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A "New" Image of General James Robertson?

by Kathy Lauder

It was an unexpected setting for a significant moment in Tennessee history. Sailboats bobbed in the harbor of the charming Maine seaside village, and visitors in casually expensive khaki shorts strolled past with rescued greyhounds and canvas bags from L.L. Bean. But behind the oak and granite walls of a York Harbor pub, a descendant of Nashville founder James Robertson (1742-1814), was unwinding tissue paper from an historical treasure.

Dr. Henry J. Llewellyn is a 60-something radiologist who lives and works in the Boston area. A man of great dignity and charm, he has, since the recent death of his sister, begun to consider the fate of the various family treasures he holds in trust. What he was carrying with him on this September day in 2002 was a small watercolor sketch, in profile, of what generations of his family have believed to be the youthful face of General James Robertson.

The enormity of this find, should the face be Robertson's, should challenge and delight Nashville and Tennessee historians. Although one confirmed portrait of Robertson does exist, experts agree it was produced after his death. That portrait was painted by artist Washington Bogart Cooper, who arrived in Nashville in 1830 and had become quite a popular artist by 1838. According to James A. Hoobler at the Tennessee State Museum, Robertson's widow Charlotte called her children together and commissioned Cooper to paint the portrait by combining, not unlike pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the facial traits "of various family members whose features resembled their father." Charlotte loved the painting and "swore that it looked just like James had." It is important to remember, however, that Charlotte was in her mid-80s at that time, and the General had been dead for over twenty years.

At least some of the James Robertson images that appear in various history texts seem to have been copied from the Cooper painting. In addition, another portrait once believed to be of James Robertson has been identified as that of a kinsman. If Dr. Llewellyn's miniature is, in fact, a portrait of the General drawn from life, it is very likely the only one in existence. Indeed, the story that has come down through the family, passed from parent to child for eight generations, maintains this to be the only likeness ever made of James Robertson during his lifetime.

The picture itself is small and imperfect. The oval frame, made in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, is probably not much more than one hundred years old. It is badly cracked. Almost a quarter of the picture has been torn off, in a line running down the right side from top to bottom, and another deep crease runs vertically through the entire figure. A small section of the back of the head, where the page is torn, has been drawn onto the backing paper below by a less artistic hand. Stains and age spots discolor much of the page.

It is very small: the oval frame is four and a half by six inches; the image of the man himself is only three inches high. But it is startlingly beautiful. Less like our conception of a rugged frontiersman than a graceful illustration for a Jane Austen novel, the profile of a handsome young man is outlined in a few delicate strokes. The skin tones are subtle and lifelike; the hair, except for the awkward smear on the backing paper, has an almost palpable softness. It is a stunning work of historical art that merits much further study.

[Editor's Note: The author's photograph of the portrait concludes this article.]

Robertson Line, General James Robertson to Dr. Henry J. Llewellyn

from Sarah Foster Kelley. Children of Nashville. Nashville: Blue & Gray Press, 1973.

Compiled by Kathy Lauder.

Mystery_RobertsonGeneration one
James ROBERTSON (1742-1814)
Charlotte REEVES (1752-1843)

Generation two
Delilah ROBERTSON (1773-1866)

Generation three
George WITT
Charlotte BOSLEY (1794-1837)

Generation four
William H. WILKINSON, Sr.
Georgetta WITT (1816-1884)

Generation five
Marietta WILKINSON (1847-1914)

Generation six
Thomas Edwin JOHNSTON (1869-1937)
Anastasia COSTELLO

Generation seven
Mabelle Ann JOHNSTON (1905-1969)

Generation eight
Henry J. LLEWELLYN (1937-)

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