Today, I’m delighted to welcome a new guest to All Things Georgian, Judith E. Pearson, Ph.D. to tell us more about a fascinating portrait by George Romney housed at DACOR Bacon House, Washington D.C.
An oil portrait by George Romney graces the second-floor dining room of the historic DACOR Bacon House at 1801 F Street, N.W., Washington, DC. It is one of the very few Romney paintings found in the US, and you won’t find it on the internet. The portrait, hanging above the sideboard, is the focal point in a room furnished with exquisite antiques. It is Romney’s portrait of Lady Augusta Murray, holding her infant son, Augustus Frederick d’Este.
Unlike Romney’s many famous paintings of Lady Emma Hamilton, the portrait of Lady Murray is obscure, familiar mainly to those who frequent the DACOR Bacon House and know something of the mansion’s history. On the other hand, like Emma, and many of Romney’s female subjects, Lady Murray is portrayed in a charming manner. With dark curls encircling her face, she looks directly at the viewer with a tilt of her head and a shy, captivating smile. She wears a white, short-sleeved, high-collared dress and a turban. The boy, in a white frock, gazes into the distance, somewhere behind the viewer.
The DACOR Bacon House, the woman who owned the house and the portrait, and the portrait itself, all have complex histories that make for rich and fascinating tales of the Georgian Era and beyond, reaching into the twentieth century. Here are those interrelated stories.
The DACOR Bacon House
Built in 1825, the DACOR Bacon House is an architectural treasure; one of the best-preserved nineteenth-century, Federal-style landmarks in Washington DC. Just a short distance from the White House, the Capitol building, and the Supreme Court, the venue can boast almost two centuries of connections to the influential and the powerful who have conducted the nation’s domestic and foreign affairs.
To enter the house is to walk in the footsteps of presidents, justices, governors, senators, diplomats, military leaders, and dignitaries who lived there or visited to attend dinners, balls, receptions, and musicales. As a family home and sometime boarding house, the structure has been the residence of a diplomat, a US Marshall, Supreme Court justices, an heiress and one-time English countess, and a New York congressman, as well as social and cultural leaders. The house is named after Congressman Robert Low Bacon, and his wife, Virginia Murray Bacon, who owned the house from 1925 until her death in 1980.
Today the stately, four-story, beautifully appointed mansion is the headquarters of the Diplomatic and Consular Officers, Retired foundation, known as DACOR, a non-profit educational and cultural institution dedicated to excellence in the field of international understanding and discourse in shaping US public policy. The foundation hosts meetings, dinners, receptions, and conferences for discussions of literature, history, and topics related to and bearing directly on current foreign affairs. The National Trust for Historic Preservation holds an easement to preserve the property and structure for future generations.
The property on which the house sits was once part of Prince George’s County, Maryland. Census records show that it was a farm tract owned by David Burnes who emigrated from Scotland in 1721. Burnes expanded his holdings to encompass much of the area that would eventually become Washington, DC. Upon his death, the land passed to his son, James, who expanded the holdings, and eventually, in 1772, to his grandson, David Burnes II, who served as a lieutenant in the War for American Independence. In 1790, Congress established a federal city on the banks of the Potomac River. Within the following year, Burnes sold a portion of his holdings to the newly formed federal government. That land today forms a segment of the Washington Mall and the south half of the White House grounds.
David Burnes II retained the remaining portion of his land that had become situated in the District of Columbia. When he died in 1800, his property passed to his teenaged daughter, Marcia Brown Burnes. In 1802, her guardian, John Oakley, sold three lots of the property to William Hammond Dorsey, a prominent member of the nearby Georgetown community and a judge of the Orphan’s Court of Washington County, Maryland.
Subsequently, the remaining property passed through additional owners. Respectively, they were: Jacob Wagner, chief clerk of the Department of State and the owner of the Federal Republican newspaper; Tobias Lear V, former private secretary to George Washington and, afterward, a US diplomat serving under Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison; and Mr. Tench Ringgold, US Marshall for the District of Columbia, appointed by President James Monroe.
In 1824, Ringgold built a three-story, Federal-style house on the property with borrowed money (from his daughter, Sarah) and slave labour. He added two outbuildings; a storage/gardening shed and a carriage house.
Ringgold was well-placed socially. He attended the inaugural ball for President John Quincy Adams in May 1825. He befriended Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams who both died in 1826, as did Ringgold’s wife, Mary, with whom he had five children. In keeping with local custom, the Ringgold’s opened their home as a boarding house to non-resident, government officials. Chief Justice John Marshall and numerous associate justices and their clerks boarded at the Ringgold home. Former President Monroe and his wife were guests in 1829 and 1830.
