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John Ball Laurens

Fraser, Charles
Place Made:
Charleston South Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
watercolor on ivory
HOA: 4 1/4″
LOA: 3 1/2″
Accession Number:
SITTER: John Ball Laurens (1799-1827) was the son of Henry Laurens Jr. (1763-1821) and Eliza Rutledge (1776-1845) and the grandsons of Henry Laurens (1723-1792) – President of the Second Continental Congress – and John Rutledge (1739-1800) – the second Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

John Ball Laurens married Caroline Olivia Ball (1806-1828) in 1823. They first lived at Mepkin Plantation on the Cooper River, and then moved to a plantation called Cedar Hill. They had two children: John Ball Laurens Jr. (1824-?) and Caroline Ball Laurens (1826-?). Like many Charlestonians of their generation and social stature, the young couple embarked to Europe sometime in early 1827 after the birth of their daughter. Caroline Olivia Laruens’ diary for the period 1823-1827 survives in the collection of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC 03483-z) and contains references to their European trip, as well as John’s death during the return journey. He is buried – or at least memorialized – in the Laurens family cemetery, Moncks Corner, Berkeley County, South Carolina. Caroline died the following year and is also buried in the family cemetery.

John Ball Laurens may have sat for his miniature in May of 1825 in preparation for his European trip – a trip that would have been delayed by the birth of his daughter Caroline in 1826. The back of the portrait is inscribed by Fraser: “John Laurens / 26 yr / painted by Ch Fraser / May 1825 / Charleston SC.” It is Interesting that until this miniature was opened for examination, and its inscription was discovered, the miniature of John was always thought by family members to have been of Edward.

In 1857 friends organized a retrospective of Charles Fraser’s work. The exhibit consisted of 313 miniatures, 139 oil paintings, and numerous sketches. (Bolton 56) The catalog of that exhibition noted that:

It is the grateful privilege he (Fraser) had enjoyed to live immediately after the stirring period of the revolution, and to see and associate with our fathers of that day that made our glorious history – and to be blessed with the opportunity of recording for posterity the lineaments of Rutledge and Laurens, of Moultrie and Pinckney…

Miniature number 44 in the catalog is “John B. Laurens.” Dated 1818, this portrait may be an either an earlier miniature, a publication of the miniature now under consideration with the wrong date (the date is only visible when the miniature is disassembled), or a copy of that miniature done by Fraser in 1828.

Fraser kept an account book for the period 1818 to 1846 that recorded his work as an artist. More than 350 miniature portraits are recorded. The account book – in the collection of the Carolina Art Association (Gibbes Museum) is not exhaustive. Its earliest years appear to have been copied by Fraser from an earlier source. That source was not comprehensive. For example, 1823’s accounts are preoccupied with the sale of oil paintings and portfolios of watercolor views. It does not make mention of Edward Rutledge Laurens’ portrait. However, the portrait of John Ball Laurens is recorded in 1825 at a cost of $50. That year the most expensive miniature completed cost $60. The cheapest was $25, a “Copy of Gen. P. (probably Pinckney) for the P&M Bank.” In general, copies of existing portraits were cheaper than one taken from life. And undoubtedly the size of the ivory and the elaborateness of the case also had an impact on the price paid.

In January of 1827 Fraser recorded painting “Mrs. John Laurens “ for $40. Shortly afterwards she left for Europe with her husband. It seems likely that Caroline Olivia Laurens had her miniature made to leave behind with her husband’s portrait as a memento for her family and young children. Less than three months after her return from Europe as a widow, Fraser records painting a “copy of Mr. John Laurens’ miniature” for $40, perhaps for another grieving relative.

In 1830 Fraser painted both “Mrs. Edward Laurens” and “Mr. Ed Laurens” for a total of $90. Perhaps the birth of their own children – and the loss of John and Caroline – inspired Edward to update his portrait and add that of his wife to family’s growing collection of miniatures. The following year Fraser noted in his account book that “out of 198 sitters from Jany 1 1819 / 26 are dead. This 1 Apl 1831.” Charles Fraser himself wrote that wrote that miniatures were “striking resemblances, that will never fail to perpetuate the tenderness of friendship, to divert the cares of absence, and to aid affection in dwelling on those features and that image which death has forever wrestled from us.” (Frank 13)

ARTIST: ARTIST: Charles Fraser (1782-1860) was born in Charleston, South Carolina. He was the fourteenth and last child born to Alexander Fraser and Mary (Grimke) Fraser. At the age of sixteen he followed his family’s wishes and began the study of law. By 1804 he was working in the office of the Attorney-General of South Carolina and in 1807, he was admitted to the bar.

Though Fraser practiced law during his early adulthood, his passion was art. He demonstrated his artistic aptitude at an early age; extant sketchbooks date as early as 1796, when Fraser was only fourteen. He established lifelong friendships with artists such as Thomas Sully (1783-1872), Edward Greene Malbone (1777-1807), and Washington Allston (1779-1843). Unlike many of his contemporaries, Fraser was not an itinerant artist, though he did make five trips to the northern states where he visited the studios of other artists. He Charleston he worked to promote public art exhibitions and collections in Charleston and was a director of the South Carolina Academy of Fine Arts until its closure circa 1832.

Fraser exhibited widely during his lifetime. His work was shown in Philadelphia and New York as well as Charleston. His most important exhibit was the 1857 “Fraser Gallery” exhibit organized in his honor by a group of prominent citizens in Charleston. Over three hundred of his works were included in this exhibit. According to the catalog of the exhibition, his Still Life with Duck and Partridges (acc. 5470) was the last work he painted.

RELATED WORKS: The MESDA Collection includes miniatures of brothers John Ball Laurens (1799-1827) (MESDA acc. 5543.1) and Edward Rutledge Laurens (b.1806) (MESDA acc. 5543.2). It is unsurprising that the miniatures of the two brothers, painted two years apart, descended in the Laurens family as a pair. Following the death of their parents the orphaned Laurens children may have entered the household of their uncle Edward Rutledge Laurens and aunt Margaret Horry Laurens. There John Ball Laurens Jr. would have been raised with – and had adequate opportunity to get to know – his cousin and future wife Eliza Rutledge Laurens.

This interconnectedness of families and artistic patronage is not surprising among Fraser’s work. In the 1857 retrospective of his work more than 300 of his miniatures were exhibited in family groups. A reviewer wrote “the dead and living were thus reunited again by the magic of Art.”

Descended in the family of Edward Rutledge Laurens.
Credit Line:
MESDA Purchase Fund