Artist Thomas Sully was one of the most sought-after portrait painters in America in the early 19th century. (His painting of Andrew Jackson is on that $20 in your wallet.) What connection did this famous artist, based in Philadelphia, have with Richmond and the 1811 Theater Fire? As it turns out, an interesting connection indeed!
Thomas Sully’s parents, Matthew and Sarah Sully, emigrated from England with their nine children, joining the West & Bignall company in 1792 at a time when the fledgling touring troupe needed to expand and add more talent. (Matthew Sully’s sister Margaret had married W&B’s manager/actor Thomas Wade West, and this provided their connection to this particular troupe, which was the predecessor for the Placide & Green touring troupe which was performing the night of the fire in 1811.) West & Bignall were renowned for the quality of their actors, which included Eliza Arnold Poe, mother of Edgar Allan Poe.
Unlike other companies that relied on stock scenery, this was a design-conscious company with artistically thought-out shows, elaborate scenery, creative special effects, and custom-designed costumes for productions. The exhibition Thomas Sully: Painted Performance, hosted by the Milwaukee Art Museum, claimed that his “lifelong love of the theatre and performance …permeates all his works.”Perhaps his experience in Richmond among the novel scenery and props provided the inspiration for some of these paintings?
While in Richmond, the Sullys performed at Quesnay’s Theater, a vast warehouse of a building originally intended to be an academy. It was prone to break-ins and drafts, and burned in 1798. The Wests later created a more appropriately sized (but cheaply constructed) performance space when they built the doomed Richmond Theater in 1806.
The Sullys included their young ones in their traveling and performing lifestyle, and spent the seasons of 1792 (August through December) and the 1793 season (Sept – Dec) in Richmond. Theater historian Martin Shockley writes, “I imagine little Sullys peering from the wings as their elders trod the boards or flew through the air with agility and grace, while the youngest fell asleep backstage. I hope there was a governess, but I fear there was not. I put Mrs. Sully down as a gallant lady and a great Trouper.” (The Richmond Stage, 1784-1812, p. 75) Mom Sully was not among the performing Sullys in the 1793 season according to newspaper cast lists, and by July of 1794 had died. The Sully family then relocated for a time to Charleston, S.C.
So we have here a connection between the child Thomas Sully and the Richmond stage, but how was he connected to the later Theater fire? Through his painting, naturally.
As a young man, Thomas Sully studied under several artists in the South before establishing a studio in Philadelphia. He opened his first studio in Richmond in 1804, but had to leave Virginia after marrying his brother’s widow–an act considered immoral under the law at that time. (So let’s review early 19th c. Virginia morality: selling human beings = socially acceptable, marrying your widowed sister-in-law = a shocking disgrace.)
In the city of brotherly love, Sully became a successful painter, teacher, and entrepreneurial businessman who regularly painted favorite actresses and actors as well as wealthy and fashionable citizens. One of the two thousand portraits he created was a handsome oil painting of Peyton Randolph, a scion of the prominent Virginia family, in 1806.
And here comes the Richmond Theater connection: Randolph would serve as the interim governor of Virginia for a week and a half after the Richmond Theater fire of 1811 killed Governor George Smith.
Who was Randolph? Peyton Randolph (1779-1828) was a lawyer, married to Maria Ward and father of 10 children. A Democratic-Republican on the Council of State from 1809-1812, he later became a reporter of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and wrote a 6-volume record of all the cases heard in the VA Court of Appeals from 1823-1832. Does his name sound familiar? Well, he was NOT the Peyton Randolph with the marvelous red house in Colonial Williamsburg. That Peyton Randolph was his uncle and the president of the first Continental Congress. The elder Peyton Randolph was brother to Edmund Jennings Randolph, father to the Peyton Randolph in Thomas Sully’s portrait. All three gentlemen served as Virginia governors. Again, very prominent family, these Randolphs.
After George Smith’s death in the the blaze on December 26th, 1811, this governorship was thrust upon Peyton Randolph who was the senior member of the Executive Council and only 32 years old. He served for about nine days. It seems it didn’t go very well.
During his brief term, on December 31st, 1811 Randolph submitted a strained memo to the legislature. “This unhappy occurrence [of Smith’s demise]…has left the Executive Department in such a state of disorganization as to create serious doubt whether under the existing laws, there is any [one] competent to discharge the important duties which belong to that branch of the government. Feeling myself great reluctance to exercise powers which are in any degree doubtful, it will not be deemed improper of me to suggest the expediency of supplying the vacancy, as soon as possible.”
One of the reasons for the turmoil was an excessive churn of Governors in 1811—the position had changed hands 4 times that year alone! Now poor Randolph was a hamstrung interim leader and he wanted out. On January 3rd, 1812, the House of Delegates elected Speaker of the House James Barbour, a wealthy Presbyterian lawyer and the Delegate from Orange, to take Smith’s place. (Barbour would be the first to live in Virginia’s Executive Mansion.) Not a month previously, Smith had defeated James Barbour in the gubernatorial election by joint ballot of both houses of the Legislature.
Few of Sully’s early works, such as the Randolph painting from his days in Virginia, survive. Chairman of the Wilton House Museum Board, Brenda Parker, says “We are thrilled to welcome Peyton Randolph home to Wilton and to share this important example of Thomas Sully’s portraiture with our museum visitors.” Go visit Peyton Randolph, on display in the second floor of the Wilton House Museum if you have a chance, and enjoy seeing a portrait by an artist who knew both Richmond and the stage: Thomas Sully.