A New Contender Faces Close Scrutiny
|Courtesy of Allies for Freedom|
Jean Libby, a John Brown documentary scholar and daguerreotype expert, privately brought this image to my attention some months ago; however, propriety obligated us to say nothing of it until the owner was able to bring the image to auction. My first response to the image was admittedly skeptical. The dark sideburns had no precedent and seemed alien. However, the longer I pondered over the image, the more I thought perhaps the daguerreotype might be a worthy contender. The more I looked at it, the harder it was for me to dismiss it, although at the same time I had retained uncertainty.
Under these circumstances, I thought I might quietly share it with someone else who has paid a great deal of attention to Brown's image. So I sent a digital copy to the illustrator, John Hendrix, whose young people's book, John Brown: His Fight for Freedom, entails an extensive and brilliant rendering of Brown's images. Hendrix greeted it positively, particularly noting the hairline as being consistent with other known images of Brown. Heartened by Hendrix's comments, I relayed a positive response to Libby--although I had no idea that the three of us would be "scooped" by Swann's Gallery. Last month, an associate called my attention to a notice of the image being auctioned on the website Auction Zip, the posting of which even surprised Libby.
As noted, Swann presented the following description, reflective of the feedback relayed through interaction with Jean Libby and her discussions with me and Gwen Mayer, archivist at the Hudson Library and Historical Society, as well as what I relayed from Hendrix:
There are 12 previously known portraits of John Brown, 5 of which are daguerreotypes. This particular daguerreotype has been analyzed by noted Brown scholars Jean Libby, and Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., in collaboration with Hudson Library archivist Gwen Mayer and Brown illustrator John Hendrix. All have concluded that this is the 13th portrait of the militant abolitionist.
The identification is based on specific physical attributes that correspond to Brown's physical demeanor (his hairline, forehead creases, and nose). Libby, a John Brown scholar, specifically cites "the significant marker of a chevron hair loss near the middle of his right forehead" as a telling identifier. Libby also indicates that Brown's suit appears to be the same item of clothing he wore in two other portraits.
I would have preferred if Swann had written "tentatively concluded," since there are a number of issues to be addressed before taking a firm stance on this being a long-lost image of John Brown the abolitionist. Certainly I disagree with those who have dismissed this image outright. If this image is not of John Brown, then one would say the man in the daguerreotype highly resembles him. This is more so the case if, as Libby first suggested, the photographer has provided a "real life" view of Brown by reversing the original daguerreotype (since daguerreotypes present a reverse image).
While I am not prepared to die for this new image being that of John Brown, I believe that it cannot be easily waved off, as has been the manner of some skeptics. There are bogus images that merit immediate dismissal--for example, the seller on eBay hawking a supposed collection of Brown family daguerreotypes, and the Kaplan Collection's supposed daguerreotype of Brown. Neither of these is genuine despite the owners' claims, and it doesn't take a forensic specialist to see that they are not true Brown images. I do not think the same easy conclusion can be made of the Swann image.
On the other hand, the image should only hold a tentative place alongside the "canon" of extant Brown daguerreotypes until or unless some criteria can be satisfied. While it is not a bogus image, it is a questionable image, and that status will not change unless the owner, in conjunction with a reasonable number of Brown scholars and researchers, (1) can prove some provenance for the image, and (2) the original image has been examined and evaluated by professional forensic specialists. We all would like to believe that we have an eye for such things, and it is reasonable to trust your own eye. But since there are a number of approving and disapproving eyes in this case, the scale needs to be tipped by more weighty evidence.
Jean Libby has already begun to take action on the matter of provenance. We anticipate that her research over the next six months will continue to provide greater insight into the origin of the image. As it stands, it is certainly an original daguerreotype, circa 1850, made by an unknown photographer, with the imprint of Martin M. Lawrence on the mat. Libby says the daguerreotype can be traced to Albany and/or Troy, New York.
|Brown's gold stud (Harvard University)|
While this information is skeletal, it may show some promise. In the early 1850s, Brown had relocated his family to the Adirondacks, but he was still frequently occupied downstate regarding lawsuits involving his former wool commission house operation in partnership with Simon Perkins Jr. Libby says the suit of the subject in the daguerreotype resembles the clothing worn by Brown in known daguerreotypes. I have added that the subject of the new daguerreotype is wearing a stud in his collar, and interestingly John Brown owned a gold stud with a "B" set with chip diamonds, now in the Lincoln Collection at the Harvard University Library.
