Portrait of Mary Chew [Peter] Smith Brumley (1756-1826) of Georgetown, D.C. attr. James Martin (w. 1794-1820), circa 1795. (PT2017004)
Pastel on wove paper, with a poplar strainer, in the original frame of mahogany on white pine, with carved and oil-gilt moldings. Portrait 16” x 13”; Frame 19” x 16”
This handsome portrait depicts the little-known Georgetown resident Mary Chew [Peter] Smith Brumley (22 Aug 1756-25 Apr 1826), a prominent woman with close ties to some of the Potomac Valley’s most influential families. She owned two of the most significant early properties in Federal-era Washington—among them the local landmark that is famous as The Old Stone House, and the renowned Fountain Inn, which is long since destroyed.
Mary Chew (1756-1826) and her sister Harriet Chew (1758-ca. 1821) were born to Maryland native Cassandra Chew (22 Aug 1729-1807)—about whom little is known—and Robert Peter(s) (1726-1806), an aristocratic émigré and wealthy businessman from Lanarkshire, Scotland . Peter arrived in Maryland about 1746 as the commercial agent or factor for Glasscock and Company, the largest of Scots tobacco brokers—and left a documentary trail that is remarkable for that era. He initially settled in Bladensburg, on the upper reaches of the Anacostia River, yet by 1755, had moved the business to the bustling port at Georgetown, on the Potomac. This placed him conveniently within reach of the tobacco planters who had settled the fertile lands both below, and above, the falls of the River. Not yet 30, he quickly became “the most extensive individual landowner in the County,” with significant holdings that included several town lots and houses, scattered commercial property, and nearby plantations. Though Robert Peter was more inclined to business than politics, a quarter-century later, the City Council of the newly incorporated Georgetown, appointed him the first Mayor. The term began January 5th, 1790.
Mary Chew and her sister Harriet add a new dimension to Robert Peter’s well-known history, for they were “natural children”—a colonial term that defined infants born out of wedlock. Nonetheless, his relationship with their mother Cassandra appears to have been a devoted one for perhaps a decade. Yet, by the mid 1760s, Robert Peter had met Elizabeth Scott (1744-1821), whom he wed in 1766—and the following year she gave birth to their first child, Thomas Peter (1767-1835), who became famous in his own right. He eventually wed Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Martha Parke Custis (1777–1854) of Mount Vernon, and built an estate known as Tudor Place, perhaps the finest in Georgetown. Robert Peter raised seven more children in Georgetown with Elizabeth Scott—each a half sibling to Mary and Harriet Chew. For unknown reasons, Harriet seems to have left the area early in adulthood, and as a result, little is known of her. Nonetheless, Mary lived confidently in Georgetown, where she maintained an amicable relationship with her mother and sister, her father and step-mother, and younger half siblings. The portrait is the sole record of her countenance, and the impetus for this biography.
Robert Peter made concerted efforts throughout his life, and assured that beyond his death, he helped to support Cassandra, Mary and Harriet Chew. Indeed, he gave them gifts that one might consider typical of a proud and wealthy southern father in that period, including real estate, and servants, thus helping to maintain the family’s wider financial security, as well as their social standing within Georgetown. It appears that he played a role in Cassandra’s 1767 acquisition of a small yet dignified stone shop with a dwelling above, known today as The Old Stone House—completed the year before by local cabinetmaker Christopher Layman. After he died in 1766, his widow conveyed it to Cassndra Chew. It survives today as the oldest structure in Georgetown.
Situated prominently on Bridge [today M] Street near its crossing with Water Street [Wisconsin Avenue], the dwelling stood then as it does now—literally at the heart of the town. The following year, Cassandra Chew added a substantial two-story addition to the rear of the structure. She and the daughters seem to have made the upper floor of the property their home, and to have rented the first floor rooms facing Bridge Street, as a shop. Mary Chew would eventually inherit the Property.
