Dressed to Kill, Dressed to Till
Pair of pastels on laid paper, each 18 x 14 inches, backed by linen canvas on original wooden strainers, the edges of the strainer with fragments remaining of the original strainer liners, being 18th century Salem or Boston newspapers judging by the text that is still readable; within later gilt, carved frames; the old backing of the male sitter’s frame had inscribed upon it: “J. Gardner/ of Boston/ New England”. By the 1760s, pastels became popular around Boston, Copley trying his hand at them as early as 1758, but perhaps the best-known and most prolific working in that medium in the Bay colony was Benjamin Blyth. A native of Salem, he first advertised his work in 1769, announcing that he “he has opened a Room for the Performance of Limning in Crayons at the House occupied by his Father in the great Street leading towards Marblehead….” More than 30-odd pastels are now attributed to Blyth, but only one signed and dated portrait is known. Blyth confined his work in and around Salem, gaining “much employment from the money of privateer men” during the war (per the Reverend William Bentley, a Salem diarist), until relocating to Richmond, Virginia in 1782. Tentatively identified as John Gardner (1731-1805) and his wife Elizabeth Pickering (1737-1823) of Salem, based on the age/dress of the sitters and the proximity of most Blyth sitters to his hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. Gardner was a merchant and shipowner and a member of a distinguished Massachusetts Bay family. Gardner and his wife were probably painted during the first years of the Revolutionary War, possibly in response to Gardner’s growing wealth and raised social standing, for not only had Gardner actively demonstrated his loyalty to the Patriot cause prior to- and during the war, serving in various public offices and also responsible for the outfitting of a number of successful privateers. This pair of portraits exemplify Blyth at the apex of his career, being rendered in exceptional detail and have survived with the pastel fresh and virtually unblemished, and still on their original mounts. Purchased at Skinner Auctions sale of 8 June 2008 as lot 42.