A hauntingly beautiful schoolgirl memorial in Bartow-Pell’s collection has perplexed staff, volunteers, visitors, scholars, and even paranormal investigators for many years. Now, new research has solved some of the mystery.
Gilt lettering on églomisé glass tells us that this silk-on-silk scene was embroidered by a girl named Abigail Walker. These needlework pictures were usually made in female academies. But where did Abigail attend school? Collectors and scholars William and Sally Gemmill have associated Abigail’s piece with a group of embroideries made between 1810 and 1815 in Massachusetts at the Charlestown Academy under its preceptress, Hannah Spofford. The Gemmills first published their important research in Antiques & Fine Art magazine in 2012, and they were curators of Accomplished Women: Schoolgirl Art from Female Academies in the Early 19th Century, a 2015 exhibition at Bartow-Pell.
What else have we been able to find out about Abigail? Recent research has uncovered more of her story. Abigail Walker (1794–1882) was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, to Abigail Johnson and Major Timothy Walker. Her father was a wealthy merchant and state senator. “He was . . . always full of business, interested in commerce, and an operator in real-estate. He owned a great deal of land in the town, which he was constantly improving,” according to Old Charlestown, and was “rated by his townsmen as their richest man.” He also owned the building that housed the co-educational Charlestown Academy, which Abigail (and probably her siblings) attended. Timothy Walker was very active in the community and was a devoted donor to local Congregational churches. At his death, Walker left generous bequests to Harvard College and to the town of Charlestown for planting shade trees. He “was a ruddy-faced, strong-looking man, dignified but stern in his manner . . . with a natural gruffness of voice . . . and dressed in the fashion of his time . . . and usually carrying a handsomely-mounted cane.”
The Walker family lived in a large three-story white house with green blinds, “which was in accordance with the general idea of elegance and good taste at the time.” The residence and its fine landscaped grounds were surrounded by a white wooden fence, and “the estate extended down from Main Street to the [Mystic] river . . . and ‘Walker’s Wharf,’ where for some years a large business in slaughtering, packing, and shipping beef was carried on by the Major.”
Abigail, the eldest daughter, was one of 16 siblings, but only 12 survived to adulthood. One of her brothers, Dr. William Johnson Walker (1790–1865), became a well-known physician and philanthropist. The Walker children grew up in Charlestown alongside the artist and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872), whose father, the Congregational minister Jedidiah Morse, was the Walker family’s pastor and officiated at Abigail’s wedding in 1812. Moreover, William and Sally Gemmill have identified the elder Morse as a trustee of the Charlestown Academy.
Sadly, the Walker family’s wealth and prominence could not protect them against the all-too-common heartbreak of childhood mortality, and by 1803, three of Abigail’s young siblings had died: Martha Hall Walker, 10 months, in 1796; Charles Walker, 14 months, in 1798; and George Washington Walker, 26 months, in 1803. A fourth child—a baby boy named Joshua—died four days after his birth in July 1811. Abigail’s mourning embroidery memorializes the first three deceased children, who died when she was a young child. Because the memorial does not include baby Joshua, we know that it was stitched before his death. Taking the Gemmills’ findings into account, we can conclude that Abigail likely made her needlework picture in 1810 or in early 1811.
Ornamental needlework was an accomplishment that well-to-do young ladies learned in female academies. Pictorial embroideries were made with silk and other expensive materials, placed in fine frames, and proudly displayed on parlor walls. Mourning scenes with weeping willows, urns, and grieving figures became especially popular after the death of George Washington in 1799. Schoolgirls stitched memorials in his memory and created works paying tribute to members of their own families.
Now let’s turn to the Abigail’s embroidery. The scene teems with symbols of mourning and Christian iconography. The weeping willow tree stands for two concepts. The first is grief, but willows, which grow quickly, are also symbols of rebirth and the Christian belief in everlasting life. Three small trees on the right grow up toward heaven and perhaps represent the souls of the three young children who have died. Moreover, the woman pointing up holds an anchor, which viewers of the period would have immediately recognized as an allegorical symbol for hope as it is defined in the Bible. “Hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast” (Hebrews 6:19). The message of hope is underscored by the words at the base of the plinth, “There is rest in Heaven.”
The taller figure, her head drooped in sorrow, likely represents the children’s mother. She tenderly embraces the urn with one arm and twines a garland of roses around it with her other hand. The roses, whose blossoms will soon wither, are a memento mori that reminds us of the children’s short lives.
The Walker memorial combines Christian imagery with references to classical antiquity. New research has revealed that the design source for the maternal figure appears to be Andromache weeping over the ashes of Hector after he was killed by Achilles in the Trojan War. Although a specific print source for Abigail’s scene has not been found, similar representations appear in ceramic figurines and other objects that depict Andromache embracing her husband’s urn (and sometimes draping it with a garland of roses), such as a mantel clock made around 1783 that is now in the royal collection at Buckingham Palace.
Educated people in the early 19th century, who often had a well-grounded knowledge of classical mythology, may have recognized the allusion to Andromache from Homer’s Iliad and the writings of other classical authors, as well as from contemporary works such as Andromache, or The Fall of Troy: A Tragedy in Five Acts. Narrative scenes of Hector and Andromache are sometimes the subject of schoolgirl embroideries, but the Walker piece is a memorial in which the subtle visual reference to Andromache serves as both a reminder of grief and a fashionable nod to the classical world. One could say that Greek tragedy had been refashioned for the early American republic. Furthermore, the two women, who are seen in profile, recall figures on Greek funerary stelae. Their graceful and stylish Grecian gowns and the urn in the antique taste further enhance the picture’s elegant neoclassicism.
The Walker memorial was carefully planned. Following common practice, the faces, arms, and sky were painted in watercolor either by a professional artist or by the teacher. In this case (as the Gemmills found in their research), the faces closely resemble those in other embroideries produced at around the same time under Hannah Spofford at the Charlestown Academy. Abigail used a variety of stitches and silk threads in various shades of green, brown, white, and blue to produce the desired effects of texture, definition, and tonality.
The grieving, downcast maternal figure with her ties to earthly life contrasts sharply with the triumphant allegorical figure of Hope, who looks at the sky and points heavenward. This storytelling device with a Christian message doubles as a design element, since the women’s divergent poses add interest and balance to the composition. In addition, the drooping branches of the weeping willow tree echo the bowed head of the mourner, and the coil of rope around the anchor mimics the garland of flowers spiraling around the urn. The deceased children’s names are printed on the plinth along with some Latin abbreviations—OBT (he/she died) and ÆT (aged). Latin, a standard part of a classical education, was offered at the Charlestown Academy. Although it is unknown if Abigail ever studied classical languages, her use of Latin was a further link to the current taste for classical antiquity as well as a sign of her accomplishments and position in society.
On October 1, 1812, Abigail Walker married Samuel Turell Armstrong (1784–1850). The 18-year-old bride was ten years younger than her new husband, who was a well-known publisher and bookseller of religious works in Charlestown and Boston. In later years, he was the lieutenant governor and acting governor of the state of Massachusetts and the mayor of Boston. Armstrong was also a longtime deacon at the Old South Church. The couple had no children. Abigail outlived her husband by more than 30 years. She died in 1882 at the age of 88 at her longtime home on Beacon Street in Boston.
Today, most of the information we have about Abigail revolves around her role as daughter, sister, and wife. Women at that time often lived in the shadow of men, and many did not even have a printed obituary. Sometimes the only way we can learn more about them is through objects like this embroidery, which is a fine reflection of Abigail’s self-expression, creativity, skill, and work ethic, as well as a beautiful memorial to her young siblings.
Margaret Highland, Historian