Miss Adams In Love

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Next to John Paradise the most frequent visitor at the legation was another celebrated member of the American colony—Patience Mehitabel Wright, an old lady from New Jersey who modeled in wax and ran a wax museum at her house in Cockspur Street. During the Revolution she had acted as a spy for Benjamin Franklin under the code name “Deborah.” Overcome with joy at the news of American independence, she wrote John Jay that “I now feel greatful for my life being spaired to see this happy day. I wish for nothing more than to finish the portrites in Wax Bustos of all you worthy heros .” She welcomed the Adamses literally with open arms and “a hearty buss,” as Abigail Adams wrote home, “from which we would all rather have been excused, for her appearance is quite the slattern.” Tall and straight as an Indian, she had a sallow face with high cheekbones, keen gray eyes, “the glance of a maniac,” and a powerful voice. She usually appeared at Grosvenor Square at breakfast time exclaiming that she had “Such a Budget!” of private information for the Minister’s ear alone. She had obviously enjoyed her role as spy too much to give it up; and sometimes, as Amelia noted, there was “no such thing as getting rid of her.”

Native American genius in the arts, on a more serious scale than Mrs. Wright’s, was evident in London at the studios of John Singleton Copley, Benjamin West, Gilbert Stuart, and Mather Brown. Copley and West, both middle-aged men, were securely established; Stuart, a big Bohemian man considerably younger, was just beginning to be known; and Mather Brown (a descendant of Cotton Mather), a brash, ambitious boy in his early twenties, was just starting out. Except for Copley, who had already made his reputation in America when he arrived in England ten years before, this array of talent was largely due to West, a Pennsylvanian of humble origins who for more than a decade had held the post of historical painter to George III at a salary of a thousand pounds a year. Though he was far from being a painter of the first rank, his exalted position, his real ability as a teacher, and his unfailing kindness to his fellow countrymen drew to his studio every aspiring American artist who could afford the trip to England.

John Trumbull, son of Governor Trumbull of Connecticut, was painting in West’s studio his Battle of Bunker’s Hill , a picture that affected the Adams ladies profoundly, depicting as it did the death of their friend General Warren, and awakening in Abigail Adams memories of that hot June day in 1775 when she had stood on a hill near Braintree with eight-year-old John Quincy and seen the flash and smoke of the battle and heard the roar of the cannon. She could hardly describe her sensations when she first beheld the painting: “My whole frame contracted, my blood shivered, and I felt a faintness at my heart.” Amelia was “frozen —it is enough to make one’s hair to stand on end.”

Soon after the Adamses moved into the house on Grosvenor Square they also were immortalized on canvas. Amelia wrote John Quincy that “a rage for Painting has taken possession of the whole family—one of our rooms has been occupied by a Gentleman of this profession for near a fortnight—and we have the extreme felicity of looking at ourselves upon Canvass.” The artist was not John Singleton Copley, though Copley and his beautiful wife, “Sukie,” were intimate friends of the family—but young Mather Brown. Copley’s portraits were very expensive; Adams had sat for him on a short visit to London two years before, but Copley had kept the painting to exhibit. Mather Brown, Amelia reported, “was very sollicitous to have a likeness of Pappa—thinking it would be an advantage to him—and Pappa consented. He has taken the best likeness I have yet seen of him—and you may suppose is very Proud, when so many have failed before him.

“Mamma has set for hers—and I followed the example.” Brown achieved “a good likeness of Mamma” and “it is said he has taken an admirable likeness of my Ladyship—the Honble Miss Adams you know—it is a very tasty picture I can assure you whether a likeness or not. Pappa is much pleased with it and says he has got my character—a Mixture of Drollery and Modesty.”

In the portrait Amelia is wearing a huge Gainsborough hat. Her blue eyes are humorous and her lips are barely curved in a tremulous half-smile. It is the face of a young woman who is falling in love. Her letters home to her brother were beginning to contain frequent references to Colonel Smith—“Monsieur Ie Colonel”—who was also painted by Mather Brown about this time, looking blithe and handsome in his satin coat and ruffles.

As time went on, Abigail saw the pleasure the Colonel’s company gave Amelia, and she rejoiced, because she had at last received a letter from her sister Mary Cranch that convinced her that the engagement to Royall Tyler ought to be broken off. In it, Mrs. Cranch, at whose house Tyler was boarding, wrote that Tyler was refusing to deliver letters that Amelia had written to her friends in his care; in short, he was behaving dishonorably.

Saying nothing to Amelia, Abigail decided to prod the Colonel. “I don’t think he was conscious of his own feelings,” she reported to John Quincy, “until I thot it my duty to hint carelessly of her being under engagements in America—this led him to know himself and to request an explanation from her which she gave him with the utmost frankness, upon which he immediately asked leave of absence and went to the Prussian Review determined never more to think upon the subject.”