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May. 1990

Volume XVI, Number 1

The Museum of Early Southern

Decorative Arts


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The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts is owned and operated by Old Salem, Inc.,
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Congregation Town founded in 1766. MESDA is an educational institution with the established
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decorative arts and craftsmanship from the 1600s to 1820. The Museum exhibits its collection for
public interest and study.

For further information, please write to MESDA, Box 10310, Salem Station, Winston-Salem,
North Carolina 27108. Telephone (919) 721-7.^60.




May, 1990

Volume XVI, Number 1

Published twice yearly in

May and November by

The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts



Copyright © 1990 Old Salem, Inc.
Winston-Salem, North Carolina 27108

Printed by Hall Printing Company
High Point, North Carolina


John Blake White: An Introduction 1

Mary Ellen Turner

Coffin Making and Undertaking

in Charleston and its Environs, 1103-1820 18

Bradford L. Rauschenberg


Figure 1. Battle of Fort Moultrie, oil on canvas, John Blake White (1781-1859),
Charleston, 1815. 52" x 50". U. S. Senate Collection, courtesy Senate Curator's



John Blake White: An Introduction
Mary Ellen Turner

John Blake White was born in 1781 near Eutaw Springs, or
Eutawville, South Carohna.^ Blake Leay White, John's father,
owned land that was part of White Hall plantation in St. John's
Parish, Berkeley County, until 1790, and it is possible that White
was born there. White's family was a distinguished one. His Blake
relatives were Irish. His grandfather. Sir John White, came to
America from England with William Penn, surrendered his title,
became a Quaker, and took an active part in colonial government. ^

Little is known of Blake's early life. He studied law in
Columbia, South Carolina, and in 1800 sailed for England where
he learned to paint under the tutelage of Benjamin West.^ Other
painters with Charleston backgrounds attended West's Royal
Academy of Art at about the same time, including Samuel F.
B. Morse, Washington Allston, and Edward Greene Malbone.
White kept a journal during and after his years abroad, diligently
reporting his travels, the friends who visited him from the states,
the plays he attended, the artists he met, and the paintings he
saw. Apparently he never passed up an opportunity to view what
he believed were the choicest works by the ablest masters. He
considered two of the finest collections in London to be those
of Jonathan Hope and John Julius Angerstein, who owned
Michelangelo's Resurrection of Lazarus. He also cherished the visits
from his old friends, writing on one occasion, "When at a distance
surrounded by strangers, our affections take far stronger hold upon
us than when in our native land and surrounded by those whom
we have loved and known since infancy."'*

May, 1990 1

Unfortunately, White rarely wrote of his own painting lessons.
However, his casual notes on the men and events of his time have
become quite valuable to historians, for his comments were candid
and shed light on the attitudes of many of his well-known
contemporaries, of whom Colonel John Trumbull was one. White
had an opportunity to visit Trumbull before embarking on his
studies with West and enthusiastically informed him of his wish
to paint — "the profession from which I anticipated so much
glory and happiness in pursuing." The colonel, however, advised
him to continue with his law studies. "Relinquish painting,"
he said. "It will never repay you for your pains, because it depends
upon the caprice and whim of mankind. Law is certain; painting
is unnecessary." White apparently was not affected by Trumbull's
words at that time. "All this only made me smile," he wrote. ^

That White had a sense of humor is also evident in his
writings. For example, upon his arrival in England, he and a friend
found that their hairstyles were quite out of fashion. They went
to the nearest barber shop where. White wrote, they received their
"first lesson of London extortion." Their curious barber lavished
much time and all his skill on their hair, and when he finished,
they noted that he had also taken care to charge for the time he
had lost — the bill was three times what it should have been.^

In 1803, after three years in Europe, White returned to
Charleston to paint portraits, the only type of painting that
received sufficient encouragement in South Carolina at that time.
His portrait of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, executed in 1804,
even prompted a proposal for the publication of an engraving
from White's likeness.^ However, he found no enthusiasm for
historical painting, the genre espoused by West and with which
White was most taken. Feeling that he could find success in the
North, White journeyed to Boston. He carried many letters with
him, one of which was from a young lady to her cousin. Miss
Eliza Allston, who had been living in Newport, Rhode Island,
and travelling for health reasons. At that time he also met with
Mr. Timothy Ford, a South Carolinian living near Boston and
practicing law, and related how disappointed he was not to have
met with more success as a painter. Several days later. Ford and
Trumbull, who had returned from London, called on White,
telling him that if he could not bear to give up painting, he should
leave America and paint in Spain or Florence.

