Collections › MESDA Collection › Priscilla (Hill) Montfort

Priscilla (Hill) Montfort

Mare, John __Attributed to
Place Made:
Edenton North Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
oil –canvas
HOA: 35 1/4; WOA: 31
Accession Number:
SITTER: Priscilla (Hill) Montfort (1730-1780) was the daughter of Colonel Benjamin Hill of Bertie County, North Carolina. She was the wife of Joseph Montfort (1724-1777), who came to North Carolina before 1750 and was elected Clerk of the Court for Edgecombe County and served in that capacity until 1758 when Halifax County was formed. He was made Clerk of the Court for Halifax and retained that office until his death. Joseph Montfort was appointed Treasurer of the Northern Counties by Governor Arthur Dobbs in 1764. A colonel in the militia and a member of the lower house of assembly, he was also extremely prominent in the affairs of the Masonic Lodge. In 1771, Montfort traveled to England and was appointed by the Duke of Beaufort to be “Grand Master of Masons of and for America,” an office which gave him more authority than any other Masonic officer has ever held in North America. Joseph Montfort died in 1776. Priscilla Montfort died in September, 1780, after an illness. According to family tradition, a few hours later her grandson died and both were carried to the grave on the same bier.

A fragment of a companion portrait of Joseph Montfort has been documented.

ARTIST: We now believe that this portrait is the work of John Mare (1739-1802/3). This attribution is based on a comparison of this portrait and the surviving fragment of the companion portrait of Joseph Montfort with work by Mare, particularly the portrait of John Keteltas (1739-1766) at the New York Historical Society (NYHS 1966.12). Southern paintings scholar Carolyn Weekley is conducting ongoing research to solidify this attribution.

Mare was born in New York City, the eldest child of John Mare and Mary (Bes) Mare, who were married in 1738. His sister, Mary, wed the artist and novelist William Williams (1727-1791), and it is possible Mare received artistic training from his brother-in-law. In 1765 Mare was admitted to the freedom of the city of New York as a limner; the following year he was paid by the city council for a portrait of King George III. Only about a dozen works by or attributed to Mare survive and all depict New York or New England sitters. The earliest is dated 1760. His two best-known works are of Jeremiah Platt (1744-1811) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA acc. 55.55) and John Keteltas (1739-1766) at the New York Historical Society (NYHS 1966.12). The artist also worked in pastels. His pastel portrait of John C. Couvenhoven (1752-1805) is in the collection of the Shelburne Museum (SM acc. 27.1.1-10).

John Mare was an active Mason. In about 1772 he joined the Master’s Lodge No. 2 in Albany, New York. On his return to New York in 1774 he transferred his membership to St. John’s Lodge No. 2 where he became senior warden. In 1776 and 1777 he visited Unanimity Lodge in Edenton, North Carolina. And in 1778 he transferred his membership to this Lodge in North Carolina. He became Master of the Unanimity Lodge in 1779, and in 1787 he helped draft the constitution of the Grand Lodge of North Carolina and presided over the Masonic Convention that adopted it.

As a Mason, John Mare would have been well aware of Joseph Montfort (1724-1777), who was the Grand Master of Masons of and for America. Perhaps Mare met Montfort and painted his portrait as well as his wife’s during his initial visit to North Carolina in 1776. Comparisons between the fragmentary portrait of Joseph and that of Jeremiah Platt at the Metropolitan Museum of Art show similarities in the handling of the eyebrows and shading on the nose. Mare also employs the same off-center placement in both the Platt portrait and the portrait of Priscilla (Hill) Montfort. Similarities also exist in the handling of the shading, hands, and furniture, in the portrait of Priscilla and that of Henry Lloyd I (1685-1763) of Long Island (Frick Photo Archive: Mare, John 1739-1802-03 121-6b)

It is not clear why John Mare left New York City for North Carolina, perhaps at Montfort’s invitation, but he clearly prospered in Edenton. Mare engaged in trade, acquired land, and in 1784 married Marion (Boyd) Wells. He served as postmaster, city treasurer, town commissioner and on the council of state in 1787. He represented Edenton at the convention that ratified the United States Constitution. Based on the lack of signed or attributable examples, Mare appears to have virtually given up painting shortly after his resettlement. The present painting, as well as the fragment of Joseph Montfort’s portrait, would be the only examples of his North Carolina work. Because of Montfort’s death in early 1777, they would have had to have been painted during his initial 1776 trip. Indeed, the pair would mark the conclusion of his itinerancy, a period that saw him painting in New York City, Albany, Boston, Connecticut, and North Carolina.

Though John Mare may have given up his brush, his nephew William Joseph Williams (1759-1823) pursued a life-long career as an itinerant painter working in New York, Philadelphia, Virginia, and the Carolinas. In 1785 he was living in Joseph Mare’s household in Edenton where he executed a pair of pastel portraits of the Reverend Charles Pettigrew and his wife Mary (Blount) Pettigrew (MESDA acc. 3332-3). It is possible that William learned from his uncle John Mare.

DESCRIPTION: Painting, oil on canvas, of a woman with tight fitting white cap over brown hair, brown eyes, sitting in the right side of the portrait in a leather backed chair. She wears a red-brown dress with lace trim and a white bow. The dress is 1780-1790 in period.

RELATED OBJECTS: A pair of card tables (MESDA acc. 2720 and 5818) were once owned by Willie Jones (1741-1802), Priscilla’s’s son-in-law. They were likely made for his parents, Robert “Robin” Jones, Jr. (1718-1766) and Sarah (Cobb) Jones.

REFERENCES: Helen Burr Smith and Elizabeth V. Moore, “John Mare: A Composite Portrait”, The North Carolina Historical Review, Vol. XLIV, No. 1, January 1967.

This portrait descended in the family of the sitter’s daughter, Mary Montfort (1760-1822) who married Willie Jones (1741-1801), a prominent Halifax County planter and political figure, on 22 June 1776. It descended to her daughter, Martha Burke Jones (1790-1863), who married United States Senator John Wayles Eppes (1773-1823) of Millbrook Plantation in Buckingham County, Virginia, and then to her daughter, Sarah Ann Eppes, who married Dr. Edmund Wilcox Hubard (1806-1878) of Saratoga Plantation in Buckingham County. In 1930, the portrait and its companion of Joseph Montfort were sold at an estate sale at Saratoga, along with a dressing glass that had belonged to Mary (Montfort) Jones (MESDA Acc. 2539.2) and one of a pair of Edenton card tables that had belonged to North Carolina colonial attorney general Robert Jones (see MESDA Acc. 2720 and 5818).
Credit Line:
Gift of Frank L. Horton