Mystery still clings to portrait on return to EC


Fine Art handlers Rene Martinez (front) and Josh Pyke hang the "Nags Head Portrait" of Theodosia Burr Alston at the Museum of the Albemarle on Wednesday.


Albemarle Life Editor

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Elizabeth City historian Marjorie Berry came eye to eye with a mysterious painting last week that has haunted her for years.

Berry "heard bits and pieces all my life" about the 19th century painting of an aristocratic woman but had never actually seen the real thing.

Berry's curiosity eventually led her to trace the whereabouts of the "Nags Head Portrait" to the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University in Connecticut. At Berry's suggestion, the Museum of the Albemarle arranged to borrow the portrait for an exhibit that opens August 10.

"I have a feeling I am going to have goose bumps when I see it," Berry said before the portrait arrived on Wednesday.

The portrait is believed to be a painting of Theodosia Burr Alston, daughter of the third U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr, before she reportedly died at sea in early 1813.

Theodosia's story and how an Elizabeth City doctor came to own the portrait in 1859 have puzzled Berry and others who know its history.

The portrait's connection to Elizabeth City was an unlikely one.

Dr. William G. Pool was vacationing at the beach when he was called to the bedside of a poor fisherman's widow in Nags Head Woods. A portrait hanging in a shack caught his eye and he asked for it as payment for his services.

The widow told Pool that a sweetheart had given her the painting, part of the spoils he gained after a sunken ship from the War of 1812 washed up in the breakers.

Theodosia Burr Alston, wife of South Carolina governor Joseph Alston, boarded the schooner Patriot on Dec. 30, 1812 headed from her Carolina home to New York to visit her father. The ship reportedly sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras and all passengers were lost at sea.

"Everybody assumed the ship went down during the storm," said Berry.

Other theories also exist.

"Legends state that the ship was attacked by pirates, who then plundered its goods, including this portrait, and all aboard were kidnapped and murdered," states a museum invitation to the exhibit's opening.

How the painting survived the perils at sea was one of its mysteries. The identity of the woman in the forgotten, once-missing portrait was another.

When Pool acquired the painting in 1859, he did not know the subject's identity, although he apparently had suspicions. In his research, he found other portraits of Theodosia and compared them to the "Nags Head Portrait" and eventually asked her family members to look at it, said Berry.

The 18-inch-by-20-inch oil painting on mahogany of a woman's head and shoulders is unsigned but believed to be the work of John Vanderlyn, a famous painter of the day.

The "Nags Head Portrait" was passed down by Pool's family for generations before eventually becoming the possession of the Lewis Walpole Library. The portrait was not on exhibit at the library nor had it every been loaned out before its return to Elizabeth City.

Museum Curator Wanda Lassiter said securing the portrait on loan meant filling out piles of paperwork, insuring the artwork for its $50,000 value, and arranging for fine art shippers to deliver the portrait inside a "micro-climate" casing.

On Wednesday afternoon, about a half-dozen bystanders, including Berry, watched the fine arts shipping team unpack the portrait and hang it on a wall in the Our Story exhibit.

Delivery man Rene Martinez with Washington D.C.-based Artex said having an audience while he worked was nothing unusual.

Some of his audiences can be particular about the unpacking, he said.

"They usually own the artwork, so it's a little bit more nerve wracking," Martinez said. "Or a designer tells us that it's not in the right spot."

Berry simply nodded her approval at the job and took a long, close look at the face from centuries past.

As part of its 50th anniversary celebration, the museum is hosting a reception and history talk for the new exhibit on Thursday, August 10, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Berry will be the featured speaker. The portrait will remain on exhibit at Museum of the Albemarle through February.