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What the Cushing Family Left Us

 

Who took Queen Christina?

Unknown boy with bird /Portsmouth AthenaeumElizabeth Aykroyd is mystified by one painting that never found its way into the Athenaeum collection. It appears hauntingly in one of the stereoview souvenir cards photographed in the 1870s. Visitors to the gallery can look through an ancient stereo viewer that is part of the exhibit. Many of the images seen in the photo are now hanging on the walls of the Randall Gallery.

"We believe that this is the supposed portrait of Queen Christina, Queen of Sweden in the early seventeenth century," Aykroyd says. "This seems to be an unusual subject for a New England house, but in this household of mainly women, there may have been some admiration for the independent queen known as the champion of her people."

Attempts to locate this early painting have led only to blind alleys. It seems to have vanished. These are the mysteries that keep curators awake at night as they weave together family histories by tracking the treasures left behind.

Those treasures, Aykroyd notes, were all preserved by women. In every case the surviving items were handed down the female line of the family and were donated to museums like the Athenaeum by women, not men. Family wills often left real estate to male heirs and the contents of the houses to the female heirs, who in the case of the Cushings and the Shaefes, chose to preserve their lineage by presenting their prized possessions to institutions like the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the houses of Historic New England and the Portsmouth Athenaeum, rather then putting them up for sale.

"The family connections were very important to them, and they took pains to preserve and pass on that knowledge," Aykroyd says.

The donors wanted their wealthy and prominent families to be remembered by the public many generations into the future. But times change. Portsmouth’s early families – from Pickering and Vaughan and Sherburne to Shaefe and Ladd and Wentworth are fast fading. And the Cushings might be forgotten entirely – except for the treasures they passed along in their name – and for the research of one curious curator.

"These paintings are not only dead people's stuff," Aykroyd reminds us. "They belong to us now; they are ours -- so it behooves us to understand why we have them and what they mean to us today."

 

Copyright © 2010 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Robinson is the author of several books on local history. His history column appears here every other Monday and online at SeacoastNH.com.

 

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