In early December 2010 we acquired three items for the collection: two framed drawings and a photograph. All three had been purchased at an estate auction at the Dr. Malcolm MacDonald House, Cambridge-Narrows, in the late 1970s. The donor had been told a few bits of information at the time of purchase but other than the name of Dr. MacDonald, a well-known Cambridge physician in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we knew very little. But with that information in hand, the works were wrapped and taken back to the museum for further study. As with any of our acquisitions, research and consultation began immediately. The discovery process with this acquisition, however, has been one of the most serendipitous in the history of the museum. Whoever says history is dull is missing out on one of the joys of life! Because of that, the story will be told in a two installments.
The works are black chalk on wove paper, approximately 82 x 66 cm, in their original oak frames with original glass and backing boards. At one time, there was a paper backing covering the backing boards. Due to the care of the donor who has an understanding of protecting works of art from light, the condition of each piece is very good; slight air-burn marks between the cracks are visible, but not that serious and are a usual feature of works on paper. Both drawings are done within the bounds of an artist-drawn oval, over which a mat with an oval cut-out was placed. Both works are signed and dated. The signature is visible in both works when matted, however only one date is visible: F.S. Mac. / June -1892-
The artist turned out to be Frank Smith MacDonald (1869-1893), the son of Reverend Alexander Black MacDonald (1831-1913) and Jemima McDonald (1830-1912) of MacDonald’s Corner, and the nephew of Dr. Malcolm MacDonald (1836-1916) from whose house the drawings were purchased in the 1970s. Frank MacDonald will form the subject of the next blog entry, but is known within the family as a talented portrait artist; this is the first time any of his work has been identified. The drawings also appear to have been done from photographs rather than from life; they are not over drawn photos, but photographs were the models rather than a live person sitting in front of the artist. Most importantly, as many museum colleagues will note, to have a work signed and dated is a very big deal.
Another big deal is to know the subjects of the works and it is at this point that the story gets complicated. One drawing is of a thickly bearded man with a heavily furrowed brow, the other is a white haired gentleman with a chin strap beard and substantial mutton chop sideburns. It was first thought that the gentleman with the thick beard was Dr. MacDonald because it bears a resemblance to written descriptions of him and the drawing was from his house. Other evidence indicates the bearded man is either Nehemiah Belyea (1794-1885) or Marcus Wellington Cox (1814-1890).
In the possession of Belyea descendants are several photographs of the bearded man from the 1860s, including another version of the drawing, and family tradition has identified the man as Nehemiah Belyea, the son of Loyalists James Albert Belyea (1755-1840) and Jemima Purdy (1765-1828) of McDonald’s Point. In 1883, Nehemiah Belyea was celebrated during the centennial of the arrival of the Loyalists, including marching in a Saint John parade. The Belyea version of the drawing is unmatted, unframed, unsigned and undated but obviously by the same artist and at the same time. In a very odd twist of fate, the New Brunswick Museum actually possesses a photograph of the Belyea parlour, c. 1912, with the Belyea drawing clearly visible and it is framed identically to the QCH works. The deeply lined forehead and the hairline are distinct in all images making it clear the subject is the same person. Comparing the photographic techniques with the age of Nehemiah when the photos had to have been taken, suggests if they are Nehemiah, he was remarkably well preserved for a man approaching 70. Doing the same exercise with Dr. MacDonald’s age does the opposite – for Dr. MacDonald to be the man in the photographs, he would be quite a rough looking man in his 20s; thus taking him out of the mix as a possible subject. But there is a still an even more perplexing question . . . why would Dr. MacDonald have a drawing of Nehemiah Belyea in his house? They were two generations removed from each other so they would not be school chums. They lived a fair distance from each other by 19th century standards so it wasn’t like they were in daily contact. Are the photographs as identified by the Belyea family really Nehemiah or someone else?
The other suspect for the identity of the fully bearded man is Marcus Cox with whom Dr. MacDonald boarded from the time he began his medical practice in the 1860s. Marcus Cox is also the father of Dr. MacDonald’s wife, Hulda (1842-1923), so it is reasonable to expect to find a drawing of him in their house. Comparing Marcus Cox’s age with the photographs is a closer match as well; the 1860s photographs appear to be a man in his late 40s or early 50s. Our nagging question appears again, however . . . why would the Belyeas have a drawing of Marcus Cox? This time there is a simpler answer: Nehemiah Belyea’s son, John MacDonald Belyea (1836-1899), was married to one of Marcus Cox’s other daughters, Rachel (1843-1937). (Queens County Heritage members and friends may recall that Rachel Cox Belyea’s wedding dress is the blue gown exhibited at the Tilley House) So perhaps both daughters each had a drawing of their father.
Nehemiah Belyea or Marcus Cox? Certainly both men had died by 1892, supporting the notion that the drawings are not from life but from photographs. Marcus Cox is a strong, common link between the two households and is a closer match in age to the photographic evidence, however the oral history of the Belyea family is compelling as well. And then some new evidence appeared…
When this article was first published in 2011, we hoped some additional photographs would appear that would help in our assessment and identification. The internet is a marvelous tool and sure enough, within a few months an additional photograph did appear from George Tapley, a descendant from a different family line, who happened to have in his possession a photograph of his great great grandfather, Marcus Wellington Cox. Guess what?… it was the bearded man with the deeply furrowed brow! Based on this additional evidence, we are very confident that the bearded man is indeed Marcus Wellington Cox. Thanks, George!
And the fellow with the mutton chops? One possible candidate stands out if the bearded man with the furrowed brow is Marcus Cox: if Hulda Cox MacDonald has a picture of dear old Dad, perhaps the mate is Dr. MacDonald’s father, Alexander Black MacDonald (1794-1880).
The Cox drawing was part of Art Under the Influence in the summer of 2012. We now hope a photograph of Alexander Black MacDonald surfaces to assist us in determining the identity of the man with the mutton chops.
For more information on the artist, read on to the next blog installment.