Where in the World: Early Kentuckians in the National Portrait Gallery

Published 9:05 am Friday, May 25, 2018

I recently stumbled upon a four-volume, leather-bound set of books entitled, “The National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans, 1859 edition” by James B. Longacre and James Herring. (The first edition of these works appeared in the 1830s.)

Each volume covers 36 subjects with an accompanying biographical sketch and an engraving of their portrait. A huge sum, $40,000, was spent preparing steel engravings from the original portraits.

Six Kentuckians are included in these works, and each has significant ties to Clark County. That list includes Isaac Shelby, Henry Clay, Daniel Boone, George Rogers Clark, Simon Kenton and Zachary Taylor.

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While doing background research for this column, several mistaken ideas had to be discarded.

I assumed the original portraits of the subjects hung in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. But, as I learned and you may already know, the NPG was not established until 1962.

It turns out the authors coined the term more than a century before there was an actual “gallery.” They state in the preface to Volume 1, “The portrait painters whose scattered works are here collected [are] preserved by the art of the engraver.”

The engraving of Isaac Shelby was made by Asher Brown Durand, a member of the Hudson River School of artists, who began his career as an engraver.

The original oil painting of Shelby was created by Matthew Harris Jouett in about 1816. This invaluable portrait is owned by the Filson Historical Society in Louisville.

Shelby (1750-1826) was an officer in the Revolutionary War. He played a key role in the American victory at King’s Mountain. Shelby was selected by voters as Kentucky’s first governor.

America’s second war with England, the War of 1812, was fought during Shelby’s second term. Gen. William Henry Harrison, military commander in the Northwest Territory asked the governor for his support.

At age 62, Shelby led an army of 3,500 Kentucky volunteers to the northwest, where they joined Harrison in a campaign that culminated in the American victory at the Battle of the Thames.

Shelby married Susanna Hart. Her father, Nathaniel Hart, was killed by Indians near Fort Boonesborough in 1782.

Isaac Shelby owned land in Clark County. He and his brother Evan both obtained 500-acre tracts by virtue of military warrants.

These land warrants were issued for service in the French and Indian War, not the Revolutionary War. Shelby did not fight in the former; he acquired his warrant from Charles Tompkies, an ensign in the 2d Virginia Regiment.

The land lay on the east side of the 1,000-acre patent awarded to Dr. Thomas Hind. Shelby’s tract was situated on the east side of present day Becknerville Road, straddling Colby Road.

The engravings of Henry Clay are included here for several reasons.

First, they are not among the more commonly seen portrayals of Clay. And secondly, one of the engravings was not made from a painting but rather from a daguerreotype, an early type of photographic print.

That likeness is thought to have been captured by Samuel Root in about 1851 at his New York studio. The engraving was made by one Alfred Sealey who was employed at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

The other illustration of Clay, showing a much younger man, is from the 1836 edition of the work. The engraving was made by Longacre from a painting of Clay by W. J. Hubard.

Clay (1777-1852) came to Kentucky in the winter of 1797 and settled in Lexington. Few are aware he began his law practice in Winchester. On Feb. 27, 1798, the 21-year-old Clay was admitted to Clark County bar. This predated his license to practice in Fayette obtained March 20, 1798.

It is difficult to comment on Clay’s performance in Clark County as the old court records rarely list the attorney’s name. The first case I could locate was Ambrose Bush v. Luke Holder in February 1799. After the sheriff sold some of John Holder’s land to Bush to satisfy a debt, Bush sought to have Holder’s father, Luke, ejected from the property.

John Holder was made a defendant in the case and was represented by Clay. The case was later settled out of court.

Clay also served as the deputy state’s attorney for the Clark County Court of Quarter Sessions. This was the equivalent of today’s county attorney. He was appointed to that post in April 1801 and resigned a year later.

“By a remarkable coincidence,” Henry Clay is said to have “made his first speech in a law case in the court house at Winchester, and also his last⎯in a case tried there just before he went to Washington city for the last time.” The authority for this statement is Richard H. Collins’ “History of Kentucky.”

A similar claim was made by James Flanagan, a local judge and historian of Clark County. According to Flanagan, Clay made his last speech at court in the celebrated will contest of Joel Quisenberry’s heirs.

After the wealthy Quisenberry died in 1847, his daughters brought suit to break his will on grounds of incompetence and undue influence by his sons.

A veritable who’s who of attorneys represented the parties. Clay appeared for the plaintiffs (daughters). The trial ended in a hung jury.

In his opening speech, Clay “alluded feelingly to the fact that fifty years before he had made his debut as an attorney at the bar of Winchester.”

Flanagan, who was 27 years old at the time, witnessed the speech.

Harry Enoch, retired biochemist and history enthusiast, has been writing for the Sun since 2005.