Progress and place

FOR all that it has gained or lost in the tides of politics and war, Perth Amboy’s history attests to the power of place, the environment’s ability to span time and distance through the agency of human memory and motivation. For so many who spent the bulk of their lives elsewhere–and William Whitehead was by no means the first or the last–periods of ease in Perth Amboy revived the freedom of youth long after youth had vanished.

William Dunlap (1766-1839), Self-portrait.

Perhaps few had as strong an affinity for the provincial town as its most illustrious native son, the playwright, theater impresario, painter and critic William Dunlap. Wrested from his birthplace at a tender age amid the dramatic events of the Revolution, once grown he found regular solace in Perth Amboy and its environs, a haven from the stresses of New York where he mainly lived and worked. At Amboy he could wake to the robin’s song in springtime, “very sweet.” He could fill the summers “writing for my theatre, and traversing hills, dales, and woods, with my dog and my gun.” When theatrical ventures bankrupted him in 1805, he took extended refuge at Perth Amboy on his mother’s farm.1

Dunlap never let poverty diminish his gratitude to the elderly recluse who introduced him to art and literature, who laid “the foundation of my love for books and pictures.” The gentle Thomas Bartow seemed to welcome no other human company, while the boy largely preferred the old man’s companionship to “the enticing gambols” of his contemporaries. Dunlap spent “the happiest moments of childhood” in Bartow’s house, a dwelling that he recalled with admiration as the only one in the town “free from the stain and the curse” of slavery. When the Revolution came Bartow departed from Perth Amboy and his nine-year-old friend, and afterwards appeared to Dunlap only in his dreams.2

In what would be the last decade of his life Dunlap produced historical compilations, including his influential two-volume History of the rise and progress of the arts of design in the United States. This series of profiles of artists down to (and mainly during) his own lifetime opened with the Scots-born limner, or portrait artist, John Watson, a figure from Perth Amboy’s colonial past. Assuming that much of Watson’s work was scattered or destroyed during the Revolution, Dunlap knew him less through direct exposure to his art than through anecdotes, many gathered from another denizen of the town, Andrew Bell.3 Dunlap’s own vivid memory of Watson’s portrait gallery, deserted after the artist’s death but still standing on the bluff facing Arthur Kill, remains a wellspring of American art history:

His dwelling-house had been pulled down by his heir, but a smaller building which adjoined it, and which had been his painting and picture house, remained and attracted admiration by the heads of sages, heroes, and kings. The window-shutters were divided into squares, and each square presented the head of a man or woman, which, if memory can be trusted at this distant period, after an interval of more than sixty years, represented personages in antique costume, and the men with beards and helmets, or crowns.4

Despite the eventual loss of the building and, apparently, its contents, Dunlap assured his readership of Watson’s “influence on the progress of the arts in the United States.” That the place of Dunlap’s birth also received the first known American painter and first known collection of American paintings was, if not pure invention, at least something more than “a curious fact”; that the “child’s wonder” with which he admired Watson’s paintings should blossom, some sixty years later, into a history of American art comes to appear, in retrospect, almost foreordained.5

Destiny also seems to have brought together Dunlap and the much younger William Whitehead. While we are insufficiently informed about the origins or terms of their acquaintance, it’s hard to resist the impression that it was inevitable. Both enjoyed exposure to the visual arts at a young age, with limited formal schooling. Both saw their boyhoods delimited by relocations, Dunlap’s from and Whitehead’s to Perth Amboy. At different ages, both were drawn to the home of Thomas Bartow. By Whitehead’s time the house was inhabited by others, but its associations would impel him to learn about “the amiable, quiet old gentleman, who … was the proprietor and occupier of the premises.”6 Dunlap and Whitehead were linked even by the coincidence–a “curious fact” to be sure–of being born on the 19th of February, though 44 years apart. Whether or not their communion was written in the stars, both found ways of coming back to breathe the air of the same historic place.

By the time Dunlap embarked definitively on his historical project, William Whitehead had moved on from Perth Amboy. As the older man started writing he also entered a lively correspondence with Whitehead, now collector of customs for the nation’s southernmost port of Key West, in Florida Territory. The letters that passed between them, mentioned in both men’s writings and sometimes liberally excerpted by Whitehead, are as yet unfound, but their citations give ample proof that each assisted and advanced the researches of the other.

John Watson (1685-1768), Self portrait, 1720.

Whitehead went on in his investigations to alter the impression that John Watson’s collection had been lost, identifying several portraits held by a great-niece of Watson, mostly miniature sketches in pencil or India ink. Some of these were exhibited at a meeting of the New Jersey Historical Society, and some engraved for his history of Perth Amboy. The majority depicted persons living in Watson’s time. Eventually thirty-three pieces were identified as the work of Watson, including a series of self-portraits done at different ages, “from twenty-seven to over sixty.”7

“The author calls this work a history, without presuming to place himself in the rank of professed historians.” With those words William Dunlap set out “to place in the hands of the future historian, many valuable facts, which would otherwise have been lost.”8 However his History is judged, there is little doubt that he achieved this mission. He did so without a publishing firm’s support, having to coordinate subscriptions and shipments. Among his customers was old Andrew Bell, who received three copies for Perth Amboy, while William Whitehead in faraway Key West took six.9 With Dunlap’s example and those words before him, Whitehead had much to ponder concerning history and the place of the historian.

Copyright © 2017-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] Diary of William Dunlap (1766-1839), 3 vols. (Collections of the New-York Historical Society, 62-64. New York 1930) 1:239 (9 April 1798). William Dunlap, History of the rise and progress of the arts of design in the United States, 2 vols. (New York 1834), hereafter History … arts, 1:268.

[2] William Dunlap, A history of the American theatre, 2 vols. (New York 1832) 1:234-5.

[3] Diary of William Dunlap 3:726 (6 August 1833).

[4] History … arts 1:18-19.

[5] History … arts 1:18, 20, 21.

[6] William A. Whitehead, Contributions to the early history of Perth Amboy and adjoining country (New York 1856) 139.

[7] Approximately fifteen pieces by Watson were at one time or another in Whitehead’s possession. The journeys of these and other works into various collections, or into oblivion, can be partially traced through the following publications: Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society [ser. 1] 5:1 (1850) 3-4. “The first painter in America.” American historical record 1:8 (August 1872) 337-8, 1:10 (October 1872) 465-6. John Hill Morgan, “John Watson. Painter, merchant, and capitalist of New Jersey 1685-1768.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 50:2 (October 1940) 225-317. John Hill Morgan, “Further notes on John Watson.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 52:1 (April 1942) 126-135.

[8] History … arts 1:9, 13.

[9] Diary of William Dunlap 3:851.

Images:  Dunlap: Yale University Art Gallery, 1968.12.1. Watson: From the Collections of The Henry Ford, Object 69.144.486.

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