Before Robert Peter died in 1806 at the age of 80, he assured his aging daughter Mary that she would receive family support throughout her life. To that end, he added a codicil to his will on 18 October 1804 appointing son Thomas Peter of Tudor Place, the “Trustee” for Mary Chew—who was by then was known widely as the Widow Bromley. In short, he entrusting the first male offspring in the younger generation as overseer for his elder daughter’s welfare through the declining years of her life [see Appendix A].
Yet, if this introduction infers that Mary Chew passed her years as the ward of her father, in reality, she lived a life entwined in the fabric of Georgetown society with business interests of her own. In 1773, Mary Chew married Colonel Richard Smith (1752-1787), a native of Calvert County, Maryland, and a Patriot, who died shortly after the Revolution. In the course of a brief life, he acquired a handsome house and lot on “Fishing Lane”, traversing the hillside over the Potomac, where their daughter Barbara Smith was likely born in 1778. Yet, five years later, he rented the structure to tavern-keeper John Suter (ca. 1740-1794), whose family soon played a larger role in Mary and Barbara Smith’s lives.
Life changed in dramatically for the Mary Chew Smith in 1790, when the United States Congress selected Georgetown and the nearby port of Alexandria, Virginia, to form the jurisdiction now known as Washington, The District of Columbia—which was soon due to become the Capital city of the new United States. With this, John Suter formally named the tavern The Fountain Inn—and it flourished. Later that year, President George Washington, surveyor Andrew Ellicott of Maryland, and French engineer Major Pierre L’Enfant gathered in the building for a retreat in which they carried on extended discussions about designs for the new Federal City. In 1791, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and United States Senator James Madison likewise convened in the parlor with Federal Commissioners, to make decisions about the President’s new residence in Philadelphia.
Another noteworthy event took place in the Fountain Inn within the next 12 months, after the members of Federal Masonic Lodge #1 assisted President Washington in laying the cornerstone for the building destined to become the nearby President’s House: They held a banquet and celebration at the tavern. The November 15th issue of the Charleston, South Carolina City Gazette reported the event, noting that, “After the ceremony was performed they returned, in regular order, to Mr. Suter’s Fountain Inn, where an elegant dinner was provided.” The establishment continued with great success until Suter’s death in 1794. The privilege and duties of ownership then descended to his wife Mary Chew Smith.
Mary Chew and Col. Richard Smith’s daughter Barbara, born 1778, grew up in Georgetown, and came to know the Suter family well. When Col. Smith died in 1787, he bequeathed the building to his wife Mary Chew, who—perhaps with the help of her growing daughter Barbara—oversaw the investment. Not surprisingly, in 1794, Barbara married the Suter’s son, John Suter, Jr., a Georgetown clockmaker. He produced some of the finest clocks ever made in Georgetown. However, after his father’s death later that year, the youngster gave up clock-making to assist his mother at the Fountain Inn. By that point, business activity in Georgetown was beginning to shift a half-mile downriver, toward the neighborhood around the President’s House—for which walls were now rising. Soon, the entire Suter family had moved anew, this time to a location at 15th and K Streets, where they served as proprietors of The Union Tavern just a stone’s throw from the Executive Mansion.
Mary Chew likely commissioned her portrait about this time, perhaps as a way to establish herself as a worthy member of Washington’s increasingly urbane society. The brilliant palette and refined accouterments set off the stylish character of her likeness, and together with the figured mahogany and carved-and-gilded moldings, bespoke her sophistication. It served as a sign to newcomers that she held a respected place within the community.
In 1802, after 15 years as a widow, Mary Chew married a second time, to Prince George’s County native Joseph Brumley—and lived quietly in Georgetown for the next five years. When her mother Cassandra died in 1807, Mary Chew inherited The Old Stone House on Bridge Street—and within months her son-in-law John Suter Jr. gave up the tavern business, and return to making clocks. With this, he and his wife Barbara settled into The Old Stone House, where he resumed his work as a tradesman. Some of the finest clocks made in Georgetown at any point in history, hail from his workbench in that era. They are extremely fine, as shown in the accompanying photographs, and are widely collected today. When Cassandra Chew died, she bequeathed the Old Stone House at 3051 M Street in Georgetown to her daughter Mary, who in turn, bequeathed it to her daughter and son-in-law, Barbara Chew and John Suter, Jr.