White did not heed this advice. Instead he decided to return
to Charleston and set sail for Carolina. Aboard the ship were Miss


Allston and her friends. Of this circumstance he wrote, "It was
during this voyage that I was happy enough to engage the affec-
tion of Miss Allston; and before my arrival, I made known my
attachment to her." She returned to her home near Georgetown,
and they were married in March 1805. White thought it expe-
dient to accustom his wife to the Charleston climate, so for two
years they lived in Hampstead, then Gadsden's Green, before
moving to the city. At that time he had abandoned his painting
and returned to practicing law, a profession in which he also
struggled.^ In 1806, in an attempt to bolster a faltering income,
White wrote a tragedy, "Foscari," which was presented at the
Charleston theater. 9 He received half the net profits from three
presentations, amounting to $86.25. "I was never more in need
of it in my life," he wrote. He was advised to publish the play
and eventually received $700 for the work. Another play earned
him about $400, and in 1808 he was admitted to the bar, three
years after he had applied. His financial situation markedly
improved, he and Eliza moved from their house on Liberty Street
to 85 Broad. They had four children between 1806 and 1812:
Edward Brickell, Adeline Elizabeth, Lorenzo Allston, and Alonzo

In 1812 White wrote another tragedy, "Modern Honor,"
which was well-received on its opening night. However, by its
third presentation, the audience was indifferent, and the profits
did not clear the house. White blamed public calamities such
as the destruction of the theater at Richmond and the shock of
the Charleston earthquakes for the play's decline in popularity. i°
It was during this time that he probably painted his four best-
known paintings. General Marion Inviting a British Officer to
Share His Meal, Sergeant's Jasper and Newton Rescuing American
Prisoners from the British, Mrs. Motte Directing Generals Manon
and Lee to Burn Her Mansion to Dislodge the British, and Battle
ofFortMoultne. These works, all done between 1810 and 1815,
now hang in the United States Capitol and were donated by his
son. Dr. Octavius White. White also continued his law practice
and painted portraits of such South Carolina luminaries as John
C. Calhoun, Keating Simons, and Governor Henry Middleton.
In 1817 his wife Eliza died after a three-month illness and was
buried in the family plot at St. Philip's. ^^ White wrote: "When
this happened, the agony of my mind was inexpressible. I looked
around but saw no source of consolation. My children gave me
no comfort; they only heightened my despair. Religion was no

May, 1990 3

resource. I had not sufficiently cultivated it to experience the
benefit. "'2 A year later he was elected to the South Carolina
General Assembly.'' In 1819 he married Anna Rachel O'Driscoll.
They had four children: Francis O'Driscoll, John Blake, Octavius
Augustus, and another son who died as an infant. '^

In 1821 Samuel F. B. Morse and John Steven Cogdell helped
establish the South Carolina Academy of Fine Arts and appointed
White as one of the directors. Although many South Carolinians
and Charlestonians in particular expressed an interest in patronage
of the arts, the academy was not a success. Most wealthy Charles-
tonians were dependent upon a rice and cotton based economy
that did not allow for a consistent circulation of money. In the
agrarian crisis that gripped Charleston in the 1820s, capital and
patrons began to disappear simultaneously. Although its early
exhibitions, particularly the 1823 show, included works of many
prominent artists and old masters, interest in the Academy waned
quickly, and it expired in 1830, a victim of public apathy and
economic deprivation. '^

