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Needlework Picture

Walker, Mary J.
Place Made:
Raleigh North Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
Silk and watercolor on silk
HOA 13 3/4; WOA 16 1/2 (sight)
Accession Number:
This needlework picture is one of only two known surviving needleworks from the Raleigh Academy. It was worked by Mary J. Walker (1801-1820). Mary J. Walker was the daughter of Dr. William Walker (c.1765-1818) and Nancy Vines (Hicks) Walker (1774-1870). William and Nancy were married in 1797. Mary was the fourth of seven children. She was born in Brunswick County, Virginia in 1801. It is unknown where Mary obtained her earlier education, but in 1819, the eighteen-year-old attended the Raleigh Academy in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Mary’s pictorial needlework in inscribed in ink with her name and date, “WROUGHT BY MARY J. WALKER, Raleigh Academy, N. C., May 26, 1819”. Her schoolgirl accomplishment is worked with silk and silk chenille threads on a silk ground fabric. The background is painted with watercolors depicting a river landscape.

Mary Walker’s pictorial embroidery was most likely exhibited at the semi-annual examination in June of 1819. The Raleigh newspaper, The Star and North Carolina State Gazette, provided a report of this event. Mary Walker was listed as a member of the Decimore Class and was commended on her performance in geography, spelling, bible questions and copy writing. While there was no mention of her pictorial embroidery, we know from other reports that these were typically exhibited at the final examinations for parents, trustees of the school, and the community at large to view.

Mary J. Walker’s life was short. On September 21, 1819, after completing the semester at Raleigh Female Academy, she wed James Marshall Adkins (1798-1880) in Brunswick County, Virginia. The couple returned to Raleigh, where ten months later, on July 12th, 1820 Mary J. (Walker) Adkins died. Her obituary described her as “a truly affectionate wife, an indulgent mistress, and a good neighbor. In short every virtue which can ennoble human nature, showed conspicuously in her life and conversation. She has left an affectionate husband, a mother, and many other near relatives and friends to lament their irreparable loss.”

TEACHER: In 1819, when Mary Walker attended the Raleigh Academy, Susan Davis Nye (1790-1867) was the Preceptress of the Female Department. Miss Nye was from Amenia, New York, and was probably educated at Sarah Pierce’s Litchfield Academy in Connecticut along with her sister, Amanda Nye. This prestigious and well-known Academy was located only thirty miles from her home. The education she received at Litchfield Academy, and its reputation, would have helped her acquire her position in Raleigh. Susan Davis Nye’s career as a teacher is documented in her surviving journals from 1815-1841 in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She served as Preceptress of the Raleigh Academy from 1815 until her departure for Augusta, Georgia, in 1823, where she opened her own school.

SCHOOL: The Raleigh Academy was a prestigious and popular school for boys and girls in the early 19th century. In February of 1802 The Raleigh Register reported, “an Act to establish an academy in the City of Raleigh.” A board of trustees was appointed and the Raleigh Academy was born. The school was very successful and grew rapidly. By 1809 the Raleigh Academy reported 150 students enrolled, about 60 of which were females. Most of the trustees and faculty were members and leaders of the Presbyterian Church in Raleigh. In fact, when the Presbyterian minister, Rev. William L. Turner, “the Principal of the Raleigh Academy and Pastor of the City” resigned his position, it was Presbyterian Rev. William McPheeters, from Virginia, that accepted the position and took the same title.

The Academy was most successful between 1810 and 1826. Joseph Gales wrote that the school, “not only offered an opportunity of education, at a moderate expence, [for] all the male and female children of the city, but it was resorted to by Youth of both sexes from the neighboring States, to the great benefit of our merchants, mechanics, and boarding houses….” Students attended the academy from as far away as Mississippi.

A December 14, 1807, advertisement for the school in The North Carolina Journal outlined the curriculum: “In the Male Department, will be taught the Languages and Sciences generally. In the Female , English, Grammar, Geography, the use of the Globes, Maps, &c. Astronomy, to such as wish it, or other branches of Science; together with all kinds of Needle work, Painting, Drawing, Embroidery, Dresden, &c.” According to Elizabeth Murray, “All students underwent semiannual public examinations in the statehouse where exhibitions of their work were installed for public view.”.

The Academy went into decline toward the end of the 1820’s and the buildings were rented to a succession of short-lived schools. The Raleigh Academy buildings were eventually torn down at the end of the nineteenth century. Today the land it occupied is now the site of the Executive Mansion.

RELATED OBJECTS: MESDA’s court cupboard, the earliest known piece of Southern furniture, descended in Mary’s family (MESDA acc. 2024.6). Mary J. Walker and Harriet Walker were the daughters of Anne Vines Hicks and Dr. William Walker. It is through their mother’s line, that this cupboard descended.

The provenance is as follows: Mary Piersey married Captain Thomas Hill of James City County, Virginia. Around 1650 the Hills moved to a 1621-acre plantation called Essex Lodge near present-day Yorktown in neighboring York County. After Thomas Hill’s death, Mary married Thomas Bushrod, a wealthy merchant; both of Mary’s husbands served in the House of Burgesses. Mary died in 1661, but her family lived at Essex Lodge for the next sixty years.

In 1737 Anne Vines, the daughter of Mary Hill and Thomas Vines, inherited the “old cupboard” and an old table listed in her father’s inventory. Anne married Isaac Collier of York County and they moved to Brunswick County, Virginia. Their daughter, Judith Collier, married Captain James Hicks. In his 1793 will James Hicks made a specific reference to his wife’s cupboard. Their daughter, Anne Vines Hicks, the namesake of her grandmother, was born in 1766 and married a surgeon, Dr. William Walker. She lived through the Civil War and died at the extreme age of about 99. Upon her death she left “an old cupboard and the Meherrin River Plantation” to her daughter Harriet Walker, the sister of Mary J. Walker and the grandmother of Mr. Benjamin B. Smith of South Hill, Virginia, from whom the cupboard was purchased in the 1920’s.

DESCRIPTION: silk chenille and watercolor on silk needlework picture depicting a bridge with three arched openings over a river. Trees surround the bridge; three structures stand beyond the bridge, one Georgian building with two arched openings on the lowest level is on the right; two other buildings are on the left, one is brown with one large opening; beyond that is a tiered building with three sets of windows or doors on the lowest level. In the foreground are two washer-women. Bridge, trees, and immediate foreground are stitched; background, river, and washer-women are painted.

FRAME: molded with gold inner liner; ca, 1830-1850.

Credit Line:
MESDA Purchase Fund