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.