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The Fugitive Slave

One of the many wonderful paintings we were fortunate to acquire from Jay Altmayer’s collection was The Fugitive Slave by John Adam Houston. A Scotsman born in Wales, Houston never set foot in the South, but he nevertheless created a landmark Southern painting. Houston was trained in the Edinburgh School and later studied in Paris and Germany. Returning to Edinburgh, he was elected an associate of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1841 and became a full member three years later. The salon-sized Fugitive Slave, presented at the Academy’s annual exhibition in 1853, is a startling departure for the artist, who specialized in small romantic scenes drawn from Scottish history. It’s believed to be inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s groundbreaking 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, popular in both America and Europe at the time. When Stowe visited England in 1853, people swarmed the docks to have a glimpse of her, and the Duchess of Sutherland presented her with a gold bracelet in the form of a slave’s shackle.

While Stowe’s book may have prompted the subject, the painting seems to owe more to earlier literary sources. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Slave in the Dismal Swamp,” published in 1842 as part of the collection entitled Poems on Slavery, tells the story of a lone runaway and makes a fitting narration for Houston’s picture:

In the dark fens of Dismal Swamp The hunted Negro lay;
He saw the fire of the midnight camp, And heard at times a horse’s tramp, And a bloodhound’s distant bay.

Though the same geographical area—on the borders of North Carolina and Virginia—had also inspired Sir Thomas Moore’s ballad of 1803, “The Lake of the Dismal Swamp,” Longfellow’s lines made it notorious. During the 1840s, there was constant speculation about how many runaways sought refuge there. “The Great Swamp is supposed to afford concealment to upwards of a thousand runaway slaves,” an anonymous traveler wrote in Chambers Edinburgh Journal in December 1850, “who glean a miserable living within its gloomy recesses, though many are believed to be secretly supplied with food by friends more fortunate in their owners than were the fugitives.” By 1856, the theme had so captured the public mind that Stowe used it as the setting for her second anti-slavery novel, Dred, A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp.

Is the Great Dismal Swamp not a metaphor for slavery itself? Sullivan’s Island, located just across Charleston’s harbor from my gallery office, saw no fewer than 200,000 of the Africans brought to this shore pass through its Pest House, an ordeal which, if lived through, meant that the slaver’s cargo could be sold at market and that these individuals could then be enslaved to the profit of their masters. There are museums devoted to such things today, museums working to tell of the horrors the slaves knew. Where is Stowe’s gold bracelet?

Other paintings documented the subject as well. Eyre Crowe’s trilogy, which offers up evidence of the trade in Richmond, Virginia, and Lefevre Cranstone’s Slave Market in Richmond are “best of” examples. These were of the period—if not on the spot—but like the images that illustrate and support the Confederate Lost Cause, the subject persisted for years to come. Carl Hirschberg’s Coffle on the Natchez Trace was surprisingly late in its creation, but surely seemed a tale for the telling to the artist, not otherwise known for such.

As an academic and philosophical pursuit, Southern Studies was codified in the twentieth century with W. J. Cash’s The Mind of the South and the work of the Fugitives in Nashville. My take on it all is that the enterprise centered first on literature, but then gathered history, art, music, and now even food under its mother wing. The University of North Carolina and Duke University, through their respective Special Collections, were among the first to assemble the resources to lay bare our Southern past. Duke enlisted the late Winston Broadfoot to sit on porches, drink tall glasses of iced tea, and make conversation with the heirs of those who made Southern history. When successful, those visits resulted in the sons and daughters of Confederate veterans adding soldier’s diaries and family papers to the university’s archives. And what of the Universities of Virginia and Georgia who just as methodically built the rich collections which serve scholars today? Ole Miss approaches the subject in its own way, but likewise has served the cause well. Southerners have always revered our particular history—thank the Lord that our academic institutions have provided shelf space.

I never met Mr. Broadfoot, but spoke with him on the phone any number of times. He just always found an excuse not to have me by to see his collection—good Southern pictures assembled with an eye trained for detail and purpose, the eye and the knowledge which were of such benefit to Duke. In time, however, he joined his Sewanee Episcopal clan beyond the river. It was some time later, during a weekly bridge game, that Thelma Boyd, my father’s oldest sister, mentioned to the late Mr. Broadfoot’s widow Cornelia that her nephew had an interest in paintings like the one behind her with Spanish moss in the branches of that tree (a terrific Florida Herzog). I found Mrs. Broadfoot to be exceptionally gracious in the invitation and in, oh, so many subsequent visits to that house by the lake. She wished me well every time I left with one of Winston’s treasures.

Needless to say, I have come to the discipline of Southern Studies with an interest in art and specifically that art which powerfully and poignantly delineates and defines the South. Surely the time will come when more folks will see these paintings—see the people, the times in which they lived, and how they lived through them; see the damned red clay opened before us by the artist’s brush—and know that the discipline of Southern Studies is all the richer for the art. Our pursuit of the topic is made visual—made accessible and real—not by the collections of fragile letters in a library’s archives or the aroma from a pot stirred by the University of Mississippi’s Southern Foodways Alliance. It is Houston’s interpretation of a fugitive slave, lurking desperately in the Dismal Swamp that both hides and reveals him, that best illustrates who we as Southerners are.

The paintings tell our story, and the paintings demand to be studied.

John Adam Houston (1812-1884)
The Fugitive Slave (1853)
Oil on canvas
33 x 60 inches
Signature Details: Lower Center
Owner: The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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