Thursday, March 28, 2013

Who Are These Beautiful Women?

“Mary Escars” in The American Book of Beauty, or, Token of Friendship (Hartford, 1847?)

Recently, the Library Company acquired a fifth copy of The American Book of Beauty, or, Token of Friendship (Hartford: Silas Andrus & Son, 1847). The first four copies (three given by Todd and Sharon Pattison and one by Michael Zinman) have publisher’s bindings that all differ slightly. This fifth copy, purchased with the Davida T. Deutsch Women’s History Fund, also differs from the others.

The Library Company has an extensive collection of such gift books, which would have been available for the end-of-year-holiday market beginning in the late 1820s. But why would a publisher issue a gift book with many subtle differences in binding? (And then issue the book again the following year, with slight textual changes, too? But that’s another story.) The book is a conundrum in a multitude of ways, but it especially raises questions for us, since we’ve long sought to identify published portraits of American Women in ImPAC.

The title page states that the volume was “edited by a lady.” Often we know the identity of “A lady,” but this time we don’t. The book has seven engraved plates depicting women who are identified by name: Mrs. Henry Baldwin, Miss Adelia Hoyt, Miss Tyndal, Mary Escars, Miss Ketchum, Mrs. Coster and Child, and the Countess of Calabrella. One of these is easy to identify as the “Countess of Calabrella” is almost certainly the Baroness of Calabrella (1788-1856), who was an English writer. The image even resembles other known portraits of the Baroness (after a fashion ...). But who are the other six women? Especially curious is the fact that the portraits do not seem related to the text of the book.

So we started looking at plates in the similarly titled Heath’s Book of Beauty, which was a popular English annual. There, we discovered the portrait of Mary Escars in the volume for 1839. But this time she was identified as “Mrs. Verschoyle”:

“Mrs. Verschoyle” in Heath's Book of Beauty: 1839 (London, 1839) -- Further identified as Catherine Curtis Verschoyle by Jessica Linker on March 29, 2013.

The editor of Heath’s was the Countess of Blessington (1789-1849), a famous beauty herself.  During the sixteen years in the 1830s and 1840s that she edited Heath's, 116 women’s portraits appeared in its pages. Having one’s portrait in Heath’s was an honor. Even Queen Victoria allowed her portrait to be published as the frontispiece ... four times! It may be that the engraved plate for printing Mrs. Verschoyle’s portrait was produced for Heath’s, and then made a trip across the Atlantic to become “Mary Escars” in American gift books. The plate captioned “Mary Escars” appears in both The American Book of Beauty (Hartford, 1847) and Family Circle, and Parlor Annual, 1849 (New York, 1848), and perhaps other books as well.

All this may help to explain why the woman “Mary Escars” has been so hard to track down. And why, in an earlier edition of The American Book of Beauty (New York, 1845), the same portrait is listed in the table of illustrations as “Mrs. Verschoyle of Baltimore.” So far, we believe that Mrs. Verschoyle was indeed a wealthy woman in Great Britain – and not the mysterious “Mary Escars.” We also have located no entry for anyone with the surname Verschoyle in Baltimore city directories – so that appears to be a ruse as well.

According to all the plates, the portrait of Mrs. Verschoyle/Mary Escars was engraved by William Henry Mote after a painting by Alfred Edward Chalon (1780-1860). Alfred Chalon was indeed a London portrait painter, who became known for his portraits of Queen Victoria. And William Henry Mote was a prolific London steel engraver. But does the original painting survive, and who was the real sitter?

And what about the other five women? Can anyone help us find their portraits elsewhere? We’d love to hear from you if you can help us with this artistic shell game. 

See the images below for “our” women in The American Book of Beauty (Hartford, 1847):

"Mrs. Henry Baldwin and Child" -- Original sitter identified as Mrs. Henry Bathurst by Jessica Linker on March 29, 2013.

"Miss Adelia Hoyt" -- Original sitter identified as the Hon. Mrs. George Anson by Alison McMenamin on March 28, 2013.

"Miss Tyndal" -- Original sitter identified as Mrs. Jane Spalding by Jessica Linker on March 29, 2013.

“Miss Ketchum” – Original sitter identified as the English singer and actress Elizabeth Inverarity Martyn (1813-1846) by Jessica Linker on March 28, 2013.

"Mrs. Coster & Child"–Original sitter identified as the Hon. LalagĂ© Letitia Caroline Vivian Bankes (1834-1875) by Jessica Linker on March 28, 2013.

Cornelia S. King
Chief of Reference and Curator of Women's History