Samuel F. B. Morse's experiences with the wealthy dowager,
Mrs. Caroline Ball, serve to illustrate the problems Charleston's
portraitists had with patrons from the planter class. Mrs. Ball
commissioned her portrait in 1819, agreeing to a $600 fee. The
painting was completed in the summer of 1820 after Morse
effected a number of alterations at Mrs. Ball's request. The portrait
was exhibited in Morse's studio, where it received the enthusiastic
approbation of many Charleston residents, as well as the praises
of John Trumbull. When Mrs. Ball came to retrieve her paint-
ing, her first reaction was favorable, but a second look brought
a host of complaints: the painting was too large, she wanted a
purple curtain, a guitar on a table in the picture was the wrong
shape and color, she wanted it altered and a gold necklace added
around the neck. Morse complied, but admitted that he thought
she was deranged. In actuality, Mrs. Ball, rather than suffering
from aesthetic paranoia, was unable to pay Morse his $600 and
used her complaints as delaying tactics. Threats and insults ensued
for three months until she finally admitted that she lacked the
funds to settle her account. She could only spare $400, and if
the harvest improved, she might be able to add to the payment.
Morse was incredulous and sarcastically demanded to know if the
goodness or badness of her crop was the scale on which her
conscience measured her obligation to pay a debt.'*^

Histories of White's other distinguished colleagues, as well


as his own, also indicate the vagaries of trying to earn livings as
artists in Charleston during the first decades of the nineteenth
century. To augment insufficient incomes, Charles Fraser wrote
poetry, Washington Allston wrote essays, and White wrote plays.
Allston and Morse eventually left Charleston to seek their fortunes
elsewhere. Although Fraser, Cogdell, and White remained in
Charleston, only Fraser, after twelve years of practicing law, was
ever able to paint full time. South Carolina architect Robert Mills,
in fact, claimed that Fraser and White were prevented from
attaining professional standards by their decisions to remain in
South Carolina.'^

Despite the failure of the Academy and Charleston artists'
troubles with South Carolina patrons. White's historical paint-
ings and genre scenes eventually gained acceptance. In 1833 he
received a Picture of Merit Award for his work entitled The Grave
Robbers and about that time advertisements in Charleston
newspapers began extolling his work.^^ For example, the follow-
ing notice, probably in reference to Arrival of the Mail, appeared
in the Charleston Courier of 1 June 1837: "Our tasteful artist
Mr. J. B. White has again employed his pencil in the delineation
of our local scenery; and has achieved quite a successful and
elegant performance. "'^ The advertisement added that the
painting was on display at the Broad Street studio of William
Keenan and that Keenan proposed to publish an engraving from
it. White's paintings often were raffled, with the proceeds going
to a favorite cause. After a fire destroyed St. Philip's, White
painted The Burning of St. Philip 's Church and exhibited it in
1838 for the benefit of the organ fund.^o The painting hangs in
the church today. His Unfurling of the American Flag was
purchased by popular subscription and presented to the United
States Senate. For reasons unknown, the work was refused, and
instead it was given to President Andrew Jackson, who left it to
his adopted son in his will.^i It passed to the state of South
Carolina, but perished in 1865 when General Sherman's men
set fire to Columbia. Two other paintings. The Arrival of the
Mail and The Interior of the Jewish Synagogue, have survived
and are still in Charleston, the former at City Hall. In 1845 he
was awarded a diploma of honorary membership to the National
Academy of Design, and in 1850 the South Carolina Institute
presented him with a silver medal for the best historical paint-
ing shown at their fair." White died in 1859 and was buried at
St. Philip's. His wry comment in his journal regarding European

May, 1990 5

artists can also be applied to his life and work: ' 'With both poets
and painters, it often happens, that they never live till after they

White's schooling under West is reflected in his interest in
the historical genre. The four paintings he did between 1810 and
1815, based on events during and legends that arose from the
American Revolution, indicate his determination to paint in this
genre, despite general public lack of interest in the form. The
Battle of Fort Moultrie (fig. 1) depicts the famous battle, fought
in 1776, that effectively prevented the British from entering the
South for two years. Among the figures Blake represented in the
painting are William Moultrie, Francis Marion, William Jasper,
and Blake Leay White.

