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.

“He Came into This World Drawing” Ernest A. Pickup (1887-1970)

by Beverly St. John.

In 1912 at age 25, my father, Ernest A. Pickup, set out on two journeys–marriage and a profession as a commercial artist. When he told his father about his career plans, his father responded, “Son, you go with my blessing, but if you don’t succeed, don’t come back to me looking for a job.” The family had moved to Nashville in 1902 and had established G.A. Pickup & Son, a rubber stamp business that is still in existence. While working for his father, in his spare time his mother allowed him to hide in the attic of their home, where he studied a correspondence course on the basics of art.

Block print of Nashville’s Parthenon by Ernest Pickup
(Courtesy of Beverly St. John)

The lessons paid off, and he became one of the first commercial artists in Nashville. He was so successful that he needed to keep an apprentice with him in his studio. The first was Herman Burns, who went on to become the Art Director at the Baptist Sunday School Board. Next came Lewis Akin, who became the Art Director for the Methodist Publishing House. Subsequent apprentices included Castner’s Department Store artist Mariah Ferris, Curtis Snell, and cartoonist Bill Wall. Even I was one of his apprentices during my high school and college days. I later worked for Mr. Burns at the BSSB until 1942.

In 1930, when the Great Depression devastated our nation, my father’s commercial work came to a halt. With time on his hands, he began honing the skills necessary to make woodblock prints, an ancient medium that he had long admired. With the encouragement of his artist friends, he submitted his work for an exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. His career as a wood engraver took off, resulting in about 65 woodblock prints made during the 1930s and early 1940s.

One of his greatest honors came in 1937, when the Society of American Etchers chose his print Finis–a Study in Finalities as one of The Best 100 Prints of American Artists, a collection selected to go on a tour of Europe, beginning at Stockholm, Sweden. My father was a very modest man, but when he saw his name listed in the exhibit catalogue next to Thomas Nason, his woodblock hero, he was ecstatic.

His most popular prints were of Nashville landmarks: the Capitol, the Parthenon, the Hermitage, Scarritt Tower, and the Battle of Nashville Monument. He also loved making prints of trees and rural scenes. He used boxwood, a very hard wood with no grain. Woodblocks were made up of two or more pieces of wood glued together. Whenever one would break, he made miniatures out of the pieces, and these are among my favorites. When the curator of the Graphic Arts Division of the Smithsonian saw my father’s work, he asked if we would donate the collection. Because he also wanted the blocks and tools, I turned him down. Some of his work, however, is archived in the Tennessee State Museum.

For over thirty years my father’s art studio was on the 5th floor of the old Cumberland Presbyterian Building, which was located on 4th Avenue about where the AT&T Building is now. When he decided to retire in 1963 at age 76, it was as if his life had come to an end. He could not envision life without his cluttered office, the smell of ink and paint thinner, the whir of the airbrush, or the occasional knock at the door: “Mr. Pickup, I have a job for you–do you think you could do it for us today?”

Then one day the phone rang. Mr. John Ambrose of Ambrose Printing Company called to ask my father if he was willing to join the company as an art consultant “whenever you feel like it.” He “felt like it” until he turned 80, when he announced his full retirement. From then on, he had little interest in anything but sharing stories about his years as an artist, a sometime farmer, a grandfather, and a Sunday School teacher. My father left us a quiet legacy of integrity as well as a collection of woodblock prints. His mother often said of him, “He came into this world drawing pictures on any piece of paper he could get his hands on!.” The year before he died, I found these words that he had written: “Things I want for myself: to be cheerful in the face of difficulties, to merit the esteem of my friends, to be grateful for all that other folks have done for me, and to know no heartache of my own making.”