he will in turn be eclipsed by Copley.

    Although we know but little of the man Blackburn, we can nevertheless make a few surmises about him. He must have possessed the social graces and a presence that would serve to make him, at least professionally, welcome within the circle of New England’s aristocracy. His sitters would, one might suppose, comprise a sort of social register of New England’s 400 of the day. After all, he painted Apthorps, Bowdoins, Bethunes, Ervings, Faneuils, Olivers, and Phillipses of Boston; and Atkinsons, Cuttses, Warners, and Wentworths of Portsmouth—as well as his large group of distinguished, portrait-worthy Bermudians. He knew how to single out and approach the great. Jeffrey Amherst, eighteen years before his elevation to the Peerage, came to Boston in September 1758 from Canada and camped on Boston Common. He was there for three days, and again, a month later, for two weeks, receiving his appointment as commander in chief of the British army in North America. As best we know, Blackburn was then painting largely in Portsmouth; on hearing of Amherst’s arrival he must have hotfooted it to Boston, for he painted the Amherst portrait, signed and dated it 1758, thereby catching the man on one of the only two occasions he was in Boston at the time. It is also significant that upon his arrival in Boston from Canada, Amherst was willing to sit to the artist Blackburn for his portrait—an indication of the favorable reputation Blackburn had established as the chosen portrayer to posterity of New England’s aristocracy of the 1750’s.

    When we consider the effort involved in sitting for a portrait and the cost of the finished product, it is not hard to conclude that in Blackburn’s case, as indeed in that of any other portraitist of the day, there must have been some good or compelling reason behind the painting of each likeness. The Cutts pair were painted almost immediately after their marriage. Charles Apthorp died so soon after his portrait was painted as to suggest that he had already heard the horns of Elfland faintly blowing. Mrs. George Bethune was taken shortly after her marriage; Elizabeth Browne was painted within six weeks of her marriage to Major Robert Rogers, whose “Rangers” so diverted his attention from the fair Elizabeth that she was obliged ultimately to divorce him. Mrs. Wyseman Claggett was painted immediately after her marriage to Claggett, only lately arrived from England. She died in 1827, said to have been the last survivor of Blackburn’s sitters. The pair of portraits of James Otis and his wife are dated 1755—their marriage intentions were recorded in March of that year. Like instances are numerous. The happy, if coincidental, combination of wealth, an important family event, and the presence of a fashionable artist produced the great family portraits. Instant ancestors!

    Consider for a moment Blackburn’s production of portraits and his possible income. There is no evidence that he carried on a subsidiary occupation as so many artists of his day were obliged to do in order to support their families. Perhaps this is a reason to suggest that he was alone, without family responsibilities. Peter Pelham, whose fame for us rests on his mezzotint portraits, was known in his day as a schoolmaster, teaching dancing and social deportment. Smibert kept a paint or “colour” shop, others sold prints, frames, and looking glasses. But we can trace no such activities to Blackburn. He may well have made his living during his nine years in America solely by exercising his profession. How does his production stand up against the others?

    Smibert painted in America from 1728 to 1746. In the earlier years his prices, in New England paper currency, depending in part on the size of the picture, ranged from £20 to £40. After 1732, desiring to be paid in coin or pounds sterling, he charged six, nine, and twelve guineas. But we have to bear in mind the dreadful depreciation of money in those years, old style and new style, and it is difficult to compare accurately a 1750 price with one of 1730. Until 1969, we believed Smibert’s American production to have been about one hundred and thirty-five portraits. Then in 1969 the artist’s own Notebook was published, in which he listed by name and date and price two hundred and forty pictures, almost twice as many as had been known of before. This is an average of fourteen portraits a year. The same book disclosed an average of twenty-nine portraits a year while he was in England from 1722 to 1728. We have not been so fortunate in discovering such details of the other portraitists, but it may well be that the same proportion of known portraits to total production can be applied to the other New England portrait painters, including Blackburn.

    Feke, from 1741 to 1750, charging in one instance of which we have a record six pounds, averaged seven portraits a year for an estimated total of about seventy. Greenwood averaged seven or eight a year for a total of somewhere between fifty and sixty paintings. Badger, contemporary with Blackburn, who is known to have charged six pounds for a picture, painted some ninety portraits over a score of years. Copley in the twenty-one years from 1753 to 1774 produced at least three hundred and fifty portraits, an average of about seventeen a year, and he claimed to have made £300 a year.

    As for Blackburn, we know of two instances of what he charged for a picture; ten guineas in 1762 for the portrait of Mrs. Barrell and £26 in 1764 for the pair of Warners. In Bermuda in little more than a year and a half he is known to have painted about two dozen pictures, and during his sojourn in America, averaged at least fifteen or sixteen a year. But portraits by Blackburn are still appearing, he undoubtedly painted many more, and it is evident that he compares favorably in output with Smibert and Copley, between whom he was a sort of connecting link. Someday the door into his life, which was no doubt not closed in his day, may be opened to us.

    He was more selective of his sitters than some of the other American portraitists. He dealt only with the aristocracy and principally in large canvases. His merchants are painted with their wives as pendants. We find among his sitters no Geneva-banded clergy. High style only. If you were important, Blackburn helped you prove it.

    In my youth we dined daily under the amiable gaze of Andrew Oliver, Jr., as Blackburn had preserved it, and of his wife Mary, the Salem beauty, daughter of the Judge Benjamin Lynde, who was one of those who presided at the Boston Massacre Trial. They still keep the same watch over the family board today. I was the first member of my family to discover Blackburn’s signature and the date 1755 on each picture. Andrew was the only child of his mother, who died shortly after his birth; his father had fourteen more children by his second wife. Andrew and Mary were painted not long after the birth of the first of their children to survive infancy, probably to signal the start of a new generation. In later life he was the only Oliver, with his children, who remained in America during the Revolution; the others all went into exile, never to return. But Andrew was not interested in politics; he was a man of letters, an amateur scientist and astronomer, and a founder of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is principally remembered for his Essay on Comets, a small thin volume first published in Salem in 1772, and later in Amsterdam and in Boston. His thesis, divulged in the Essay, not now widely held by scientists and astronomers, though still pietistically accepted as an article of faith by his Oliver descendants to the seventh generation, was that the tails of comets are inhabited. Perhaps it is there that we will ultimately find the elusive Mr. Blackburn.