In 1779 a group of American prisoners held by the British
about two miles north of Savannah were freed by two scouts in
Marion's brigade. This rescue was popularized by Parson Weems,
the originator of the legend of Washington and the cherry tree,
but in this case he based his tale on fact. William Jasper, who
had distinguished himself in the Battle of Fort Moultrie, and John

Figure 2. Sergeants Jasper and Newton Rescuing American Prisoners from the
British, oil on canvas, John Blake White. Charleston, 1810-13. 24 1/2" x 29
1/2". U. S. Senate Collection, courtesy Senate Curator's Office.


Figure 3- General Marion Inviting a British Officer to Share His Meal, oil on
canvas, John Blake While, Charleston, 1810-15. 24 1/2" x 29 1/2". U. S.
Senate Collection, courtesy Senate Curator's Office.

Newton, while visiting Jasper's brother, a loyalist encamped with
the British, met the prisoners as they were about to be sent to
trial in Savannah. Jasper and Newton decided to save the group
and planted themselves at a watering spot where they thought
the British would be likely to stop. When the escort arrived and
set aside their weapons to take a drink, Newton and Jasper over-
powered them. White's painting of Jasper and Newton (fig. 2)
depicts the reunion of one of the prisoners with his wife and child
and it is believed that it was that particular family's plight that
inspired the scouts to rescue the prisoners. Engravings of this
painting were made and distributed by the Apollo Association
of Fine Arts in the United States, and it also appeared on bank
notes issued by South Carolina in 1861.

General Manon Inviting a British Officer to Share His Meal
(figs. 3, 4) portrays one of the many legends that grew from
Marion's military exploits during the war. According to tradition,
in 1781 the general invited a British officer to have supper with
his brigade. The officer, sent by the British to negotiate with
Marion for the exchange of prisoners, was amazed at the meager

May, 1990

fare until Marion explained that the soldiers were not paid and
provided their own food, all for the sake of fighting for liberty.
It is said that the officer was so impressed that he gave up his
post shortly thereafter, believing it impossible to defeat such
dedicated soldiers. Apparently White was fascinated with this tale,
for three different studies depicting the story, all attributed to
him, have been located. Engravings of the study now owned by
the Capitol also were made by the Apollo Association and, like
the painting of Sergeants Jasper and Newton, appeared on 1861
South Carolina notes.

Mrs. Motte Directing Generals Marion and Lee to Burn Her
Mansion to Dislodge the British (fig. 5) is also a portrayal of a
1781 Revolutionary War event. Her plantation on the Congaree

Figure 4. General Marion Inviting a British Officer to Share His Meal, oi/ on
canvas, Charleston, 1810-13. Dimensions not recorded. Photograph courtesy
of Robert M. Htck/in, Jr. , Inc. , Spartanburg, S. C.

River between Charleston and Columbia was captured by the
British earlier in the war and converted into a supply depot. In
May 1781 Marion and General "Light Horse Harry" Lee reclaimed
the plantation, and according to tradition, Mrs. Motte insisted


Figure 3. Mrs. Motte Directing Generals Marion and Lee to Burn Her Mansion
to Dislodge the British, oil on canvas, John Blake White, Charleston, 1810-13.
24 1 /2" x29 1/2". U. S. Senate Collection, courtesy Senate Curator's Office.

that they set fire to her dwelhng so that the British would be
dislodged. She supposedly handed arrows to the generals, who
had them set on fire and shot towards the house. The British,
afraid that their store of gunpowder would explode, destroying
them, surrendered.^"*

These four paintings typify the sort of nostalgic romanticism
that characterized American painting for much of the nineteenth
century. West and John Singleton Copley had set the stage for
the development of this style in the mid-to-late eighteenth century
by borrowing aspects of the European Grand Style and heroic
traditions to create a sentimental form of neoclassicism. White's
four pieces center on the American Revolution, which had
occurred some twenty-five years before they were painted, and
feature the iconography inherent in what has become known as
the "'ideal' aspect of American romanticism. "^'^ Because of his
background, White chose to depict heroes and scenes near and
dear to the hearts of South Carolinians, Marion in particular. It
is possible that he hoped to attract interest in his historical works.

