Text: Michael J. Deas, “The ‘Stella’ Daguerreotype,” The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe (1989), pp. 51-54 (This material is protected by copyright)


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­[page 51, continued:]

The “Stella” Daguerreotype

The resemblance of the “Stella” daguerreotype (fig. 21) to its variant, the “Annie” daguerreotype, is extraordinary; in both pictures Poe’s demeanor and pose remain virtually unchanged. The only obvious distinction between the two images lies in the slightly altered position of the cravat; less discernible differences can be found in a slight rearrangement of the hair above and beside the left temple, and in the amount of cuff protruding from the coat sleeve. Externally, the “Annie” daguerreotype shows a rectangular pattern of oxidation emanating from the edge of the matte, while the “Stella” daguerreotype shows practically no sign of deterioration.

Like the “Annie” daguerreotype, the “Stella” daguerreotype is named for a woman with whom Poe was closely associated during the last decade of his life. In this case the woman was Sarah Anna Lewis, a poet who used the pen names “Stella” and “Estelle Anna.” Her husband, Sylvanus D. Lewis, was a well-to-do Brooklyn attorney who offered Poe money and favors in exchange for writing favorable reviews of his wife’s poetry. The unflattering nature of this relationship has earned Mrs. Lewis the perpetual disdain of Poe biographers, many of whom have pointed with relish to her abrasive personality, her garish taste, her mediocre verse. Poe himself remained guarded in his opinion of Stella Lewis: he praised her lavishly in his lectures and reviews, and on at least one occasion introduced her as his close personal friend; yet on another occasion he is said to have fled his home when informed of her approach, and was glimpsed soon afterwards, “sitting on a favorite rock, muttering his desire to die and get rid of literary bores.”(106) If nothing else, it can at least be said that Stella Lewis was an accommodating patroness. She furnished Poe with financial support and allowed her home to serve as a retreat from the intolerable memories that pervaded the Fordham cottage where Virginia Poe had died in early 1847. Although she no doubt sensed his ambivalence toward her, Mrs. Lewis would later remark that in her presence Poe remained “always the refined gentleman — the scholar — the Poet,” adding, “I place him among the finest minds this country has produced.”(107) Poe, in turn, evidently thought highly enough of Mrs. Lewis to present her with the daguerreotype that now bears her name.

Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 21)
The Stella Daguerreotype
 
[Illustration on page 53]

The “Stella” daguerreotype is one of two plates produced within moments of each other ­[page 52:] at a sitting held in Lowell, Massachusetts, probably in late May or early June 1849. Of the two original plates, one was given to Mrs. Annie L. Richmond of Lowell while the other, the “Stella,” seems to have been given to Poe, who must have carried it with him on his return to New York in early June. Poe would remain in New York only three weeks, during which time he frequently called on the Lewises in Brooklyn. On June 29, 1849, after spending the night at their residence on Dean Street, he left New York for the last time and began a long, rambling journey that would end with his death in Baltimore three months later. Sometime before departing, Poe evidently gave the daguerreotype to Mr. and Mrs. Lewis as a gift.(108)

The daguerreotype remained in the Lewis family for the next three decades. In 1858 Mrs. Lewis was divorced from her husband and by 1874 had settled in London, taking with her the daguerreotype of Poe. In April of that year she was introduced to Poe’s English biographer, John Henry Ingram, who was then compiling a collected edition of Poe’s works. Apparently Mrs. Lewis was preserving the likeness with considerable care, for shortly after meeting the fifty-year-old poet, John Ingram exclaimed to a friend, “She has a magnificent portrait — a daguerreotype — of Poe, as fresh as if just taken.”(109) Ingram promptly sought and gained Mrs. Lewis’s permission to reproduce the likeness in his 1874-75 edition of The Works of Edgar Allan Poe. But, to his chagrin, Ingram would soon learn that Mrs. Lewis had also sold reproduction rights to the London Stereoscopic Company, which produced and distributed for sale hundreds of photographic copies of the image. “Copies,” lamented Ingram in November 1876, “are everywhere.”(110) Dispirited, he postponed reproducing the portrait for five years, eventually incorporating it into the second volume of his Edgar Allan Poe: His Life, Letters and Opinions (London, 1880). There the likeness appeared in the form of a tipped-in albumen photograph, accompanied by the printed caption “From a daguerreotype in the possession of ‘Stella.’ ”

Although Mrs. Lewis had provided Ingram with invaluable stores of material pertaining to Poe (including manuscript fragments of his unpublished drama Politian), John Ingram remained leery of her, and in a letter to Sarah Helen Whitman expressed an underlying contempt: “In truth, although I frequently see — sometimes take a cup of tea at her house — I dare not rely upon, or print a word of hers about Poe. . . . But I must be friendly with her — in fact, despite many queer things, I cannot help liking her & feeling for her in her friendlessness. . . . She gave me the copies of the daguerreotype, although they, I fancy, cost her nothing — but are given her for her having sold right of publishing these photos to the [London Stereoscopic] Company.”(111) Ironically, it was to Ingram that Stella Lewis bequeathed the daguerreotype of Poe when she died in November 1880. Her gesture seems not to have softened his scorn, for in 1907 he published a highly derogatory article detailing her relations with Poe.(112) And his vow not to “rely upon, or print a word of hers about Poe,” manifested itself two years later when he reproduced the “Stella” image in the Poe centenary issue of the London Bookman. Although Mrs. Lewis had informed him that the daguerreotype was taken within six months of Poe’s death in October 1849, Ingram heedlessly published the image with the caption “circa October 1848.”(113)

The daguerreotype remained in Ingram’s possession until his death in 1916, when his vast collection of Poe memorabilia, comprising hundreds of letters, documents, and clippings, passed into the hands of his sister, Laura Ingram. In 1921 the bulk of this collection was sold by Miss Ingram to Poe’s alma mater, the University of Virginia. There the daguerreotype ­[page 54:] remained until 1973, when it was discovered that the plate had vanished in a massive theft of rare books taken from a double-locked vault in the University’s Alderman Library. Also stolen were Samuel L. Clemens’s manuscript of The Gilded Age, Thomas Jefferson’s copy of The Book of Common Prayer, and numerous autograph letters from Poe, George Washington, Charles Dickens, Aaron Burr, and others.(114) In the hope of retrieving the stolen items, or at least making them unsaleable, University officials reluctantly agreed to publicize the theft; unfortunately, no trace of the missing materials has yet surfaced and authorities now fear many of the items, including the daguerreotype of Poe, may have been destroyed.(115)

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:1 - PDEAP, 1989] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe (M. J. Deas) (The 'Stella' Daguerreotype)