New exhibition explores the connection between British paintings and the Virginia Colony

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New exhibition explores the connection between British paintings and the Virginia Colony
The Death of Wolfe. England, London, 1770-1774. Oil on canvas. Museum Purchase, 1960-668.

WILLIAMSBURG, VA.- Long after America declared its independence, Virginia maintained close ties to Britain through its shared history, socio-economic bonds and a common culture. This relationship is explored in a new exhibition, The Virginia-British Connection: British Paintings with Virginia Ties, at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, one of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg. Through 14 portraits depicting a range of British rulers, lesser British subjects and Virginia-born citizens, all painted prior to the Revolutionary War, the relationships between these paintings and the Virginia colony are examined. These ties may reflect a painting having been owned in Virginia, the sitter had traveled there or the subject having held authority over the colony. The Virginia-British Connection is one of the exhibitions currently on view at the newly expanded Art Museums and will remain on view through December 31, 2021.

“Colonial Williamsburg is well known for the quality of its American art, but the Foundation has also collected important British paintings since its earliest years,” said Ronald L. Hurst, the institution’s Carlisle H. Humelsine Chief Curator and vice president for museums, preservation, and historic resources. “The newly opened expansion of the Art Museums now provides gallery space for these important works.”

Among the paintings on view in The Virginia-British Connection are portraits of people for which nearby places are named. One such notable example is of Prince William, Duke of Gloucester, an oil on canvas painted in England between 1696-1700, which is attributed to Edmund Lilly. William was the only child of Princess (later Queen) Anne to survive infancy. Declared Duke of Gloucester at birth by his uncle, King William III, he became a Knight of the Garter at the age of seven. Second in line to the British throne, William was frail from birth and died shortly after his 11th birthday. His short life overlapped the 1699 establishment of Virginia’s new capitol, Williamsburg. The colony’s legislature named the town’s principal thoroughfare Duke of Gloucester Street in honor of the young prince.

Another notable highlight of The Virginia-British Connection is that two of the portraits on view were owned by William Byrd II, among the wealthiest men living along the James River at the time. He assembled one of the earliest collections of paintings in America, 30 of which hung in his “gallery of worthies” at his Virginia plantation, Westover. Byrd commissioned and collected portraits of family members and prominent British figures, some he knew and some he aspired to know. Among those with whom he was acquainted and whose likeness is included in the exhibition was Sir Wilfred Lawson, Groom of the Bedchamber for King George I, 3rd Baronet of Isell and also a member of the British House of Commons. Curiously, his 1718 nomination for membership in the Royal Society was sponsored by the Virginia-born William Byrd II. It is likely that the two became acquainted while Byrd was living in London for his formal education. The portrait is an oil on canvas attributed to Hans Hysing painted in England between 1722-1726; Byrd once commissioned a portrait of himself from the same artist.

“While so much of our Foundation’s mission focuses on the Revolutionary War, it is always fun to dive a little deeper into the time leading up to the war and showcase our English paintings,” said Kate Rogers, assistant curator of paintings, drawings and sculpture at Colonial Williamsburg. “This grouping spans several generations of English painters and includes some of the greatest names in portraiture from the period like Sir Godfrey Kneller, Francis Cotes, and Sir Peter Lely.”

An oil on canvas portrait of Scotland-born Charles Steuart, possibly painted by David Allan in Great Britain, 1780, is another painting featured in the exhibition. Steuart came to Virginia in 1741 to work as a storekeeper for a Glasgow tobacco merchant and later headed his own mercantile business in Norfolk, Virginia. He was notable at the time for having prevented an international incident in 1762 by defending a party of Spanish naval officers from a Norfolk mob. He was rewarded for his efforts by King George III and was named Receiver General of His Majesty’s Customs in North America. Today, however, Steuart is best known for his role in a landmark legal case involving slavery. James Somerset, an enslaved man, typically accompanied Steuart in his travels, however, in 1771 while the two were in England, Somerset ran away. Following his re-capture, Steuart intended to sell Somerset in Jamaica. Abolitionists mobilized and the court ruled that a slave in England could not be forcibly returned to the colonies. While the ruling did not bring about the end of slavery, it paved the way for true emancipation legislation.

The Virginia-British Connection was curated by Laura Pass Barry, Colonial Williamsburg’s Juli Grainger curator of paintings, drawings, and sculpture and Ms. Rogers.

Important portraits of such recognizable figures as Oliver Cromwell and Queen Anne are among the other paintings included in The Virginia-British Connection. For any Anglophile who appreciates fine paintings and a curiosity for colonial Virginia history, this exhibition is certain to delight and educate.

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