Milo Naeve Reviews
Thomas McIlworth: Colonial New York Painter
Ona Curran: Thomas McIlworth: Colonial New York Painter
Art Book Press, New York, 2007
81 pages (18 color illustrations, 52 black and white illustrations)
ISBN 978-0-9767820-0-1 (soft cover only)
$35.00 ($4.00 shipping; available: telephone 518-875-6788 or Art Books Press; 140 Creek Road; Esperance, New York, 12066
Ona Curran's book is a rarity for its subject. Painting in the British North American colonies mainly is portraiture by artists of the second rank. Their efforts have not been celebrated in recent years in contrast to the interest in the art market and in scholarship early in the 20th century. Taste has changed.
Portraits of historic figures still hold interest. Occasionally they also are character studies of aesthetic interest as in the work of John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). He spent his early life in Boston. There he was mostly self-taught, became active by 1753, and sailed to Europe for additional training and a distinguished career in 1774. His travels to Philadelphia and New York City in search of clients took place in 1771-1772, too late for competition with McIlworth.
McIlworth was active in New York from 1757 to 1768, according to Curran's biography (pp. 11-17). The first five years, from 1757 to 1762, were in the Manhattan area. Perhaps challenge by Lawrence Kilburn or other artists encouraged McIlworth to move to the Albany and Schenectady area. The last record of McIlworth is a pathetic letter from Montreal to his patron near Albany and, evidently friend, Sir William Johnston, on October 24, 1767. The few patrons there over two months led him to write the colorful phrase "that blind Bitch Fortune still continues to haunt me like a Ghost" (p. 16; original in Johnson Papers). Legal records in New York infer that McIlworth had died about 1769, his wife died about 1766, and relatives were caring for their two small children.
McIlworth's adventures in the New World began about 1757. He had emigrated from Edinburgh. Curran proves with dedicated and creative research that "McIlwraith", the artist's father was the "limner" Andrew "McIlwraith and his mother was the daughter of the portrait painter William Mosman. Both families, Curran proves, were "solid middle to upper class" (p. 11).
McIlworth's birth date is unknown, and he surely received training from his father or grandfather. The artist sought his fortune in New York City, where he is first documented as a member of St. Andrew's Society, in 1757.
Curran attributes to the artist 46 portraits (pp. 30-76). He did not sign them. They can be identified by receipts and other records or by a distinctive style which Curran describes as "rather flat but direct" (p. 15). Portraits are documented in the Catalog by a color or black and white photograph and an essay about the subject and attribution. Portraits also appear in a summary list with location and date after the "Table of Contents" (pp. 7-8). Curran removes one picture from those previously attributed (p. 77). Assessment of the portraits is sound.
The book is an achievement. Curran learned research techniques through a Master of Arts degree in Museum Methodology and Procedures at the State University of New York at Cooperstown. She gained direct experience in research as Curator of the Schenectady Museum and Director of the Schenectady Historical Society. Previous research on McIlworth was a half-century ago, yet Curran's familiarity with public records and private manuscripts results in remarkable information about a formerly obscure artist. The excellent bibliography cites her major sources; others she includes in footnotes or as part of the text. But all of these must be a small representation of the many sources which she consulted yet only mentions infrequently when stating her reasoning for deductions about McIlworth and his subjects.\
Curran's concern for the reader is evident throughout her efforts. It is typically expressed in a succinct and admirable summary of McIlworth's milieu entitled "The New York Province 1757-1768".