This seems an appropriate time to discuss other furniture made in the Old Stone House during its earliest years. The original builder Christopher Layman—had moved to town about 1760—and had scarcely completed the house in 1766, when he died. Further research into his life, shows that he originally spelled his name Lehman and was of German descent. More importantly, he trained in Philadelphia as a cabinetmaker, before moving south to Maryland. It seems logical to suggest, that he produced the Philadelphia-inspired—yet locally made—chairs and desks documented within Georgetown families in that period. Indeed, there is little surprise that the finest of the chairs descended from one of the city’s wealthiest and most prominent citizens—none other than the illustrious Robert Peter.
John Suter, Sr. died late in 1794, and shortly afterwards his son re-directed his career away from clock-making in order to assist his mother in overseeing the business. He advertised in the Maryland Journal on 18 Feb, 1795 that he sought an assistant to take over the watchmaking business at the Old Stone House. One Samuel Huff apparently answered the advertisement, and during the next three years, played a vital role in the new firm of Huff and Suter, as Sutter stepped away to assume greater responsibility at the Inn. Finally, November 17th, 1797 Suter announced in The Sentinel of Liberty, that he was altogether giving up the clock-making business. Shortly afterwards, he gave up the Fountain Inn in Georgetown and moved to a key position near the corner of 15th and K Streets, several blocks from the still unfinished President’s House. Nonetheless, the younger Suter and his wife Barbara eventually retired as innkeepers, and on 22 September 1804, he announced to the public in the Washington Federalist, that he was returning to his former role as watchmaker “a few doors west of the Union Tavern” on Bridge Street—apparently, his former location at the “Old Stone House.”
When clockmaker John Suter Jr. died in 1808, his widow Barbara Suter once again returned to managing a hostelry—this time the “hotel boarding house” at the northeast corner of 15th and F Streets. The family then leased the Old Stone House on Lot #3 to one William Clark, the first of many tenants through the coming decades. In 1875 descendants finally sold the structure, thus ending the family’s 115 year ownership of the property.
The likeness is attributed to the English émigré artist James Martin (ca. 1770-1820), who arrived in America in 1794, and focused on portraiture until the end of his life a quarter century later. Martin’s pastel portraits are generally characterized by a bright blue background with black accents, and by the sitter’s somber countenance (figure 1). The portraits tend to be small, and equally important, nearly fill the viewing field from top to bottom—especially women, who generally wear bonnets or hats that crowd or touch the frame above. The principle difference between the Brumley portrait and Martin’s later work lies in the black accents against the bright blue sky. The linear dashes of black chalk appear to be an early approach that he soon abandoned in favor of a subtle transition characterized by the scumbling of black and the blue pigments in the background.
Martin arrived in America from England by 1794, and later that year placed an advertisement in the New Jersey Journal—the first to define the breadth of his skills. He described himself as a “miniature painter from New York, late of Fleet Street, London,” and offered “Oil, Water, and Crayon [portraits] from $1 to $50.” In 1797 he placed an advertisement in the New-York Daily Advertiser, identifying his skills to include “Portrait Painting,” and noted that he created “pleasing and striking likeness(es} taken to any size in crayons or pastels on moderate terms, at No 8, Wall-street, nearly opposite the Presbyterian Church.” He also noted that he cut silhouettes, which he called Profile Shades: “Profile Shades taken at 1 dollar each, one minutes sitting only required. Miniatures neatly executed.”
Most of the portraits from Martin’s American career depict patrons from New York City, or nearby Connecticut and New Jersey. However, it is clear that during his early years in America, he traveled to Maryland—where he took likenesses of the Baltimore wine merchant Englehardt Yeiser (c.1747-1807) and his wife Anna Catherine Maria Keener (1754-1820)—now in the Colonial Williamsburg Collection. Indeed, once in Baltimore, Martin could have taken but brief a ride to Georgetown, Alexandria, and The Federal City, with their growing list of illustrious citizens. Based upon the style of the sitter’s clothing, Martin’s likeness of Mary Chew Smith Brumley dates among the early of his American career and, at present, is the only example known from the Federal City.