When President Andrew Jackson took office in 1831, he dismissed Ringgold from his post as US Marshall, despite Ringgold’s strenuous objections. Ringgold fell into financial difficulties and defaulted on the loan, urging Sarah and her husband, John M. Thomas, to foreclose on the property and take ownership. The Thomas’s held possession from 1833 to 1835, when they sold the house to Samuel Sprigg.
Sprigg, born about 1783, was a wealthy landowner. He was married to Violetta Lansdale with whom he had two children. He was the first governor of Maryland, a position he held until December 1822. At his death in 1855, his estate was valued at $50,000, including 61 slaves. He bought the house as a residence for his daughter, Sally, and her husband William Thomas Carroll, who was a Supreme Court clerk appointed by Chief Justice John Marshall, a position he held for 36 years. The F Street house, known as the Sprigg-Carroll House, stayed in Sprigg’s name until his death, when it went in trust to his daughter. During the Carroll’s occupancy, the house underwent expansion and many renovations to include connections to city’s new water and sewer system in the 1860s.
The Carroll’s enjoyed affluence and social prominence. They entertained lavishly and spent summers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. They had four daughters and three sons, two of whom died in childhood. The daughters all married well. The surviving son was an officer in the Union Army, wounded during the Civil War, retiring as a major-general.
William Carroll died in 1863 at age 61. Sally Carroll remained in the house until her death in 1895 at age 81. Her son-in-law and executor to her will then sold the house to Mary Ellen (Mollie) Fuller, the second wife of Melville Weston Fuller, Chief Justice to the Supreme Court, nominated by President Grover Cleveland in 1888. The Fuller family lived at the mansion for 14 years, enlarging and modernizing the living spaces and outbuildings.
The Fullers were a fixture of Washington high society. They entertained with grand fetes and, as the Chief Justice aged, small dinner parties for close friends. Justice Fuller also opened his home to weekly conferences with associate justices. The family spent the summers in Maine, where, in 1904, Mollie died of a heart attack. Justice Fuller died in 1910, replaced by Chief Justice Edward D. White, grandson of Tench Ringgold, who built the house on F. Street.
In 1911, a new owner took residence. Alice Copely Thaw was one of 10 children born to William Thaw, a wealthy capitalist who left a fortune to his heirs upon his death in 1889. In 1903, she married George Francis Alexander (Seymour), Earl of Yarmouth and relocated to England. When the marriage failed in 1908, she returned to the US, bought the mansion in 1911, and retained ownership until 1923. She continued remodelling and improvements, to include installing electricity throughout the house. In 1912, she married Geoffrey Whitney, a broker from New York. The Whitney’s moved to New York and rented the home on F Street to various tenants.
In 1923, the newly elected US congressman from New York’s First District, Robert Low Bacon, and his wife, Virginia Murray Bacon, rented the house. They bought it from Alice Thaw Whitney in 1925.
Virginia Murray Bacon
Virginia Murray was born in New York City in 1890. Her father’s family was descended from Scottish nobility; her great-great-grandfather was Lord John Murray, fourth Earl of Dunmore, the last royal governor of Virginia. He fled the colonies under protection of the Royal Navy. Subsequently, he became the royal governor of the Bahamas.
Her father, Henry Murray, was the son of an English diplomat. As a young man, Henry moved from England to Canada, and eventually to New York, where he found work with a securities firm. In 1889, he married Fannie Morris Babcock, an heiress from a family of wealthy landowners, soldiers, bankers, and businessmen. Henry Murray enjoyed a successful career in finance and the couple quickly rose to social prominence. The Murrays had three children. The eldest was Virginia, born in 1890.
Virginia Murray was beautiful, well-educated, and well-connected. Her marriage to Congressman Robert Bacon was the highlight of the New York social season. Born in 1884, Robert was the son of a successful banker, soldier, and diplomat. Robert, himself, was a Harvard graduate and successful banker who went into politics and served in the Army Officer Reserve Corps.
Virginia rapidly became a grand dame of Washington society. She hosted presidents, noted musicians, statesmen, and social leaders. She generously supported organizations concerned with world affairs and the arts. She was named to several boards and committees and received prestigious awards.
