Much Admired Pilgrims
November 20, 2008
Every exhibition includes an object that makes a real hit with the public. For "Remember Me: Highlights from the National Heritage Museum" the visitors' choice was "The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in America, a.d., 1620," by Charles Lucy (1814-1873).
As every text-book reader and museum-goer knows, since the late 1700s, artists have put their versions of American history on canvas. Among the many topics treated by history painters, anything having to do with the Pilgrims’ voyage, landing and relationship with the native people they encountered has attracted (and continues to attract) viewers’ imaginations.
The Pilgrims’ story caught the attention of French-trained British painter, Charles Lucy in the mid 1800s. British history of the 1600s intrigued him. Along with the Pilgrims, he painted scenes of Oliver Cromwell and Charles I. A London paper memorializing the painter after his death noted that, “One of the first works which brought him into notice on this side of the Channel was his “Embarkation of the Pilgrim Fathers in the Mayflower,” to which was awarded one of the prizes for oil paintings in the Westminster Hall competition of 1847.” Lucy’s winning work, now called the "Departure of the Pilgrims from Delft Haven," is part of the Pilgrim Hall Museum's offerings. Perhaps building on his success with the subject in 1847, Lucy painted “The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in America, a.d., 1620” for the following year.
A 1944 letter from the Frick Art Reference Library from the files of the Pilgrim Society says that that painting, the 1848 landing of the Pilgrim fathers is un-located, other sources note that it is lost. Has it been found at NHM?
J. Robert Merrill gave the painting, which he had purchased it at Cape Cod auction in 1974, to NHM. The auctioneer advertised the work as having been, “displayed at the Royal Academy.” However, it seems unlikely that the NHM painting is the one Lucy created for the 1848 exhibition. Smaller than Lucy’s “Departure of the Pilgrims from Delft Haven,” (over 9 feet by 14 feet) and clearly dated 1868 in the artists’ hand, NHM's painting is twenty years older and about half the size of Lucy’s showpiece. An intriguing inscription on the strainer of the NHM painting tell us that it once belonged to Capt. E. Mac Kirdy, of Abbey House in Malmesbury. Mac Kirdy bought that house in 1909 and his family sold it in 1968. Somehow, between 1968 and 1974, Lucy's painting traveled across the Atlantic, just like the Pilgrims.
We will keep you posted if future research uncovers more of the story.
The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in America, a. d. 1620, 1868. Charles Lucy (1814-1873), London, England. National Heritage Museum collection, Gift of J. Robert Merrill, 79.77.1. Photo, NHM staff.