The man in the daguerreotype is well dressed and looks more like a businessman than a Kansas guerilla, and rightly so. In the early 1850s, Brown was a "suit and tie guy," and although his efforts on the wool market had failed, he had tasted some success. Historians have short-changed him on this front. I have demonstrated in John Brown--The Cost of Freedom that in the later 1840s, he had established a national reputation for his knowledge of fine sheep and wool; he certainly was considered a respected and honest businessman wherever he worked. Practically speaking, he would hardly have gone to court dressed like a farmer, and in the more hopeful years of his wool commission operation in Springfield, Mass., Brown acquired a few trappings of bourgeois success--like a walking stick and a gold stud, both of which are recorded in history.
Some have expressed skepticism due to the evident wear-and-tear of the man's face. In some respects, the man in the new daguerreotype appears older than a man in his early fifties, as Brown would have been at this time. However, some of the facial features follow the same lines that are evident in known Brown daguerreotypes. Furthermore, it may be that this image reveals stress and fatigue, which would have been the case for Brown at this time of seemingly endless legal disputes, tiring travel, and frustrating loose ends of litigation.
Then there is the question of whether we are not used to seeing him in digital reproductions rather than studying original images, so that perhaps our perception of his face has been shaped more by derivative image. Certainly, we are used to seeing Brown's face in reverse, as this is the case with all daguerreotypes. Secondly, we have no image of Brown facing the lens at this angle. His sons facetiously referred to him as resembling both a "meat-ax" and a "bird of prey," and this image certainly presents this effect. On the other hand, I'm a little doubtful about the ear of the man in the daguerreotype. I'm not entirely sure the shell of the subject's ear is sufficiently similar to Brown's ear in other images. However, all of this speaks to the need to have this image evaluated by forensics specialists.
The image came under the hammer the other day at Swann's, although I understand it was not sold. I have little knowledge of such matters, but it might be that the right buyer simply was not present, or more likely that there is not sufficient certainty among collectors that this is indeed a John Brown image.
If there is doubt, it is reasonable. The canon of Brown images is well known. According to Jean Libby there are twelve daguerreotypes of Brown ranging from the late 1840s to 1859, the last being the most famous and only image of him with a beard. She is perhaps more confident, but I have no doubt that she retains sufficient objectivity in searching out the background of the image. Readers can visit her website, Allies for Freedom, in further consideration of what is known so far.
If this daguerreotype is John Brown, then it is reasonable to ask, "Why hasn't it been included in the canon of images over 150 years?" Were we dealing with textual documents, we would be similarly skeptical as to how such an important item had evaded the attention of scholars, collectors, and researchers over a century-and-a-half. Still, it is not impossible for this to happen with documents too. In 2013, a long overlooked and unknown letter by Brown to a newspaper editor in Charlestown, dating from November 1859, surfaced on auction. It is not only authentic but has added insight into the story of Brown's incarceration in Virginia. The same might be true of this daguerreotype. It may be the only image we have of John Brown linking the 1840s with the later 1850s. On the other hand, it may simply be the image of a contemporary who looked a great deal like him. I am inclined to believe the former, but as I've said, I choose to remain tentatively positive with regard to this image.
The owner would do well to undertake the expense of having this image evaluated, even by more than one specialist. Along with further research by Libby and others, this "new" image may yet find its way into the daguerreotype canon of John Brown images. For now, it must be taken seriously.
Postscript, 30 April 2014
Study is taking shape as public history with documentary research and workshops. There are pointers to the original sitting ca. 1851 moving from southwestern New York (Syracuse) across the Western Reserve from Erie and Meadville to Cleveland. You can follow progress at the Allies for Freedom website, www.alliesforfreedom.org. Participants and opinions welcome. Please contact Jean Libby, firstname.lastname@example.org