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Portrait of Speaker John Robinson (1704-1766)

1755-1758
Origin: America, Virginia
Unframed: 36 x 29in. (91.4 x 73.7cm) and Framed: 42 1/4 x 35in.
Oil on canvas
Museum Purchase
Acc. No. 1930-592
A half-length portrait of an older man, seated, his body turned in three-quarter view towards the viewer's left. His near (proper left) arm is bent at the elbow, the elbow resting on a blue surface (a fabric-covered table?) that runs horizontally along the bottom of the picture plane. Confusingly, the blue chair back (presumably, an upholstered backstool) behind him is not well distinguished from the (table top?). In his near (proper left) hand, he holds at an angle a closed, leather-covered book, which is also supported by the (table?).

He has brown eyes and wears a curly gray wig, parted in the middle, the hair framing his face and visible in curls falling past his shoulders at the back. He wears a white neckcloth, white ruffled shirt, and collarless brown coat. The background is dark brown and somewhat lighter directly behind the subject.

The 3 3/8-inch frame is a black-stained bolection molding with a gilded liner that is sanded and, at the sight edge, carved in a repetititve tongue and dart pattern. The frame is of the period of the picture but is heavily re-worked (re-mitered/cut down, etc.) and may or may not be original to the picture [examination, C. Swan/B. Luck, 11/21/2011].
Label:The subject was the son of John Robinson (1683-1749) and Catherine Beverley Robinson. The father wielded considerable influence in the colony of Virginia, having inherited a significant estate and having served as President of the Council of Virginia. John Robinson, the son, studied at the College of William and Mary and, from 1736 to 1765, represented King and Queen County in the House of Burgesses. In 1738, he became Treasurer of the Colony and Speaker of the House of Burgesses (the latter, following Sir John Randolph and preceding Peyton Randolph). The combination of the two offices, which he held until his death, made him one of the most powerful men in colonial America.

Robinson's administration ended ignominiously, however. In 1765, certain notes issued by the Treasury fell due and could not be redeemed. The failure prompted the House of Burgesses to order an investigation which, though not completed until after Robinson's death, showed a shortfall of more than one hundred thousand pounds in the Treasury accounts. It appears that Robinson had reissued treasury notes --- instead of destroying them as required by law ---- in return for borrowers' personal notes. A scandal erupted, but while Robinson was clearly guilty of a breach of trust, no hard evidence of a design to defraud the public could be found.

Robinson married three times, first, Mary Storey, secondly, Lucy Moore, and lastly, Susanna Chiswell of Williamsburg. He occupied "Mt. Pleasant" on the Mattaponi River in King and Queen County, Virginia. Stylistically, his portrait seems readily attributable to English-born John Wollaston, who worked extensively in Virginia during 1755-1758.
Provenance:From the subject to his daughter (by the subject's third marriage), Susanne Robinson Nelson (Mrs. Robert Nelson) of "Malvern Hill"; to her daughter, Ann Fitzhugh Nelson Moore (Mrs. Andrew Leiper Moore) of "Chelsea"; to her daughter, Lucy Heaberd Moore Robinson (Mrs. Benjamin Needler Robinson)[see n. 1 below] of "Benville," King and Queen County, Va.; to her son, Benjamin Needler Robinson, Jr.; to his son, James Taylor Robinson, Richmond, Virginia, who was CWF's vendor [James Taylor Robinson to CWF 21 March 1930].

n. 1: In Weddell ("Bibliography," p. 169), James Taylor Robinson adds that Lucy Heaberd Moore Robinson was, by marriage, a descendent of Speaker Robinson's uncle.




Mark(s):An exhibition label was removed from the left frame member (viewed from the rear) on 7/2/2012. The press-printed label reads: "Exhibition of/Historical Portraits 1585-1830/At 'Virginia House', Richmond, Virginia/May, 1929". The number "76" is handwritten in ink in the upper left corner of the label, which will be conserved and added to the object file.
Inscription(s):In 1962, conservator Russell Quandt removed a label from the back of one of the painting's stretchers. The label is now in the object file. It is handwritten in script in dark brown ink on paper glued to cardboard and measures about 4x8 inches. Quandt assumed it had been cut off, or from, an earlier backing board, which seems logical. The label reads: "(Portrait of Mr Robinson)/Property of Mrs Lucy H Robinson/West Point.Virginia/Mr Robinson was a Native of King & Queen County/Virginia and Speaker of the House of Burgesses and/Treasurer of the Colony of Va immediately preceding/the Revolution [sic] war, no doubt, a devoted loyalist and/condemned and Rebuked the inflamatory and threatening/assaults of P Henry. he died before the hostilities/of the Revolution commenced".