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What the Cushing Family Left Us


An eye for history

The one-room Randall Gallery on the third floor of the Athenaeum is temporarily filled with paintings, documents, and a rare "pier" table which reportedly belonged to the famous William Pepperrell of Kittery. The exhibit includes a portrait by John Singleton Copley (1737 – 1815), one of America’s most respected artists. To assemble and document the collection Aykroyd spent two years sifting through deeds, letters, wills, probate inventories, Athenaeum records, newspaper notices, and genealogy charts.

The Cushings had an eye for quality," Aykroyd says, "but more important, they had an eye for history. They surely understood that the Copley portrait of Dorothy Quincy Hancock was not only a very fine painting but also a document of our history."

Owning paintings by the best artists of the day was a way for families to show their own importance and social status. Local writer Thomas Bailey Aldrich once noted with a wink that "to live in Portsmouth without possessing a family portrait done by Copley is like living in Boston without having an ancestor in the Old Granary Burying-Ground. You can exist, but you cannot be said to flourish."

 "The Cushings preserved three 18th-century letters: from John Adams, John Hancock, and Alexander Hamilton," Aykroyd says. "Most of the paintings, the Pepperrell furniture, and the Wentworth House itself were saved because the extended Cushing-Shaefe family thought that they were important for their history."

 The curator proudly points out her favorite items – two small portraits of an unidentified mother and son. Local legend says they were painted in America, but Aykroyd’s scrupulous research now shows they were brought from England. They were painted some time between 1710 and 1720.

"I particularly like the little boy," she says, "who seems about to strangle the bird he is holding."

Cushing home at LIttle Harbor /Portsmouth Athenaeum

CONTINUED Cushing Treasures

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Monday, January 22, 2018 
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