From a young woman's hands Artifacts: Because we know so little of women of the 19th century, the sketchbook and needlework of Anne Brooke Ellicott are more dear.

September 18, 1996|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN STAFF

"Gentility," observed the 19th-century author Margaret Bayard Smith, "is independent of birth, wealth or condition, but is derived from that cultivation of mind which imparts elevation to sentiment and refinement to manners in whatever situation of life they may be found."

Both sentiment and refined manners are evident in the art of Anne Brooke Ellicott, daughter of Ellicott City founder George Ellicott, whose sensitive watercolors and precise needlework are on display at the Maryland Historical Society through Sept. 29.

"What this show allows viewers to experience are the kinds of things a young woman in the early 19th century would have seen and thought worthy of recording," said Nancy Davis, the historical society's chief of collections.

"Anne clearly was a very talented artist who was encouraged to observe the world around her and document what she saw," Davis said. "The sketchbooks probably date from her late teens, when she was at school in Baltimore. But some of the paintings also seem to record scenes associated with her home near Ellicott Mills."

Anne Ellicott's sketchbooks, along with her watercolor box and needlework sampler, were purchased by the historical society this month at an auction that also saw the sale of several artifacts related to the life and work of Benjamin Banneker, Maryland's African-American scientific pioneer.

Anne was born in 1801, five years before Banneker died, and it is possible that she met him through her father, whose land adjoined Banneker's near present-day Oella in Baltimore County.

George Ellicott, whose family built a large mill near what is now Ellicott City, lent Banneker books, scientific instruments and other items that allowed him to publish his famous almanacs, which first appeared in 1792.

But Anne Ellicott's artwork would be valuable even without the Banneker connection, Davis said.

"It's unusual in that we were able to find three items all related to one person -- Anne's sketchbook, her box of watercolors and her sampler," Davis said. "Taken together, they give us a kind of window into a person's thoughts and emotions."

Such artifacts are particularly important because of the light they shed on the lives of women at a time when little attention was paid to preserving their experiences, Davis said.

"Women are known through their handiwork, through things like quilts and samplers," Davis said. "One has to read so much into those vestiges of a woman's history because typically their letters were not kept, and generally there are very few records from this period in which women speak for themselves about what they were thinking and feeling."

Relatively little is known of Anne's life beyond the official records of births, marriages and deaths.

She was the second youngest of seven children of George Ellicott, two of whom died before reaching adulthood.

Her older sisters, Elizabeth and Martha, were both writers. Martha kept a diary, while Elizabeth published a cookbook filled with her personal observations and comments on life.

But Anne apparently felt most comfortable expressing herself through her sketches and watercolors, Davis said.

"Like other well-brought-up young women of her day, she probably was encouraged to be proficient at drawing, and all girls were expected to do samplers, which taught them discipline and patience in their needlework."

In addition, Anne almost certainly would have had obligations within the family.

"She would have been shown how to deal with household activities and be a wife," Davis said. "She learned things like how to deal with servants, how to put up provisions for the home."

Yet despite her family's careful preparation, Anne's career as wife was tragically short.

She did not marry until she was 36, when she wed Thomas Tyson, the widower of Anne's twin sister Mary who died in 1834. Anne married Tyson in 1836 and lived with him at Sandy Springs in Montgomery County until her own death three years later, on July 16, 1839.

During those years, Anne probably spent much of her time helping her husband raise his daughter, Elizabeth Ellicott Tyson.

"It really was quite sad that she only lived for three years after her marriage," Davis said. "There is no account of why she died. It's possible she died in childbirth. ... But we just don't know."

And so Anne's sketchbook and sampler are all that remain of her today. Her expressive, disciplined artwork reveals a mind quick and perceptive to the world around her.

"She was a thinking woman, but like so many other women of her time, because she expressed herself in quiet ways it is hard for us to get a rounded picture," Davis said. "We have the men's point of view -- you hear men speaking of their wives or complimenting each other's wives in letters -- but unfortunately it's still quite rare to have women speak themselves and give full expression to their experience."

Exhibit

What: Artwork by Anne Brooke Ellicott

Where: Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St.

When: Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission: $4 Call: (410) 685-3750

Pub Date: 9/18/96

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