American Artist: William Lewis
James Gay (ca. 1773-1820), Merchant,
of Portland, Maine*
by William Lewis (fl. 1806-1837)
2 1/8 x 2 5/8 inches (sight)
watercolor on ivory; housed under glass in a gilt
copper case with a cast foliate border and bail
*This miniature, identified by descendants as being James Gay,
was acquired together with a portrait miniature of Gay's wife,
Mary McLean Gay (1771-1849).
James Gay was born in Scotland in about 1773. As a young man, he emigrated to the United States and settled in Portland, Maine. There, he married Mary McLean (1771-1849) and they had a daughter, Elizabeth, who was born in Portland on April 7, 1795.
By profession, Gay was a merchant -- specifically, an importer of luxury goods from England, Scotland and Ireland. Newspaper advertisements indicate he imported the likes of china, earthenware, glass, enamelware, gentlemen's hats, velvet, Irish linen, Welch flannel, English muslin, and various types of printed cloth.(*1) Initially, he worked in partnership with a John Gordon of London The two operated under the name of Gordon & Gay, until August 2008, when their partnership ended.(* Thereafter, Gay continued his trade independently under the name James Gay & Co., and he traveled regularly between Portland, Boston and London, importing luxury goods from abroad and selling them in New England.
On one such trip to Boston, Gay's life came to a tragic end, on June 12, 1820, when his body was found floating in Boston Harbor. A coroner's inquest simply concluded that he died of drowning,(*3) but no details were suggested as to how he ended up in the water. No merchandise that had been in his possession at the time was ever recovered, however, leading one to wonder if Gay's death was not an accident. Shortly after Gay's death, an attorney representing his wife published notices in Boston seeking information about and the return of "goods, wares, merchandise, watches, trunks, wearing apparel, and any other property" belonging to James Gay.(*4) It is not known if any such goods were ever recovered.
Most interestingly, newspaper advertisements in Portland, in the years 1807 and 1808, indicate a possible connection between James Gay and the artist William Lewis several years before James Gay's portrait miniature was painted. To wit, a newspaper article dated September 21, 1807, reported that James Gay and a William Lewis were among several passengers who arrived to Portland from England on September 14, 1807, aboard the ship "Henry".(*5) Several notices also indicate that, when James Gay and John Gordon dissolved their partnership in 1808, it was a William Lewis who purchased their inventory at the time and took over their storefront.(*6) Of course, it is possible that it was an entirely different William Lewis who traveled with James Gay and purchased his inventory of imported English goods. It is known, however, that the artist William Lewis was in Portland as early as 1806, and that he was not known to have been active again as a painter until 1812, when he appeared in Salem, Massachusetts. It is certainly possible, therefore, that William Lewis the painter did make a foray into the luxury goods import business, and that he traveled to England now and then to procure such goods. This would also explain why some later newspaper advertisements by Lewis made mention of him having come from England.
(*1) Newspaper advertisement by John Gordon and James Gay, "Portland Gazette and Maine Advertiser", Portland, Maine, October 27, 1806 edition, Vol. IX, No. 28, page 4.
(*2) "Copartnership Dissolved" (newspaper advertisement), "Eastern Argus", Portland, Maine, September 1, 1808 edition, Vol. VI, No. 261, page 4.
(*3) Newspaper announcement reporting the coroner's inquest on the body of James Gay, "Independent Chronicle and Boston Patriot", Boston, Massachusetts, June 17, 1820 edition, Vol. LII, No. 4085, page 1.
(*4) "Notice -- Those persons who may have in their possession" (newspaper advertisement), "The Repertory", Boston, Massachusetts, August 17, 1820 edition, Vol. XVIII, No. 82, page 1.
(*5) "Ship News -- Port of Portland" (newspaper article), "Portland Gazette and Maine Advertizer", Portland, Maine, September 21, 1807 edition, Vol. X, No. 23, page 3.
(*6) "Gordon & Gay; William Lewis" (newspaper advertisement), "Portland Gazette and Maine Advertizer", Portland, Maine, January 25, 1808 edition, Vol. X, No. 41, page 4.
Other portraits in the Tormey-Holder Collection by William Lewis
(click photos for larger views and additional information):
Jacksonian Era Gentleman
Wearing a Black Neck Stock
Jacksonian Era Gentleman, Identified by
the Initials 'G. A. H.", Wearing a Yellow,
Double Breasted, Shawl Collar Vest
Jacksonian Era Gentleman
Wearing a Brown Coat
Jacksonian Era Girl Wearing Gold
Jewelry and a Tortoiseshell Hair Comb
Edward Johnson, Jr., of Boston
Jacksonian Era Gentleman
Wearing a Stick Pin with Rubies
J. C. Whittemore, of Boston