From Paris to New York City: Hedgehog Hair, c1785

It's a still-too-popular myth that early Americans were unfashionably plain and self-sufficient, wearing simply braided hair and clothes of homespun fabric. In this unrealistic vision of 18thc life, women not only tended the sheep, but spun the wool, wove the thread into fabric, and then cut and sewed all the clothes for their family.

Well, no. Very little fabric was produced at home, and nearly all of it was imported. People who lived along the coast were eager to follow the fashions of Paris and London, and the latest styles were imported along with fine woolens, silks, cottons, and linen. Even settlers and Native Americans living on the frontier traded for woolen cloth made in England. European visitors were surprised by how fashionable Americans were, and how the ladies in Philadelphia, Charleston, and New York followed the same trends as their sisters abroad.

These two portraits show how swiftly and thoroughly fashion came across the Atlantic. The portrait, left, of Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France, was painted by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun in 1785. The queen wears her hair in the latest style, a la hérisson, or the hedgehog, devised by her hairdresser Léonard-Alexis Autié. Monsieur Léonard (as he was known at court) cut the front of the queen's hair shorter, brushed it with a scented "hard" pomade made from beeswax, curled it on narrow rollers or with heated tongs, and frizzed it for extravagant volume. Unlike today, frizz was an 18thc lady's best friend, and the more, the better. Loose falling side curls towards the back soften the effect. Finally the entire hair is dusted with a starchy powder to whiten it. (See herehere, and here for more about 18thc hair powder and pomade.)

The queen not only favored this hairstyle, but found it was a good "support" for the oversized turbans, plumes, and poufs she liked to wear during this period. While white-powdered hair was beginning to fall from fashion - it disappeared for good with the French Revolution - the queen continued to powder her fair hair to an even whiter pallor, the better to show off her complexion in contrast.

Variations on the hedgehog style were popular throughout the 1780s. Many of the ladies in portraits by Thomas Gainsborough sport hedgehog-inspired hair, and the hairdressers of the recent movie The Duchess gave Kiera Knightley wigs with stupendous hedgehogs.

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In 1787, the style was being worn in New York City, too. The second portrait, right, by American artist Ralph Earl, is of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, wife of then-member of the Continental Congress Alexander Hamilton; she's also the heroine of my upcoming book I, ELIZA HAMILTON. The Hamiltons were a fashionable young couple in Federalist New York City and in Philadelphia, attending the theatre, balls, and dinners with equally fashionable friends, and would have been very aware of European styles in hair and dress.

In her portrait, Eliza has clearly followed the royal trend-setter. Some historians (male, and dismissive of fashion history) describe her as wearing a wig, but that's her own hair, frizzed and powdered into an elegant hedgehog. It's a surprisingly close copy of the queen's hair, down to the horizontal falling curls at the back, although Eliza chose a simpler headdress of fine linen or silk gauze instead of Marie-Antoinette's plumed turban.

That snowy white hair must have taken a considerable amount of powder to achieve, too, for beneath it Eliza's natural hair color was described as a very dark brown, almost black - you can see it showing through the powder. So much powder made a statement of affluence as well. Hair powder was considered a luxury good, and while flour could be substituted as a low-cost alternative in a pinch, the best powder was imported, a finely ground mixture of starch, bone, and orris root for scent. It's likely that Eliza wore her hair this heavily powdered only for special occasions, and by the time she sat for another portrait in the 1790s, she'd given it up, and is shown wearing her own dark hair. There is, however, a record of Eliza receiving a gift of hair powder in 1780 from Martha Washington - a thoughtful present from another 18thc lady who enjoyed a good powdering. 

Above left: Marie Antoinette with a Rose by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1783, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Lower right: Portrait of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (Mrs. Alexander Hamilton by Ralph Earl, c1787, Museum of the City of New York.

History Mystery: Is This a Forgotten Portrait of Angelica Schuyler Church?

Anyone familiar with the musical Hamilton already knows the name Angelica Schulyer Church (1756-1814). In fact, in most Hamil-fan circles, she's called just Angelica, the Schuyler sister who's famously never satisfied.

Anyone alive in late 18thc London and Paris would have recognized her name, too, for she was certainly the best-known American woman in the fast set of English society. Born into a wealthy Dutch-American family in Albany, NY, she eloped with John Church, a slightly shady Englishman who made his fortune selling arms during the American Revolution. After the war, John took Angelica and their children back to England, where he became a landed gentleman and a member of parliament. Angelica combined  her wit, beauty, and vivacious character with her husband's money to make her drawing room one of THE places to see and be seen in Georgian London.

Angelica was admired by gentlemen as diverse as Benjamin Franklin, the Prince of Wales, the Marquis de Lafayette, Whig party leader Charles James Fox and playwright Richard Brinsely Sheridan. She was a patron of artists Benjamin West, John Trumbull, and Maria Cosway. She may (or may not) have had an affair with Thomas Jefferson, and she may (or may not) have had one with her brother-in-law Alexander Hamilton, too.