She remodelled the mansion and planted majestic trees in the garden, where she often hosted buffet luncheons during World War II, inviting weary officials to drop by, unannounced, for a midday respite. She filled the rooms with tasteful furniture, much of it imported from Europe and England, and objects of art, especially historic lithographs, and family portraits.
The Bacon House Foundation
Robert Bacon served eight terms and died in office in 1938 at age 54. His wife remained in residence until her death in 1980 at age 89. Prior to her death, she considered options for leaving the building to an organization that would preserve its history and character. She wanted the Bacon house to “enjoy a lively existence consistent with the interests and connections of its occupants through the years, and be characterized by dignity, taste and intelligence.” In 1975, she established the Bacon House Foundation to that end.
The foundation took ownership of the house, with a permanent deed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The foundation then purchased adjoining lots, razed the homes on these lots, and sold the lots to the Organization of American States for the organization’s headquarters and offices. In 1980, with Virginia Bacon’s blessing, the foundation partnered with DACOR and the DACOR Educational and Welfare Foundation, to convert the home, upon her demise, from a residence to offices and an educational center. The DACOR Bacon House merger was finalized in 1985.
The house and outbuildings have undergone extensive renovations since 1980. DACOR added a library and a collection of diplomatic memorabilia. Every effort has been made to give the home a nineteenth century atmosphere and to preserve the beautiful furnishings and works of art that once belonged to the Bacon family. One such piece is the Romney portrait of Lady Augusta Murray and her son.
The History of the Romney Painting
The Romney oil painting that hangs in the DACOR Bacon House dining room has a small, gold plaque mounted on the bottom of the frame that reads:
George Romney R.A. 1734 – 1802. Lady Augusta Murray, 2nd Daughter of the Fourth Earl of Dunmore. Married the Duke of Sussex. Holding on her lap her infant son Sir Augustus Frederick d’Este in white frock. Collection of Lord Truro.
Lady Augusta Murray (1768 – 1830) was the daughter of John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore (hence, the connection to Virginia Murray Bacon, as described above). Her mother was Lady Charlotte Stewart, daughter of Alexander Stewart, 6th Earl of Galloway. She and Prince August Frederick (1773 – 1843), sixth son of King George III, met while he was a young man vacationing in Rome. They married in 1793 in a private ceremony in Rome in opposition to the Royal Marriage Act. They later married again in a religious ceremony in London, without revealing their true identities.
The royal family declared the marriage null and void. The couple remained together for eight years, producing two children: Augustus Frederick d’Este (1794 – 1848) and Augusta Emma d’Este (1801 – 1866). While the Romney painting is not dated, it was most likely painted in 1795 or 1796, in that the infant, Augustus Frederick, looks to be about 18 months old.
The couple parted company in 1801, when the prince grew frustrated with the monarch’s refusal to grant him a dukedom. The prince gave Augusta custody of the children, at which point she and the children took the surname d’Este (some sources say Ameland). In 1809, the prince took custody of the children, arranging a pension for his former wife. He became the Duke of Sussex.
After Augusta’s death, Prince Augustus married Lady Cecelia Buggin, daughter of the second Earl of Arron. Again, the marriage was contrary to the Royal Marriage Act. However, in 1837, Queen Victoria dubbed Lady Cecilia as Duchess of Inverness, granting a royal favor to her favourite uncle, and acquiring royal precedence for her consort, Prince Albert.
At age 18, the younger Augustus was commissioned in the Seventh Royal Fusiliers and fought in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. Although he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel, he was known for his unlikable, pretentious personality. He died in 1848, unmarried, with no heirs, and crippled by the first-ever diagnosed case of multiple sclerosis.
His sister, Emma, was the second wife to Thomas Wilde (1782 – 1855), 1st Baron Truro, Lord Chancellor of Great Britain 1850 – 1852, formerly the Solicitor General, Attorney General, and Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas. They married in 1845. She had no children. She inherited the Romney portrait of her mother and brother. Thus, it became part of the Truro Collection.
Little else is known about the portrait, until 1921, when Charles W. Schwab, a wealthy American industrialist, bought it at an auction in London. Three years after Schwab’s death in 1939, the portrait again came up for auction in New York. Virginia Bacon bought it and placed it in the second-floor dining room of her home at 1801 F Street, Washington, DC where it remains today.
The portrait delights all visitors who appreciate seeing one of the few works by Romney to be found in a private collection in the US.
William D. Calerhead, DACOR Bacon House. (Archetype Press, Inc. Washington, D.C. 1999)
Lady Augusta Murray Wikipedia
Thomas Wilde, 1st Baron Truro. Wikipedia