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Who is the Mysterious Lady in the Portrait

The portrait, an oil on poplar board, is of an older lady with glasses, identified as "Harriet Ford Bull Lawton, 1700." Seems pretty straightforward, right? As our readers probably know by now, we like to verify "granny notes," so this one was no exception.

Firstly, does the date 1700 make sense? After consultation with two textile experts, it was determined that the lady in the portrait was wearing clothing from the 1840's to 1850's. Curator of Textiles at Historic Deerfield, Ned Lazaro opined; "My initial guess is c.1850. Looks to be a gathered bodice front and a natural waistline, suggesting late 1840s or early 1850s. Cap has an 1840s feel to me, as does the collar." A professional cleaning of the canvas could help, and it was also pointed out that an older lady might wear clothes from a previous era.

So, the date of 1700 is suspect--what about the identification? Harriet Ford Bull Lawton sounds quite specific, and should be easy to verify. A little research into the Lawton family tree revealed a woman named Harriet Ford Bull, who was born in 1829 and who married Sanford Lawton in 1856. Doing the math, that makes her 21 years old in 1850, so that doesn't match the image of the older lady. The information about the painting says it was donated to the Historical Society by Miss Rachel Lawton, granddaughter of Harriet Ford Bull Lawton. Rachel Lawton, subject of recent study by our group as a crusader in Longmeadow for a woman's right to vote, was a board member of the Historical Society in 1955, and her uncle William was Vice President in 1917. But, according to a newspaper story from 1958 describing recent gifts to the Historical Society, a painting of Harriet Ford Bull was donated by Harriet Ford Lawton, Rachel's sister.

The original Lawton home was located just north of the Storrs Library. In the early 20th century they resided on Crescent Avenue.

Going further into the family tree, we find several more Harriets. The first was Mary Harriet "Polly" Ford (1804-1857). She married Jabez Bull. She had a daughter Harriet Ford Bull who married Sanford Lawton. This Harriet had a granddaughter named Harriet Ford Lawton, the donor of the painting.

The only Harriet who seems to be the right age to be the lady in the portrait is the donor's great-grandmother Mary Harriet "Polly" Ford, who died in 1857. Could this be sitter? She seems likely, as she could be the mature woman in the portrait.

We often find names being repeated generation after generation--everyone wanted a namesake. So the lesson here is put a name on all of your family photos and memorabilia, even if you think you'll never forget the information! And "Mother" doesn't cut it!

Originally published July 21, 2021

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