Sunday, January 18, 2015

Images of earliest known Blackwell ancestors – or not

After my second-to-last blog post appeared, with the pictures of grandfather Matthew Drummond Blackwell and grandmother Vera (nee Lillies), I heard from a distant cousin in England, Tom Jolliffe. I had known of Tom through our third cousin Paul Blackwell, with whom I’ve been corresponding off and on for a couple of years. This was my first direct contact with Tom.

The ancestors we share are great great grandfather Matthew Blackwell (1804 - 1859), who was a stone mason and architect in early 19th century Manchester, and his wife Ann (1806 - 1889), nee Marsden. Ann and Matthew had nine children altogether, including our great grandfather Richard Henry and his younger brother Marsden, who was Tom’s and Paul's great grandfather. Paul lives in the Manchester area today, Tom in Devon.

Tom, with his wife Gina’s help, has recently set up an extensive Blackwell-Jolliffe family tree at, to which I now have guest access. (I’m guessing Tom would be glad to add others if they’re interested. Let me know and I’ll make online introductions.) The Jolliffes also have in their possession some interesting Blackwell family artifacts, including the two miniatures shown below, purportedly of Matthew and Ann.

It’s exciting to think these may be portraits of our oldest known Blackwell ancestors, but the identification is at best tenuous. According to Jolliffe family lore, they're of Matthew and Ann, but Tom is the first to admit there is not a lot else to support this. Once I looked closely at the pictures and did some poking around on the web, I had my doubts. Paul Blackwell has also been a skeptic about the miniatures. 

They show quite young people. I would estimate them to be somewhere between 25 and 35. They look prosperous, even fashionable. My understanding is that Matthew was a stone mason to begin with, later an architect. If this is him, he would likely have still been a stone mason at the age he is here. Would a mason, someone who worked in a trade, worked with his hands, look this prosperous and refined? I also had doubts about the clothing styles being consistent with the pictures dating from the 1830s. 

I sent the pictures to my daughter Caitlin, now Dr. Caitlin Blackwell, an art historian specializing in late 18th century British art. Caitlin also has a strong interest in fashion history. She came back to me in an email with a fairly definitive answer, from which I quote here:

“As far as their class, I think it's very possible that a stone mason would have styled himself as a ‘gentleman’ – anyone who had the money to commission a portrait would have styled themselves in the same way (social emulation and all that). Besides, I think a stone mason probably was the sort of artisan/craftsman that would have been at the bottom rung of the middle class...”

The clothing and painting styles, however, are another story. “[T]here's no way that these portraits were made after the first decade of the 19th century,” Caitlin writes, “and I would have dated them to between 1795 [and] 1805. This is smack in the Jane Austen-era for certain.” 

If Caitlin is right, and my amateur research on the web bears it out – note the similarities of dress in the famous picture of Beau Brummel from 1805 (above) – this can’t be Matthew and Ann. Even if the miniatures date from a few years later than Caitlin suggests, our ancestors would still have been very young children when the pictures were made. They could be of Ann’s or Matthew’s parents conceivably, but not Matthew or Ann.


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