May, 1990

Figure 6. Battle of La Hogue, oii on canvas. Benjamin West, LunJon. 1775-80.
60 1/8" x84 3/8". National Gallery of Art, Washington. D. C. , Andrew W.
Mellon Fund. ace. 1939-8.1.

Figure 7. Rocky Coast with Banditti, oil on canvas. Washington Allston
(1779-1843), Charleston, 1800. 19" x 13 3/4". Museum of Early Southern
Decorative Arts (MESDA), ace. 2098.



and perhaps the genre in general, by playing to the patriotic
sentiments of his Charleston public.

West's influence on White is evident in the theatrical gestures
of his Revolutionary figures. Sergeants Jasper and Newton in
particular reflects West characteristics. The poses and attitudes
of the rescuers and the grateful prisoner's wife can be related to
those of the father and son in West's Return of the Prodigal Son ?''
Battle of Fort Moultrie also can be likened to several West
paintings, The Battle of La Hogue (fig. 6), for example. The
skirmish involving the group of soldiers in the middle left portion
of the Fort Moultrie painting is similar to that of the seamen
fighting in the right-hand corner of The Battle of La Liogue.
However, White's paintings somehow lack the intimacy of West's;
White's are more crowded, detached, and distant. Also missing
in White's works are the classical motifs, especially clothing and
architecture, so inherent in many of West's historical paintings.

Figure 8. Coast Scene on the Mediterranean, oii on canvas. W'ashtngton Allston,
Italy, c. 1820. 39 3/8" x 33". Columbia Museum of Art. MESDA Research
File (MRF) S-8827.

May, 1990


signalling White's romantic influences and the movement of
American painting in the nineteenth century away from West's

As Washington Allston was a contemporary of White's, it is
not surprising that White's later works took on some of Allston 's
characteristics. The iconography and hero worship of neoclassical
historical scenes were essentially abandoned by Allston who shifted
his emphasis toward scenery and landscape and away from human
figures. In such works as A Rocky Coast with Banditti (fig. 7)
and Coast Scene on the Mediterranean (fig. 8), Allston depicted
men as almost insignificant participants on the grander stage of
land and sea. In at least four paintings executed in the 1820s and
1830s, White followed Allston's lead. These works. Broad Street,
Arrival of the Mail, Interior of St. Philip 'i Church, and The
Burning of St. Philip's Church, all echo Allston's work.

Broad Street (fig. 9), originally thought to have been painted
by Charles Fraser, has been attributed to White based on its
similarity to other White pieces. Both it and Arrival of the Mail
definitely resemble such Allston works as Italian Landscape and
Moonlight Landscape .^^ In all four works, most of the human
activity was confined to the right and right center of the paintings;

Figure 9. Broad Street, oi/on canvas, attributed to ]ohn Blake White, Charleston,
c. 1823. 23" X 17". MRFS-13,329.


sky, foliage, and architecture are particularly underscored. White's
handling of the buildings in both Broad Street and Arrival of
the Mai/ (fig. 10) is along the lines of those in Italian Landscape.

Figure 10. Arrival of the Mail, otl on canvas, John Blake White, Charleston,
c. 1831. 24 3/8" .X 29 3/16". City of Charleston, MRF S-8318.

Windows and arches abound in the three, for example. However,
White chose to portray city street scenes and therefore painted
his architecture in a more traditional perspective. It is also inter-
esting to note that Moonlight Landscape , which Allston painted
in 1819, features a horse, as does Broad Street, which dates about

May, 1990


Figure 11. Interior of St. Philip's Church, oil on canvas. John Blake White,
Charleston, 1830s. 36" x 27 3/4". MRF S-14,970.

Figure 12. The Burning of St. Philip's Church, oil on canvas, John Blake White,
Charleston, 1838. 33 1/2" x 26 1/2". MRF S- 14,971.



Apparently by the late 1830s White had developed a style
that was more recognizably his own, but there were still traces
of Allston's influence in his paintings of St. Philip's. Interior of
St. Philip i Church (fig. 11) features more figures than his earlier
Charleston street scenes, but the same fascination with perspec-
tive is present. Again, arches and windows are the predominant

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