To me, she's the older sister of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, the heroine of my new historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton (to be published by Kensington Books in September, 2017.) I've been wallowing deep in my research of the Schuyler and Hamilton families for a good long time now. Characters become very real to me (especially the ones who were real people - I know, weird writer problems) to the point that I half-expect to run into them at the local grocery.

So imagine my surprise when the lovely face, right, turned up in my Instagram feed this morning. Posted by the account of the Philip Mould Gallery in London, this portrait is by the well-known Georgian miniature painter Samuel Shelley (1750-1808). Shelley was famous for painting society beauties of the day, and this one - identified only as a portrait of a lady - is a gorgeous example of his work.

I'm also convinced it's a forgotten portrait of Angelica Schuyler Church.

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There are only two other portraits of Angelica known today. One is a portrait of her with her son and servant by the American artist John Trumbull, detail, right, and the other a print after a painting by English artist Richard Cosway. To my eye, the Trumbull and Shelley portraits show the same woman. It's an uncommon face for an 18thc beauty: a long nose (which also turns up in portraits of her father), a small mouth, the dark, slightly close-set eyes. The Shelley miniature also seems to capture both the flirtatious charm and intelligence that Angelica's contemporaries all mention.

From the clothes and hair style, I'd guess that this portrait was painted in the 1780s, the time when Angelica was living in London. The art world in London at the time was a small one; another portraitist, Maria Cosway, was one of Angelica's closest friends, and it's easy to imagine Maria introducing Samuel Shelley to Angelica as a possible patron.

I've written to Emma Rutherford, the consultant specializing in miniatures for Philip Mould with my thoughts. In the meantime, what do you think? Is this Angelica?

Above left: Portrait of a Lady by Samuel Shelley, image via Philip Mould Gallery.
Left: Portrait of Mrs. John Barker Church (Angelica Schuyler), Son Philip, and Servant by John Trumbull, c1785, private collection
 

Inspiration for A Sinful Deception

Above: The Kirkpatrick Children, by George Chinnery, 1805. Collection, Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank.

I've already heard from a couple of readers who have wondered why the sickly young heroine of my new book, A Sinful Deception, was sent all the way from India, where she was born, to relatives she'd never met in London. Considering the perils (shipwreck, pirates, war) of a voyage that took the better part of a year in the 18th c., wouldn't it have been safer for her to remain in India?

Perhaps. But India, too, was an unhealthy place for Europeans, and it was notoriously true that many failed to survive two monsoons, or two years. Yet for English parents of means living in India, the strongest reason for sending their children half a world away was an almost desperate desire that they be raised as English, attending English schools with English customs and friends.

This was a serious (and costly) step. Often the parents never saw their children again, or at least not for many years. But despite how deeply my heroine's father had embraced India, he still wished her to return to London and ultimately marry an English gentleman.

One of the saddest (to me, anyway) examples of a family torn asunder in this way is described in William Dalrymple's wonderful history, White Mughals: Love & Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India. At the core of this book is the love story of an unlikely couple: James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the British Resident at the Court of the Nizam of Hyderabad, and the beautiful, high-born Khair un-Nissa, niece of the Nizam's prime minister. Love at first sight swiftly gave way to seduction, scandal, outrage, and finally marriage. (It really is an amazing story, and I can't recommend this book enough.) Yet as thoroughly immersed as Kirkpatrick became in his wife's Mughal way of life - he even converted to Islam for her sake – he still insisted that their two young children be sent to England to be raised by his family.

Their portrait, above, by George Chinnery, was painted in Calcutta, shortly before the children sailed in 1805. Shown in the elegant, rich clothing of the Mughal court, they are achingly young for such a journey: the boy, Sahib Allum, is around five, while his sister, Sahib Begum, is only three. In the care of attendants, they left behind a father who was dying of hepatitis, and a grief-stricken mother who could not understand why her children must be sent away. They never saw either parent again. Kirkpatrick died soon after; his broken-hearted wife died ten years later at 29.

Once in England, their grandfather swiftly had them baptized as Christians. They were put into English clothes, and addressed by their English names of William George and Katherine Aurora. They were told to speak only English, and forbidden to write to their mother or her extended family. Their old lives were done, and their new ones were the only ones that mattered.

I cannot imagine the anguish that all of them, parents and children, must have suffered from what to us today seems an unspeakably cruel decision. Yet somehow William and Kitty survived, as children do, and both grew to adulthood, although William died young at 29. Kitty lived until 1889, the wife of an English army captain and the mother of seven children.

When Kitty was nearly 40, she finally was able to locate her Indian grandmother and write to her. Decades after she'd sailed from Calcutta as a child, the pain of that separation was still fresh:

"When I dream of my mother, I am in such joy to have found her again that I awake, or else am pained in finding that she cannot understand the English I speak. I can well recollect her cries when we left her and I can now see the place where we sat when we parted, and her tearing her long hair – what worlds would I give to possess one lock of that beautiful and much loved hair! How dreadful to think that so many, many years have passed when it would have done my heart such good to think that you loved me, and when I longed to write to you and tell you these feelings that I was never able to express, a letter which I am sure would have been detained, and now how wonderful it is that after thirty-five years, that I am able for the first time to hear that you think of me, and love me."

How could I not be inspired by that?