Detail from a Portrait of George Clarke, (1822-1889)
This portrait is contained in a rectangular gilt frame; subject of portrait is a young man in sailor outfit.
In a letter dated 1839 he talks of posing for the picture and asks his mother to bring his patent leather belt and straw hat the next time she comes to New York since he will need them for the portrait.
Commissioned in 1835 from the artist Charles Cromwell Ingham, this portrait of Hyde Hall’s first chatelaine, Ann Low Cary Cooper Clarke (circa 1780 – 1850), is an idealized image of her as a young woman, arguably around the time she married George the Builder in 1814. (It belongs to the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown.)
Daughter of one of George Washington’s aides and once described as “beautiful and reckless,” Ann married, in 1801, Richard Fenimore Cooper, an elder brother of the famous novelist; he died in 1813 when she was pregnant with their fifth child. Or was she? Gossips certainly believed Alfred Cooper Clarke, as that child was known, was actually the son of George Clarke of Hyde Hall, whom Ann married about a year after Alfred’s birth.
As Wayne Franklin, a biographer of James Fenimore Cooper has written, “Ann was carrying on more-or-less openly” with George Clarke during the final years of her first marriage. Clarke was married too, with a wife back in England, Elizabeth “Eliza” Rochfort (ca. 1768 – 1861), an Irish beauty whose mental condition had deteriorated profoundly by 1818. No divorce documents have ever been found dissolving the marriage of Eliza and George, and even George’s father back in England referred to her as his son’s wife and treated her accordingly.
Nevertheless, George Clarke and the widow Cooper married in Pownal, Vermont on 6 August 1814, with the “sanction of the House of Assembly and the American law.” Was it bigamy? Or merely a lucky legal loophole? The Clarkes had four children: George Hyde Clarke (born and died 1815); Anna Clarke (1817-1899); George Hyde Clarke (1822-1889); Georgina Clarke (1824-1830); and Arthur Clarke (born and died 1826).
As letters in the Clarke family papers at Cornell University attest, George Clarke’s children by Eliza Rochfort considered their American half-siblings to be illegitimate interlopers.
The Clarke Family Coat of Arms (pictured at the right), contains several elements that are researched at Hyde Hall on an ongoing basis. One of these elements is the bird that is pictured in the upper right of the crest. John Bower, Hyde Hall’s Publicity and Outreach Manager and a senior site interpreter, has discovered the following information:
The liver bird is the symbol of the city of Liverpool, England. The use of a bird to represent the city dates to the medieval era, but the idea that the “liver bird” is a mythical creature specific to Liverpool evolved in the 20th century. The bird is normally represented in the form of a cormorant holding a branch of laver in its mouth, and appears as such on Liverpool’s coat of arms. (Source: Wikipedia)
The bird’s species has long been the subject of confusion and controversy. The bird shown on the medieval seal is generic, but the wording of the seal contains references to King John, who granted the town’s charter in 1207. John, in honor of his patron saint, frequently used the device of an eagle—long associated with St. John. Further indication that the seal was an homage to King John is found in the sprig of broom initially shown in the bird’s beak, broom being a symbol of the royal family of Plantagenet.
By the 17th century, the origins of the bird had begun to be forgotten, with references to the bird as a cormorant, still a common bird in the coastal waters near Liverpool. The 17th century mace refers to a “leaver,, while a manual on heraldry from later in the century confuses matters further by assuming this term is related to the old Low Dutch word lefler, meaning spoonbill—a bird rarely found in northern England.
The College of Arms refers to the bird as a cormorant, adding that the sprig in the mouth is of laver, a type of seaweed, thus implying that the bird’s appellation comes from the sprig.
Despite owning thousands of acres of land throughout eastern New York including large portions of the nearby towns of Cherry Valley and Middlefield, George Clarke did not possess any property on Otsego Lake or in Cooperstown. He most likely was introduced to Cooperstown and acquired the land where he built Hyde Hall because of the influence of his second wife, Ann Low Cary Cooper (1783-1850).
