Art meets history as Adrian Martinez looks at the world of Humphry Marshall
Adrian Martinez outside his home in Kennett Square.
By John Chambless
Having spent most of the past four
years immersed in the 18th-century world of botanist Humphry
Marshall, Adrian Martinez feels like he knows the man, inside and
“He's a fully dimensional person to me now,” Martinez said. “He's a great man, a man of genius, but a very complicated man.”
That depth of knowledge will be on display when the Chester County Historical Society opens “The Visionary World of Humphry Marshall 1750-1800” on Nov. 5, for an extended run that lasts through December 2017. The 12 paintings that Martinez completed for the exhibition distill all of his research and all of his deeply held feelings about Marshall, a forward-thinking Quaker businessman whose boundless curiosity about the world is reflected in documents and objects held at the Historical Society. Martinez has also teased out the motivations and personalities behind the letters and business ledgers to get a true picture of Marshall's inquisitive mind.
“Art communicates a world,” Martinez said during an interview at his rambling 1894 home in Downingtown. “It's the same vitality I felt when I was a kid of 7 or 8, walking through the Smithsonian Institute or the National Gallery, looking at the furniture and the paintings and the sculpture. I was convinced, although I didn't know how, that life was meaningful. Profoundly meaningful.
“In the show, the microscope that Humphry Marshall is looking at in my painting belongs to the museum. It's going to be right in front of the painting,” Martinez said. “The chair that Marshall owned will be right next to the painting. A lot of people will see a chair in a museum and it's just a piece of wood from a certain time and place. With me, it's a beautiful shape, and I can't help thinking of the people who sat in it, and cried in it, or laughed in it, or were deep in philosophical, scientific conversation.
“This show is the sort of thing I've wanted to do since I was a child,” he said. “It will be like a battery. You connect paintings with the objects. The whole environment will become supercharged. You'll be walking into a visionary world.”
Martinez has always focused his artwork on well-researched aspects of history, and in 2005, he put together “Where Two Worlds Meet,” a show of paintings of early Quakers and Native Americans. But the Humphry Marshall project has required an unprecedented effort from the artist.
“Being someone who's not just an artist, but who is getting the project done – that's what I didn't have experience with,” he said. “Being a politician, executive, fundraiser – it was all new to me, but I had lots of help. I had to do the best I could. The research I loved, the paintings I loved, but not being everything to everybody.
“I've spent my life alone in a little room,” he said of his painting regimen. “This was a cascade of stress. I love people, but as an introvert, I don't get energized, no matter how brilliant the conversation, like an extrovert would. I transcended myself during this project,” he added, laughing. “But this show is so important that I will do whatever it takes, no matter what happens, and keep going.”
At the base of the challenges Martinez faced is the fact that no image exists of what Humphry Marshall looked like. As a Quaker, he likely felt that portraits were needless vanity, so Martinez had to find a model to stand in for Marshall. He found that model in renowned horticulturist David Culp, and he enlisted other friends and associates to portray the other people in Marshall's life.
Marshall was born in West Bradford Township in 1722, the first cousin of American botanist John Bartram. Marshall was a farmer and stone mason, but was a self-described “curious gentleman” who cultivated, collected and sold plants from his extensive garden and greenhouse at his Marshallton home. His botanical garden there was the second in the United States, following the one John Bartram established in Philadelphia.
“Humphry Marshall spent most of his life as a subject of the British crown,” Martinez said. “Then, when he's in his late 50s, he's an American. What does that mean?”
Marshall was a member of early scientific societies, and a member of the American Philosophical Society. He was a correspondent of Benjamin Franklin, who sent Marshall a telescope to help him further his studies. Marshall also helped care for “Indian” Hannah Freeman, a Native American woman who was a link between the native Lenape and early settlers. She may have worked for Marshall, and occasionally lived in a cabin on Marshall's property.
“Marshall was a perfect avatar of his time,” Martinez said. “He was connected with everybody. He had an international business of selling plants. He was a very successful farmer and miller. He was trained to be a stone mason, but never had a day of education after that. But he was what he called 'a curious gentleman.'”
Marshall's study of plants – both the newly discovered American varieties and specialty plants sent from Europe – led to him writing the 1785 book, “Arbustum Americanum: The American Grove, An Alphabetical Catalogue of Forest Trees and Shrubs, Natives of the American United States.” The book used the Linnaean system of Latin names for plants, making it difficult for many readers at the time to grasp. There were also no illustrations in the book, limiting its appeal to a broad audience beyond scientists and botanists. But the book was a landmark, and Marshall got many things right. The names he came up with for many plants and trees, including the sugar maple, were not changed by successive generations of research, Martinez said.
Marshall married twice but had no children, and subsequent authors and botanists gave Marshall's work only sparing credit. “He is also too casual at the wrong times,” Martinez said. “He says a plant is 'tallish,' or 'greenish,' for instance. I do think he was a much better writer than John Bartram. Humphry was not an artist – he was a hardcore scientist. He didn't have the artistic sensibility that the Bartrams had that made them more accessible.”
While Marshall's extensive garden in Marshallton is gone, there are yellow aconite flowers that still bloom on the grounds – descendants of the ones Marshall planted himself. His stone house still stands, and the property has a historical marker.
“We do have lists of what he sold,” Martinez said, describing the long ledgers of plant names and sale prices that are in the Historical Society collection. The list shows what a rich and diverse collection of plants Marshall cultivated.
While many of Marshall's papers were burned as trash by later descendants, the Historical Society does have some of his business ledgers, and there are copies of letters from Ben Franklin to Marshall that discuss the ongoing scientific research being done by both men.
Martinez was struck by how complicated a man Marshall was. As a Quaker, he was not supposed to pay taxes during the war, and was told to stay neutral. “Then you get it from all sides,” Martinez said, smiling. “He took his faith seriously. He built roads, he built bridges, he took care of Indian Hannah later in her life.” Part of Marshall's interest in “Indian” Hannah may have been her extensive knowledge of the healing properties of native plants, Martinez said.
Humphry’s first biographer, William Darlington, said of Marshall, “He saw 50 years ahead of his time.” In one of his letters to Joseph Banks, the president of the Royal Society in England, Marshall suggested an exploration of the then-unknown western part of North America, 20 years before Lewis and Clark started their journey.
As a Quaker, he was not allowed to support slavery, but had one slave and indentured servants, Martinez said, as well as apprentices. “That's interesting to me. The more complicated, the more I can appreciate it artistically.”
Martinez's paintings “are teasing out meaning from the past,” he said. “It's all about nuance. It brings that world alive. I can talk to these people when I paint them. Like a loony, I start talking to them. And they talk back,” he said, laughing.
The world of Marshall “is so much like ours,” he said. “With the stresses and the political extremes that people had to negotiate. There was no half-measure. You were all in or all out.”
But Marshall and his fellow “curious gentlemen” had faith that scientific inquiry knew no limits. “They believed that science was without borders,” Martinez said. “You can see it as an optimistic faith in human nature that, at some point, we will be in a place where we'll transcend our differences. We're meant to be together. That's the way I've chosen to look at it. And I have no doubt that's how Marshall looked at it.”
“Adrian Martinez Presents the Visionary World of Humphry Marshall” opens at the Chester County Historical Society (225 N. High St., West Chester) on Nov. 5. For more information, call 610-692-4800 or visit www.chestercohistorical.org.
To contact Staff Writer John
Chambless, email email@example.com.