American Artist: John Roberts
Unknown New England Ship's Captain,
Wearing a Navy Blue, Double Breasted Coat with Silver Buttons
(as Was Typical of Ship's Captains of the Period)
John Roberts (ca. 1768-1803)
1 7/8 x 2 3/8 inches (sight)
watercolor on ivory; housed in a gilt metal case with verre églomisé and plaited hair to the reverse
About the Artist: John Roberts was born in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, in about the year 1768. He emigrated to the United States in 1793, arriving first to New York City. It has long been believed that he primarily worked in Portland, Maine and that he mostly painted sailors. Recent research has revealed, however, that he was active in a number of cities along the eastern seaboard. He advertised his services as a miniature painter in Philadelphia (June - September 1796), Charleston (December 1796), Newburyport, Massachusetts (October 1800 - February 1801), Portsmouth, New Hampshire (April - May 1801), Portland, Maine (March - April 1802), Augusta, Maine (August 1802), Kennebunk, Maine (September 1802), and again in Portland (March 1803). All the while, concurrent with his work in these various locations, records also show him to have maintained a primary residence in New York City from 1797 to 1803. Most interestingly, however, in New York City directories for each of those years, he was listed not as a miniature painter, but rather as an engraver. Indeed, it would appear that Roberts' greater skill was engraving, primarily on copper and wood. He was particularly well known for his engraved prints used to illustrate books (mostly educational and literary). He is also known to have engraved copies of portraits by other artists, most notable of which was a portrait of George Washington (considered today one of the rarest of Washington portraits), copied from a miniature painted by Benjamin Trott. Despite his frequent commissions for engravings, however, he occasionally departed New York City, traveling to other cities to paint miniature portraits (a form of art he is said to have been less fond of, but felt compelled to turn to as a means to further supplement his income). He was also an avid tinkerer and inventor. He made his own engraving tools and printing presses; he invented a new mode of stippling, said to have resulted in prints of an exquisite finish; he developed an improvement on the steam engine for use in propelling boats; he invented an economical method of manufacturing iron stoves; and he developed improved methods for creating optical lenses used in glasses and scopes. Not surprisingly, he was described by his contemporary, William Dunlap, as a universal genius. Genius aside, however, he was known to have been quite eccentric, to have had an often disagreeable personality, and to have imbibed too frequently of hard liquor. Roberts met his end in 1803, at a young age of about 35, falling down a flight of stairs at his home and fracturing his skull. It was said that his fall was the result of a stroke, but Dunlap maintains that his fall was more likely caused by alcohol than a sudden onset of apoplexy. Listed by Benezit, Blättel (pages 768, 769), Bolton (page 134), Fielding (page 789), Foskett (page 629), and Schidlof (page 682).
Other portraits in the Tormey-Holder Collection by John Roberts
(click photos for larger views and additional information):
New England Ship's Captain with the Initials "S S"