Ann’s father, Richard Cary, Jr., (1747-1806) was a colonel in the Revolutionary Army and aide-de-camp to George Washington. He married Anna Louise Low (1758-1830) about 1780 and began working in the Caribbean trade for his father-in-law, Cornelius Peter Low (1731-1791) of New York City. Real estate speculation was rife in the newly-opened western lands of post-revolutionary New York and in 1790 Cary purchased the 6,060-acre Prevost Tract in Otsego County from cousins of the Low family. In 1793 he moved his entire family to the area to develop his holdings. The Prevost Tract included forests and farmland with frontage in the northwest corner of Otsego Lake where a creek provided power for a grist and saw mill.
By several accounts Ann was a popular and vivacious beauty with many admirers. Perhaps it is not surprisingly that at age 17 in 1801 she married Richard Cooper (1775-1813), the eldest son of the Judge William Cooper, the founder of Cooperstown and its leading citizen. The young Coopers had houses in Cooperstown, and in Albany, where Richard served as an agent for the extensive land holdings of George Clarke. Clarke emigrated from England to Albany in 1806 and when Richard Cooper died prematurely in 1813, Ann and George were married a year later.
On arriving in 1806 Clarke rented living quarters in Albany and began construction of a house in Rome, New York. In 1816, less than two years after his marriage to Ann, he commissioned plans for a large townhouse in Albany from the architect Philip Hooker. A year later Clarke bought the site of Hyde Hall on a headland just to the east of Ann’s family home on Otsego Lake and the genesis of Hyde Hall began. The townhouse was never built and Clarke sold the Albany house lot a few years later. Thus it seems that Ann with her upbringing and many connections in the Cooperstown area provided the instigation for Clarke’s move to Otsego Lake.
In August 1829 Clarke commissioned a three-quarter length seated portrait of himself from Samuel F. B. Morse (1791-1872). He is shown in his desk chair, still at Hyde Hall; several of his books from his extensive library; framed by an elegant damask drapery with a view of Hyde Hall in the background. Morse was in Cooperstown and Cherry Valley that summer and painted at least a dozen portraits of local residents who were friends and acquaintances of Clarke, but none included the elaborate backdrop that appears in Clarke’s portrait. In the 1820s Morse was one of the country’s finest and most respected artists, turning to his invention of the telegraph in the 1830s. It is unknown as to why a companion portrait was not made of Ann, but perhaps she did not approve of Morse’s depictions of women. Regardless of the reason Clarke more than made up for this absence in August 1835 when he commissioned two portraits of Ann from Charles Cromwell Ingham (1796-1863) for $250. Ingham was one of the most popular portrait painters in New York in the 1830s and 40s, particularly among the ladies as he was particularly renowned for his high finish, accurate study of fabrics and depiction of delicate skin tones on women.
The two portraits of Ann are usually differentiated as “the real” and “the ideal” in the Clarke family. “The real” portrait shows Ann as a handsome matron wearing a black silk dress and a headdress comprised of stylish white ostrich feathers and is thought to be a realistic image of her at age 52. “The ideal” portrait is not imaginary, but is derived in facial features, pose, dress and hair style from a miniature by Anson Dickinson (1779-1852). It was painted as one of a pair with a miniature portrait of George in September 1814 just a few weeks after they were married. Ann was was 31 years old at the time. Ingham enhanced the Grecian profile, the complexity of the dress fabric and the subtle delicacy of the skin tones as well as enlarging the image to life size. He included a bandeaux in her hair, the height of fashion in 1814, but substituted a string of pearls for the broad ribbon in the original. The delicate gold chain around her neck adds a counterpoint to the slight curve of the bandeaux. The result is one of the masterpieces of neoclassical portraiture in America.
Contributed content from Gilbert T. Vincent, Chairman, Hyde Hall Board of Directors.
Images by John Bower, Hyde Hall Collections.