Portrait of Humphry Marshall

Starting today, I will be posting the paintings and labels from the exhibit at CCHS. And I will start with the star of the show…Humphry Marshall. Oh, and this spectacular panorama photograph of the exhibit (well, half of the exhibit) by Jim Lawson:

Portrait of Humphry Marshall
Oil on Canvas
66 x 48 inches

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Humphry Marshall

Humphry Marshall was born on October 10, 1722, to Abraham and Mary Marshall in their homestead between the forks of the Brandywine River in West Bradford Township, Pennsylvania. He spent most of his life as a British subject, living close to the frontier in this rapidly growing colony of the British Empire. Despite having little formal education, he became the archetypal American, inventing or in some cases improvising what it meant to participate in the creation of a new kind of nation.

He was a man of prodigious energy and genius and was successful in business, characteristically evaluating all of his financial negotiations with the Latin phrase cui bono (who benefits). A prominent farmer, mason and miller, Humphry was dismissive of those without a drive for knowledge or the capacity for vigorous physical labor. Some of Marshall’s civically minded interests included building bridges, campaigning for better roads, participating in the founding of Westtown School and helping to create the first poorhouse in Chester County. He was known for his probity and at different times he held the positions of County Treasurer and Overseer of Bradford Meeting. He was also appointed to the Committee of Indian Affairs by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. A truly “weighty friend”, Marshall spent his life in what is now Marshallton and in due time was buried there, according to Quaker custom, in a simple, unmarked grave.

However, Marshall had another other life, that of a scientist and internationally recognized, self-proclaimed, “curious gentleman”. As such, he made contributions to the rapidly evolving 18th century study of botany and astronomy and had serious interests in mineralogy, zoology, pharmacology and geology. He was an early advocate for the scientific exploration of the American West, although this dream was not realized until the expedition of Lewis and Clark a few years after his death. His friends and personal acquaintances were scientific, political and cultural leaders like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Fothergill and Susanna Wright. They also included Revolutionary War heroes like “Mad” Anthony Wayne and prominent Quakers like Anthony Benezet, an ardent abolitionist who also promoted the Peace Testimony.

William Darlington (1782-1863), a historian and a major botanist in his own right, described Marshall as being “fifty years ahead of his time.” But Friend Marshall was also a man of his time and place, living with all the complexities and uncertainties of an evolving society. Peacefully, but effectively, he participated in disenfranchising the local Native American population. He owned at least one slave and he doubtless had many indentured servants as well. His mind was brilliant and audaciously original, but not particularly artistic. Unlike his more famous cousin and botanical contemporary, William Bartram, Marshall was not a skilled artist nor did he write with the radiance and passion of William Bartram, whose style foretold the coming romantic age in literature. Perhaps these are some of the reasons for his relative obscurity today, but the primary reason is the great loss of much of his correspondence and associated writing. An outstanding exception is his primary botanical achievement, the Arbustum Americanum: The American Grove, a comprehensive study of American trees and shrubs published in 1785.

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