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Portrait of Thomas Bolling (1735-1804)

1773
Origin: America, Virginia
Unframed: 40 1/4" x 30 1/8" and Framed: 46 1/2" x 36 1/2"
Oil on canvas
Gift of Mrs. Sarah G. Henry Willis in memory of Roberta Bolling Henry
Acc. No. 1995-99,A&B
A three-quarter-length portrait of a young man, standing and leaning slightly to his proper left. His proper left elbow rests on a book stood upright, and his proper right hand grasps the book. The book rests atop a table or desk covered with a green cloth. A packet of papers tied with a pink ribbon rests on the table or desk to the right of the book. A red, gold-fringed drapery is gathered into the upper left corner of the composition. A case bearing four shelves of books fills much of the righthand (viewer's) side of the composition. The man wears a medium-to-dark blue coat over a matching waistcoat, both bearing gold buttons down the front. The buttons are covered with widely-spaced, diagoanally crossing lines, and the coat buttons are larger than the waistcoat buttons. He also wears a white neckcloth and white ruffled shirt. The man has hazel eyes and dark brown, slightly curly, chin-length hair that is gathered into a queue at the nape of his neck.

The 3 1/2-inch plain, convex-molded, black-painted frame has a gold-painted liner.
Label:Matthew Pratt refined his painting technique in London under the tutelage of American ex-patriot Benjamin West (1738-1820), a favorite painter of King George III. Pratt occasionally capitalized on his connection with his better-known teacher as, for instance, when he advertised the sale of several of his copies of West's works in Williamsburg in 1773.

Thomas Bolling was born and raised in central Virginia and educated at the College of William and Mary. He studied law with Robert Carter Nicholas of Williamsburg. He married his first cousin, Elizabeth Gay (1738-1813), with whom he shared a famous ancestor: their great-great-great-grandmother was Pocahontas. By the late 1760s, the Bollings were living on a family plantation called Cobbs, located on the Appomattox River near Petersburg, Virginia. They had eleven children, including twins Sarah and Ann, who are shown in a triple companion portrait of mother and infant girls (CWF acc. no. 1995-100). Both twins died in September 1773, less than a year after their birth.

Three of the Bollings' children were deaf and, in 1771, were sent to Braidwood Academy in Edinburgh, Scotland, where they remained until 1783, learning to speak, read, and write. In 1815, another (unafflicted) son, William Bolling (1777-1845), joined with Scottish educator John Braidwood to open a school for the deaf at Cobbs. Although the school closed only a year later, its establishment marked a turning point in American attitudes toward educating the deaf.

Family genealogist Wyndham Robertson left delightfully vivid word pictures of his Bolling grandparents, describing Thomas as "over-frugal" and Elizabeth as "over-proud." In amplifying these concise characterizations, he noted that Thomas rode abroad "in a single-seated, single-horse chair, with a hatless, shoeless blackamoor on the bars behind, with bare legs and feet dangling below, while she [Elizabeth] traveled in state, in her English-built chariot and four, with coachman and postilion and footman in bright yellow liveries."
Thomas was the son of John Bolling Jr. and Elizabeth Blair Bolling of Virginia. In addition to the twin girls, the sitters had several other children, three of whom, born with speech and hearing impediments, were educated with a specialist at Braidwood Academy in Scotland. One of these children was instrumental in establishing a small school for the deaf in Virginia, the first school of its type in America.
These portraits are among the finest of the few known Virginia likenesses by Pratt. Others were created for the Custis, Meade, and Balfour families.


Provenance:The early part of the line of descent that follows is from James S. Patton to Pam McClellan Geddy, 7 November 1977, but it is uncertain whether its generational skips reflect reality. In short, there may have been intervening descendant-owners whose names are missing from Patton's reconstructed record:

From the subject to his wife, Mrs. Thomas Bolling (Elizabeth Gay) (1738-1813); to her granddaughter, Mrs. John H. Robertson (Jane Gay) of Port Royal, Va.; to her eldest daughter, Mrs. William Robertson (Elizabeth Bernard) of Richmond, Va.; to her son, Judge John Robertson; to his granddaughter, Mrs. Richard M. Bolling (Nannie Barksdale); sold to Mrs. Robert Malcolm Littlejohn (Rebecca Bolling)(1873-?); given to her sister, Mrs. Robert Goldsborough Henry, Sr. (Roberta Bolling)(1875-1961), whose husband (1871-1963) inherited "Myrtle Grove," Easton, Md.; to her son, Robert Goldsborough Henry, Jr. (1909-1970); to his wife, Mrs. Robert Goldsborough Henry, Jr., (Sarah M. Grace)(later, Mrs. J. McKenny Willis), who was CWF's donor.

Inscription(s):The titles on the spines of the books are various. Only one (on the book closest to the subject on the lowermost bookcase shelf) appears fully legible; it reads "LAWS/OF/VIRGINIA". Other titles incorporate some legible words, e.g., "HISTORY," and/or individual letters, e.g., "S," "M," etc., but most appear to be mock writing.

Black painted script appearing on the topmost paper in the packet at lower right should be examined more closely under strong light and magnification to better determine legibility. This lettering has not been deciphered as of 8/24/2011.

Three hand-written labels appear on the back of the frame. That on the back of the top member is torn; it is inscribed in black ink in block letters "Th[missing] Bolling/ 'Cobbs'/Son [of] John Bolling, Jr." A label inscribed in blue ballpoint ink is scotch-taped to the lower member; it reads "Thomas Bolling/by John Hesselius". The immediately preceding label partially covers the third one, which is a red-bordered, water-adhesive label; it is inscribed in ink "Another portrait [obscured]/Thomas Bolling [obscured]/Cobbs [obscurbed and illegible]/[fourth line illegible].