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Captain Nicholas Brown Seabrook

The Payne Limner
Place Made:
Richmond Virginia United States of America
Date Made:
oil on canvas
Canvas: HOA: 39 1/8″; WOA: 31 3/4″ Framed: HOA:42 1/2″; WOA: 36″
Accession Number:
SITTER: Named after his maternal grandfather, Nicholas Brown Seabrook (1739-1790) was born in Middletown, New Jersey on May 25, 1739 to Daniel Seabrook and his wife, Mary Brown. Nicholas was a sea captain who, in 1761, married Mary Dutcher (or Dutchess) at the Dutch Reformed Church in New York City. Two years later, the couple moved to Portsmouth, Virginia, where Seabrook engaged actively in the Caribbean and coastal trade. In 1771, they moved to Norfolk, Virginia’s largest port city, but when Norfolk was burned by Lord Dunmore at the onset of the American Revolution, they moved up the James River to Richmond, where Seabrook invested in downtown real estate and a 727-acre plantation, Dungaroon, in neighboring Hanover County.

Seabrook continued, however, to participate in maritime affairs. In 1776, he offered for sale “a very fine Sloop fit for the West India Trade.” The following year, he became captain of the Liberty, a 60-ton, 8-gun Virginia sloop that he co-owned with merchants John H. Norton and Samuel Beale of Williamsburg. The Liberty engaged in trans-Atlantic trade, sailing from Virginia and North Carolina to the European ports of America’s Revolutionary War ally, France. In 1778, Seabrook retained partial ownership but relinquished command of the ship which was later seized by British forces off the Virginia coast at Cape Henry. In 1782, Seabrook became captain of an 8-gun, 25-person crew privateer called the Goldfinder.

In a February 15, 1782 letter to his brother Thomas in New Jersey, Nicholas Brown Seabrook perfectly described his economic rise from sea captain to merchant to planter and land speculator. “Some time ago,” he noted, “I wrote you that I had Suffered by the depresiating of the money, & had Quit Trade & Bought Lands & Negroes & Turned Farmer. Now by the Mooving of the Seat of Government to Richmond, where I have five half acre Lotts of Ground & my Plantation of 727 acres of Land leying 11 miles from the Town, it has more than doubled its Value & made ample amens for the Losses of Depreseation. My Istate is worth about Eight Thousand Pounds Sterling, & is Very Capable of Impro[vement] as I have Ground enough in Town to build 12 more houses, & I am going to Sea again to Import Materials & Fix my Son in Europe to finish his Education.” Seabrook died in Richmond on June 28, 1790, bequeathing his Richmond properties and Hanover County plantation to his wife and children. His tomb survives beneath a later addition to St. John’s Church, while those of his grandchildren, Nicholas Brown Seabrook Rind and Maria Dutcher (Rind) Trueheart, are immediately adjacent to the church.

ARTIST: The Payne Limner is an unidentified artist who worked in Richmond and the surrounding counties of Henrico, Hanover, and Goochland in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. With the addition of the five Seabrook family portraits, approximately 18 of his works are now known. His identity derives from the ten surviving portraits of the Payne family, which were completed in Goochland County around 1791. None of these works bears a signature or date, and the attributions are based on the strong stylistic similarities among the various portraits. Many of them display a knowledge of 18th-century British conventions with the inclusion of personal attirbutes for each sitter, such as animals, flowers for girls, and hunting equipment for boys. Ship captain Nicholas Brown Seabrook was painted holding a telescope and pointing to a chart with a ship in the background, while planter Archer Payne was depicted standing beside a plow with a large sheaf of wheat immediately behind him. His triple portrait of two Payne brothers with their nurse is one of the few 18th-century American portraits with the full length image of an enslaved African American person. The Payne Limner’s portraits provide an excellent window into the life and society of late 18th-century Virginia.

Examples of the Payne Limner’s works can be seen in the collections of Colonial Williamsburg, the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, the Virginia Museum of Culture and History, the James Madison Museum, and MESDA.

DESCRIPTION: Painting, oil on canvas, three-quarter length portrait of a sea captain wearing a red suit, white shirt with ruffled cravat and cuffs, holding a telescope in his left hand with a tri-corn hat tucked under his left elbow, a gold-hilted sword hanging prominently from his waist, his right hand points to a chart, possibly of the James River, with a masted ship sailing in the background. The ship’s flag consists of thirteen alternating red, white, and blue stripes, a typical ensign for American navy vessels and privateers during the Revolutionay War period.

The five Seabrook portraits remained in the family for six generations, first in Virginia and then with descendants in New Jersey. They descended from Captain Nicholas Brown Seabrook (1739-1790) to his son John Seabrook (1768-1844), to his son Nicholas Brown Seabrook (1799-1866), to his daughter Mary Gordon (Seabrook) Studdiford (1845-after 1930), to her son Douglas Seabrook Studdiford (1880-1971). They were sold by the last family owner as a group at Nye and Company Auctioneers in New Jersey in January 2017.
Credit Line:
Loan courtesy of Patricia S. and William T. Wilson, III