Middleton Place buys West portrait of family as part of permanent collection

A portrait of Arthur Middleton and his family by Benjamin West.

The picture has been hanging there, in the dark warmth of the old house, since 1975. But it was on borrowed time.

Not anymore. Middleton Place Foundation has arranged to purchase this famous Middleton family portrait by Benjamin West and make it part of its permanent collection of art, silver, porcelain, furniture, textiles and more, all on display at the Middleton House Museum.

The portrait, made in 1771-72, with its figures arranged in the manner of those many “Holy Family” paintings, features the young Arthur Middleton, his wife Mary Izard Middleton and their infant son Henry.

Arthur was the Middleton who signed the Declaration of Independence, fought in the Revolutionary War and was held about a year in the British brig in St. Augustine, Fla.

The large portrait spent its first century at Middleton Place, mostly in the library of the main house. Williams Middleton, or a member of his family or staff, had the wherewithal to store it in a secret compartment, probably behind a false wall, during the Civil War, a fortuitous move since Union troops set ablaze the main house and its north flanker. (They tried to destroy the south flanker as well, but the fire didn’t fully catch.) What remained after the fire, merely the buildings’ shell, collapsed into brick rubble during the 1886 earthquake.

All the hullaballoo did inflict some minor damage, according to Dottie Stone, a researcher for the Middleton Place Foundation.

“It was damaged some in the burning,” she said. But Williams Middleton initially did not want it repaired because the picture, with its slight wear in the upper right and its few small holes in the canvas (“none luckily in very important parts,” Middleton wrote to his brother-in-law), reflected his mood, he said.

“I am also very much obliged to you for your kind offers with regard to West’s picture, but you have already taxed yourself too much to relieve my necessities to allow me to increase this burden by expenditure on luxury, although I appreciate & I hope fully your kindness & liberality,” Middleton wrote to J. Francis Fisher in Philadelphia on March 1, 1866.

“The holes in the canvas do not injure, or indeed, even disfigure it very much; and it is only in unison with but too much around it & indissolubly associated with it in all my thoughts at present. It seems more in sympathy in its tattered condition with the crushed and shattered hearts & hopes of all those who are, or indeed comes under, my roof and possesses more suggestive power in many respects than I have supposed possible in an inanimate object of that kind. I cannot have it smartened up now.”

In late 1870 or early 1871, though, Middleton relented and shipped the portrait to his brother-in-law and his sister Eliza in Philadelphia to have it cleaned and repaired.

Fisher offered to send it back, but Middleton graciously refused.

“I think that you had better keep it as long as it is your pleasure to look at it for I have no place to hang it in if it were boxed up and delivered here & should be much puzzled to find a safe place to store it,” he wrote in a letter.

And that’s how the Fishers and their descendants, the Drinkers, came to possess the painting, which spent its second century in Philadelphia, and to loan it in 1975 to Middleton Place when the House Museum first opened to the public.

When the Drinker family matriarch died in 2012, her three sons (the great-great grandsons of Eliza Middleton Fisher) considered selling the famous portrait. Negotiations between the parties got underway last summer, Stone said.

The Benjamin West work was appraised at about $1.5 million, but the Drinker family agreed to a purchase price about half that amount and to a 10-year payment plan, in order that their gift to the foundation could be extended indefinitely, according to foundation president Charles Duell.

And so, 150 years after the burning of the Middleton Place house, the painting that escaped the fire, traveled north, then returned south, now will finish its third century, and likely begin another, hanging in the main room of what’s left of the old plantation’s homestead.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/ aparkerwriter.