Attribution is something libraries and museums struggle with every day. Who is the sitter in this portrait? Who is the author of this pamphlet? Often the objects give us clues, but not always. Sometimes they even lead us astray. This is the story of a pair of daguerreotypes at the American Antiquarian Society and how they started out being associated with one person and ended up being someone completely different. In this case, new digital technologies facilitated the research.
The pair of photographs depicts a sculpted bust of a man with wavy hair and a stern expression:
They date from the early 1850s and were made in Worcester by the photographer Benjamin D. Maxham. Maxham had a shop in the city from 1850 to 1858 and made many daguerreotypes of Worcester residents.
The two images are not cased, but still have their backing pieces, edge preservers and mattes. The mattes are stamped by Maxham. Inscribed on the verso in pencil by an unidentified hand is the name “Elmer Valentine.” Valentine was a teacher of penmanship in Northborough, Massachusetts, and the author of several instructional manuals on writing which were published in Worcester. The daguerreotypes were listed as depicting Valentine in the Society’s inventory and in the online resource for daguerreotypes, as well. There are no notations regarding the identity of the artist of the bust.
It was not until recently, when high resolution scans of the images were loaded into the Society’s digital asset management system (GIGI, http://gigi.mwa.org/) that I began to have doubts about the sitter being Valentine. I downloaded the scans of the two daguerreotypes and noticed a faint inscription on the side of the bust. It is barely legible to the human eye at actual size. Intrigued, I reversed the digital file (the technology of the daguerreotype resulted in the original photo being a mirror image of reality), and enlarge it immensely. At 400% magnification the incised inscription reads: “Doct. Newton / by / B. H. Kinney / 185[?]” The date is illegible due to shadows, even at 400%.
This discovery led me to the AAS catalog where I found that Dr. Newton was likely Dr. Calvin Newton (1800-1853) who had a medical practice in Worcester and was the founder of the Medical College on Union Hill. He was also the editor of several periodicals, including the New England Medical Eclectic and The Worcester Journal of Medicine, both of which were published in Worcester. In a biography published the year after his death, Newton was described as “a powerful man physically, a man of large mould, a great body, a great brain; his frame vigorous and well proportioned, every part alive with active, vital force.” He died of typhoid fever in August of 1853. An engraving of the doctor housed at the Society (see right) shows some similarities with the bust, particularly in the shape of the nose and the hair style.
Another avenue for investigation concerned the identity of the sculptor, B. H. Kinney, whose work is represented elsewhere in the Society’s portrait collection (http://www.americanantiquarian.org/Inventories/Portraits/39.htm, and http://www.americanantiquarian.org/Inventories/Portraits/130.htm). In 1985, William Wallace, Executive Director of the Worcester Historical Museum, published a catalog of the work of Benjamin H. Kinney (1821-1888). I pulled the catalog off the shelf but found no mention of Newton or of Valentine (just in case!). I emailed the images over to Bill at the WHM and he called me right away to discuss. His research on Kinney was based on newspaper searches and work with a manuscript archive. He agreed that the bust certainly could be the work of Kinney, and that it would not have been unusual for Kinney to produce a bust after the death of such a prominent local person. From the daguerreotype, it appears that the bust is made of plaster, in preparation for a marble carving. Kinney made a preparatory plaster bust of Isaiah Thomas, which was commissioned for AAS in 1859, and still exists in the collection (http://www.americanantiquarian.org/Inventories/Portraits/129.htm). Perhaps the medical school or a family member commissioned the piece after Newton’s death in 1853. The date is obscured by shadow, unfortunately, but could be 1854 or 1857. A quick check of the Worcester newspapers came up empty, but research continues to track down the commission details.
In the end, AAS will be updating our online resource to reflect this new information, giving Dr. Calvin Newton a new prominence and firmly locating the bust in the oeuvre of Benjamin H. Kinney. Put it down to the power of Photoshop, or to the persistent curiosity of the curator, or both … but without the ability to enlarge and rotate the digital file, Dr. Newton would probably have remained Mr. Valentine!