The portrait is sketched on a fine stock of wove paper, presumed to consist of linen and/or hemp fiber, as is typical of finer examples from the late eighteenth century. There is little hint of discoloration on the exposed tacking edges around the strainer. Curiously, the artist was unable to obtain a folio size sheet for the portrait, and so, glued together two smaller sheets, each measuring approximately 13 ½” wide. The upper sheet measures 9 ¼” high and the lower one 7 3/8”. They are joined with a subtle “lap” or “scarf” joint that runs through her chin, and is visible under raking light, as shown in Figure 10, below.
The original frame is of understated taste, yet of excellent design, with highly figured veneer, and carved and gilded moldings. It differs significantly from those on Martin’s northern portraits, and seems to represent the wealth and education of the family that commissioned it, and also a distinct classical taste indicating the skill of artisans in Federal city during the 1790s. Perhaps it hails from the bench of a skilled joiner who produced woodwork for the Capitol, the President’s House, or another in the Federal City.
An early 20th century index card applied to the backboard identifies the sitter as “MARY CHEW SMITH BRUMLEY” and names the owner at that time—Washington D.C. physician, Dr. Robert Sadler McCeney (1905-1988), who likely applied the card some time late in the second quarter of the twentieth century, based upon the typography and the character of the card. When he died without issue in 1978, his older brother George Bowie McCeney (1904-1978) took possession of the painting. The names following theirs on the list trace the painting ancestry backwards through the family, culminating with Mary Chew Smith Brumley, who owned it in the late 18th Century:
MARY CHEW SMITH BRUMLEY / Property of G. Bowie [G Bowie written in pen], Robert S. [crossed out with pen] McCeney, son [of] George / P. McCeney [1879-1935], grandson [of] Eliza [Combs] Bowie McCeney [1840-1912], great / grandson [of] Sarah Maria Suter (1826-1886) m. Dr. Charles Bowie 1833-1849], great great grandson [of] / Barbara [Maria] Smith Suter [1778-?], great great great grandson [of] / Mary Chew [married] (1) Richard [Richard in pencil] Smith [and married] 2) Joseph [Joseph in pencil] Brumley.
The card identifies the sitter as Mary Chew Smith Brumley, and outlines the painting’s descent through six generations of the family. It is interesting that during the first four generations of its history, the painting’s ownership was entrusted to a female in the line of descent, and in the pen-ultimate, to a male without issue. The typescript outlining the history reads thus, with later annotations in pen or pencil that are highlighted below in italics, and/or clarified in brackets.
The above line of descent, recorded by the family on the reverse of the painting, is further illumined below, generation-by-generation, by providing the full name and, where known, life dates for each individual cited, as well as his or her relationship to the successive generation, and the name(s) of the spouse(s). It merits noting that during the first four generations, the sitter’s portrait and her identity were both entrusted to a matrilineal descendant.
-Generation 1. Mary Chew Smith Brumley (1756-1826), m. (1st) Col. Richard Smith (d. 1787) and m. (2nd) Joseph Brumley ( ); to daughter
-Generation 2. Barbara Maria Smith [1778-XX] m. watchmaker John Suter, Jr. (ca. 1775-1808), to daughter
-Generation 3. Sarah Maria Suter (1801-1883) m. Dr. Charles Bowie (1787-1849), to daughter
-Generation 4. Eliza L. Combs Bowie [1840-1912] m. Edgar Patterson McCeney (1844-1892), to son
-Generation 5. George Patterson McCeney (1879-1935) m. Margaret Sadler (1882-1961) to son
-Generation 6a. George Bowie McCeney (1904-1978), unmarried to older brother,
-Generation 6b. Dr. Robert S. McCeney (1905-1988) of Washington, DC, m. Lelia Brennan McCeney (1911-1995).