A “New” Image of General James Robertson?

by Kathy Lauder.

It was an unexpected setting for a significant moment in Tennessee history. Sailboats bobbed in the harbor of the charming Maine seaside village, and visitors in casually expensive shorts and sandals strolled past with their rescued greyhounds and canvas bags from L.L. Bean. But behind the oak and granite walls of a York Harbor pub, a descendant of Nashville founder James Robertson (1742-1814), was unwinding tissue paper from a family treasure.

The Llewellyn portrait, believed by his family to be a likeness of Gen. James Robertson (photo by author)

Dr. Henry J. Llewellyn is a 60-something radiologist who lives and works in the Boston area. A man of great dignity and charm, he has, since the recent death of his sister, begun to consider the fate of various family treasures he holds in trust. What he was carrying with him on this September day in 2002 was a small watercolor sketch, in profile, of a man generations of his family have believed to be a young General James Robertson. Dr. Llewellyn had recently contacted Mike Slate, editor of the Nashville Historical Newsletter, saying he would like to share this heirloom with the public.

The enormity of this find, should the face be Robertson’s, would challenge and delight Nashville and Tennessee historians. Although one confirmed portrait of Robertson does exist, experts agree it was produced after his death. That portrait was painted by artist Washington Bogart Cooper (1802-1888), who arrived in Nashville in 1830 and had become quite a popular artist here by 1838. According to James A. Hoobler of the Tennessee State Museum, Robertson’s widow Charlotte called her children together and commissioned Cooper to paint the portrait by combining, not unlike pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the facial traits “of various family members whose features resembled their father.” Charlotte loved the painting and “swore that it looked just like James had.” It is important to remember, however, that Charlotte Robertson was in her mid-80s by that time, and that her husband had been dead for more than twenty years.

1835 James Robertson portrait attributed to Washington B. Cooper (courtesy of Tennessee State Museum)

At least some of the Robertson images that appear in various history texts seem to have been copied from the Cooper painting. One other painting, attributed to artist Henry Benbridge (1743-1812), accompanies many modern-day accounts, including the James Robertson entry in the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Still another portrait once believed to be of James Robertson has been identified as that of a kinsman. If Dr. Llewellyn’s miniature is, in fact, a portrait of the General drawn from life, it is very likely the only one in existence. Indeed, the story that has come down through the family, passed from parent to child for eight generations, maintains this to be the only likeness ever made of Robertson during his lifetime.

James Robertson portrait attributed to Henry Benbridge (courtesy of Tennessee State Museum)

The picture itself is small and imperfect. The oval frame, made in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, is probably not much more than one hundred years old. It is badly cracked. Almost a quarter of the picture has been torn off, in a line running down the right side from top to bottom, and another deep crease runs vertically through the entire figure. A small section of the back of the head, where the page is torn, has been drawn onto the backing paper below by a less artistic hand. Stains and age spots discolor much of the page.

It is very small: the oval frame is four and a half by six inches; the image of the man himself is only three inches high. But it is startlingly beautiful. Less like our conception of a rugged frontiersman than a graceful illustration for a Jane Austen novel, the profile of a handsome young man is outlined in a few delicate strokes. The skin tones are subtle and lifelike; the hair, except for the awkward smear on the backing paper, has an almost palpable softness. It is a lovely piece of historical art that merits further study.

Nashville historians who have viewed the portrait agree that the clothing and other stylistic details of the painting are inconsistent with the period of James Robertson’s youth, and that the young man’s profile is quite different from that of the Cooper portrait. A few individuals have also pointed out that stories passed down through families are subject to the same process we remember from our childhood game of “Telephone,” in which a sentence whispered from person to person transforms into something quite different by the time it reaches the last player. Nevertheless, it is entirely probable, since the portrait has been so carefully tended through the years, that it is indeed a likeness of one of Dr. Llewellyn’s ancestors, perhaps even another member of the Robertson family.  (2002)

Robertson Line, General James Robertson to Dr. Henry J. Llewellyn from Sarah Foster Kelley. Children of Nashville. Nashville: Blue & Gray Press, 1973.

Henry Jerome Llewellyn II (15 Jun 1937 – 13 Feb 2009)

            b Philadelphia, PA; d Brookline, MA

            Father: Clinton F. Llewellyn

            Mother: Mabelle Ann Johnson Llewellyn

            Spouse: Paige E. Llewellyn

Clinton Llewellyn (5 Dec 1903 – 13 Jan 1944)

            b Philadelphia, PA; d Philadelphia, PA

            Father: Henry J. Llewellyn (NY)

            Mother: Pauline Drescher (PA)

            Manager at H. J. Llewellyn Co., his father’s bakery supply company.

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