The Americans who fought alongside the British in the conflict were not an insignificant group, however – according to one historian’s estimate they comprised approximately 15-20% of the adult white male population of the American colonies.
With Loyalism an important part of the narrative of the American revolution, it was perhaps understandable that when a rediscovered pair of portraits of the leading Loyalist Arent DePeyster (1736-1822) and his wife Rebecca emerged for sale at Bellmans (22% buyer’s premium) in Billingshurst, West Sussex, on October 11, serious interest came from across the Atlantic.
The auction house found the pair of oval oils on panel in a cupboard during a house clearance in South London. Each measured 18 x 15in (46 x 38cm) and both works had survived in decent condition despite a discoloured varnish, surface abrasion and minor retouching to the ‘husband’ portrait.
A member of a prominent New York family who served in the Eighth Regiment of the British army in North America, Arent DePeyster rose through the ranks becoming commandant of the British controlled Fort Michilimackinac from 1774-79 and later commandant of Fort Detroit (Detroit itself remained under British control until 1796).
DePeyster was also one of the key negotiators who persuaded Native Americans chiefs to fight on the side of the British. He gained their trust by supplying them with provisions and, in recognition, they reputedly referred to him as ‘The Father’.
Portraits of DePeyster are very rare. One unascribed portrait showing him in later life is part of the Museum of Liverpool collection. The version here though shows him earlier in his career dressed in his military red coat uniform and carrying a sword and hat. Based on the style of his uniform, the portraits were thought to date from c.1790.
Catalogued as ‘late 18th/early 19th century English school’, the portraits were given an estimate of just £150-250. However, a number of parties recognised the portraits as a pair known to scholars through old photographs. As such, they were bound to sell for substantially more on the day.
With commission interest ahead of the sale and two US bidders participating online and on the phone, the price rose to £38,000 before the gavel fell to the internet buyer using thesaleroom.com. With premium, the price was £46,360.
The portraits were purchased by the Mackinac Island State Park Commission, an agency of the State of Michigan, for its permanent museum collection. They operate several historic sites including a reconstruction of Fort Michilimackinac.
Steven C Brisson, director of the agency, said: “We have been aware of the existence of these portraits for many years and have used black and white copies, provided by the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland, in several publications and exhibits. We are extremely pleased to acquire the originals.
"We also have in our collection a stunning silver punch bowl, made by Smith & Sharp of London, that was presented to DePeyster by the traders at Fort Michilimackinac in 1779.”
After fighting on the losing side in the War of Independence, DePeyster eventually retired from military service and moved to Dumfries in Scotland in 1794 where Rebecca (née Blair) was originally from. There he befriended the poet Robert Burns to whom his Poem on Life is dedicated. The opening lines are: ‘My honoured colonel, deep I feel / Your interest in the Poet's weal’.
This period in Scotland did not mark the end of his career in uniform however. With fears of a French invasion under Napoleon, he joined the Dumfries Volunteers of which he served as commander until the end of his life.
The portraits are now returning to the US, a month short of the 200th anniversary of his death.