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Frances L’Escott

Johnston, Henrietta
Place Made:
Charleston South Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
pastel on paper
HOA: 11 1/16; WOA: 8 1/4
Accession Number:
SITTER: Frances L’Escott (1705-1747) was the daughter of the Reverend Paul L’Escott (b.1675), pastor of the Huguenot Church in Charles Town from 1700 to 1719 and from 1731 to 1734. She married Peter Villepontoux (1684-1748), a wealthy Huguenot. He owned a plantation on James Island; a town lot near the Quaker Meeting House on King Street; a lot on Trott’s Point; and a plantation in Christ Church Parish. The couple had seven children though only one daughter and four sons are mentioned in Peter Villepontoux’s will; there is no mention of his wife Frances, and it is believed that her death preceded his. She was living, however, in 1741, when she and her husband signed deeds of lease and release for property.

There is an anecdote about young Frances L’Escott in The Carolina Chronicle of Commissary Gideon Johnston in his letter to the secretary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. His letter, dated July 5, 1710, reads: “One of the enclosed papers is a letter of Sir John Chardins to Mrs. L’Escot. . . .You will see by it that a Legacy of 30 [pounds] was left to her daughter, which was to revert to the Mother in case of the Daughters death. The Daughter is still alive and the father and Mother think if their undoubted right to have this money and the Interest of it hitherto.” The letter does not state whether the parents received control of the legacy. It does, however, mention that Mr. L’Escot could not understand English so that any other correspondence to him must be done in “Latin or French.”

ARTIST: Henrietta de Beaulieu Dering Johnston (ca. 1674 – March 9, 1729) is recognized as the earliest professional female artist and the first known pastelist working in the American colonies. The daughter of Susannah de Beaulieu, it is generally accepted that she was born in northwestern France and that her family immigrated to London in the mid-1680s. Henrietta was of French Huguenot descent.

In 1694 Henrietta Beaulieu married William Dering, and moved to Ireland. It was during this time that she began to draw pastels, as is evidenced by her earliest portraits of a number of people to whom she was related by marriage, including members of the Percival family. Although the quality of her work suggests that she had received formal training, nothing is known of her education. Like her contemporaries, however, she copied the conventions set by London court painter Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723). It is possible that she studied with Dublin artist Edward Lutterel (1650-1710).

Widowed by 1704, and the mother of two daughters, Henrietta married in 1705 Anglican clergyman Gideon Johnston who was appointed two years later to serve as commissary of the Church of England in North and South Carolina and the Bahama Islands and to serve as rector of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Charles Town (Charleston), South Carolina. The Johnstons arrived in Charleston in 1708, and over the next few years Henrietta’s work as a pastel portraitist became critical to the economy of her family as is proven by one of her husband’s letters, in which he wrote: “were it not for the assistance my wife gives by drawing of Pictures (which can last but a little time in a place so ill peopled) I should not be able to live.” Gideon Johnston died in a boating accident in 1716 and Henrietta remained in Charleston until her death in 1729. She is believed to have traveled to New York City in1725 where she drew at least four portraits of a family of that city. More than forty of her portraits survive, many of which are of members of Charleston’s early Huguenot community.

FRAME: Original dark finished frame and with original spruce backboard.

RELATED OBJECTS: The MESDA collection is home to three works by Johnston: a portrait of Frances L’Escott (MESDA acc. 964), a portrait of Colonel Samuel Prioleau (MESDA acc. 2048.1), and a portrait of Mary Magdalene Gendron Prioleau (2048.2).

REFERENCES: Whaley Batson, “Henrietta Johnson: ‘Who greatly helped . . . by drawing pictures.’” (Winston-Salem, NC: The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, 1991).

Margaret Simmons Middleton, “Henrietta Johnston of Charles Town, South Carolina: America’s First Pastellist” (Columbia, South Carolina, 1966).

Severens, Martha. “Who was Henrietta Johnston?” The Magazine Antiques, vol. CXLVIII, no. 5 (November 1995).

DESCRIPTION: Pastel portrait of Frances L’Escott. Half-length pastel portrait of young woman with body turned slightly to the right and head slightly to the left. She has auburn hair, brown eyes, with loosely fitted ecru and blue gown. The original wood frame retains its original spruce back with the following inscriptions: “Henrietta Johnston Fecit/ South Carolina Ano 1716.” “I/ Frances Lescott/ Married Peter Villep—.”

According to an 1890 document accompanying the portrait, it descended from the sitter to her daughter Anne (Villepontoux) Gray (.1729), to her daughter Anne (Gray) Simons, to her daughter Frances (Simons) Gray, to her grandson, Alexander P. Gray of Charleston.
Credit Line:
Purchase Fund