Text: Michael J. Deas, “Gabriel Harrison,” The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe (1989), pp. 84-87 (This material is protected by copyright)


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­[page 84:]

Portraits by Gabriel Harrison

Gabriel Harrison (1818-1902) was an actor, artist, author, and photographer who resided for many years in Brooklyn, New York. During the 1840s he worked as a camera operator at John Plumbe’s National Daguerrean Gallery in New York City and later opened his own studio in Brooklyn. His gracefully posed allegorical daguerreotypes won accolades and awards, and earned Harrison the epithet “the Poet-Daguerrean.”(38) A man of varied talents, he was also a political activist, a founder of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the author of a biography of John Howard Payne. He was flamboyant, and at times, ostentatious, priding himself on “his memories and his mementos of great men and great occasions”; at least one of his contemporaries thought him “a blatant gas-bag.”(39) He had known Edgar Allan Poe, and in the decades following Poe’s death sometimes touted himself as the poet’s “sole surviving friend.”(40) On several occasions between 1865 and 1899, Harrison publicly claimed to have daguerreotyped Poe, and as proof, produced a series of hand-painted copies of what he alleged was an original Poe daguerreotype. Harrison’s various allegations, though widely publicized, appear to be totally contrived.

Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 38)
Portrait by Gabriel Harrison
 
[Illustration on page 85]

About 1865, amid considerable fanfare, Harrison presented a hand-colored photograph of Poe to the Long Island Historical Society in Brooklyn. The photograph had been copied from a daguerreotype, and was accompanied by an explanatory note on the verso:

This likeness of Edgar Allen [sic] Poe is from a Daguerreotype taken by his personal friend, the undersigned, in 1847. In 1865 the undersigned made an enlarged photograph of said picture and finished it in colors under the eyes of Mrs. Clemm; Poe’s mother-in-law, for the purpose of getting the true colors of complexion, Eyes, hair and dress. The picture when finished gave perfect satisfaction to Mrs. Clemm and several of the Poet’s friends. Mr. Poe’s face was not symmetrical, and always expressed a very sad and disappointed look.

The subscriber presented the picture and Poe’s and Mrs. Clemm’s wedding rings melted into one to the Long Island Historical Society for safe keeping.

Gabriel Harrison(41)

In 1899, thirty-four years after making his presentation to the Long Island Historical Society, Harrison gave an elaborate account of the picture’s origins to a reporter for the New York Times. The interview took place in the aged photographer’s cluttered “den” in Brooklyn:

I remember well the day . . . when I took the daguerreotype of Poe from which I made that portrait. It was, I think, in 1846, and soon after I had abandoned my stage career to give play to my artistic tendencies as chief operator for the celebrated John Plumb [sic] in his daguerreotyping establishment . . . I was one of Poe’s few intimate friends. He would drop into the studio at about closing time in the afternoon, and we would walk up town together, or down Broadway to the Battery, where we would sit on the old stone buttress and talk poetry and philosophy as the golden sunset was reflected upon the waters of the bay and the shadows deepened on the wooded shore of Long Island.

I asked Poe several times when he was at the studio to sit for his portrait, but he always refused on the ground that his clothes were too shabby. But one afternoon I caught him in an unusually complacent mood and obtained the original of the engraving you see there on the wall.(42) ­[page 86:]

The hand-colored photograph that Harrison presented to the Long Island Historical Society remained in the society’s collection until at least 1966, but seems subsequently to have disappeared.(43) Fortunately, a reproduction of the Harrison portrait was published in Joseph Wood Krutch’s Edgar Allan Poe, a Study in Genius (New York, 1926), and in March 1896 Harrison himself made a replica of the picture (fig. 38) for Poe scholar E. C. Stedman.(44) Though both works are crudely painted, examination of the Krutch reproduction as well as the Stedman replica (now preserved in the Enoch Pratt Free Library) makes it clear that the original daguerreotype Harrison had copied, and was taking credit for, was one of the two taken in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1849 (fig. 20 and fig. 21). Since these daguerreotypes were undoubtedly taken by an unidentified cameraman who resided in Lowell until at least 1876, Harrison’s colorful tale of photographing Poe appears to have little substance.

How Harrison gained access to the Lowell images is not certain, although it is likely that he simply borrowed one of the plates, the “Stella” daguerreotype, from its owner, Stella Lewis, or her former husband, S. D. Lewis. Harrison was well acquainted with both — his Fulton Street photography studio was located just blocks from the Lewis residence on Dean Street, and in 1864 he wrote Maria Clemm, “I saw Estella the other day in N. Y. she looks well Etc. Etc. I see Mr. Lewis mostly every day.”(45) It is equally possible that Harrison obtained one of the Lowell images via Maria Clemm. Harrison knew Mrs. Clemm quite well, and though she did not own one of the original Lowell daguerreotypes, she did own a copy — the so-called “Painter” image (fig. 70). The crudeness of Harrison’s painted photograph makes it difficult to determine which of the daguerreotypes was used, but the 1896 replica now at the Pratt Library exhibits several details that point to Harrison’s having worked from the “Painter” daguerreotype.

Although Harrison was well acquainted with Maria Clemm, his 1865 description of having completed the hand-colored photograph of Poe in her presence is no more reliable than his 1899 account of the portrait’s origins. At the time Harrison was finishing the likeness in Brooklyn, Maria Clemm was living in Baltimore. In January 1865 Harrison had written her at the Church Home and Infirmary: “I have photographed the Daguerreotype of him . . . and have been working it up in water colors for the purpose of presenting it to the L. I. Historical Society, — therefore I desire it to be the authentic likeness of our great Poet . . . Now, dear Muddie, will you please sit down when you feel well enough, and write me a full and careful description of the color of his eyes, his hair, his complexion, &c. &c.”(46)

While Harrison’s fanciful reminiscences for the New York Times have been taken quite seriously by many writers on Poe, his claim of having photographed the poet has no discernible basis in fact. Indeed, his comment that Poe initially declined to pose “on the ground that his clothes were too shabby” appears to have been “borrowed” from a conversation with the daguerreotypist William A. Pratt, published just four years before Harrison’s interview with the Times.(47) Moreover, the eighty-one-year-old Harrison’s recollections for the newspaper seem inordinately vivid and precise — particularly if one considers that three decades earlier he could not correctly recall which year his “intimate friend” had died.(48)

In addition to claiming authorship of one of the Lowell daguerreotypes, Harrison also assumed partial credit for Edwin Manchester’s “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype, taken in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1848. Before his death in 1902, Harrison produced an awkwardly painted copy of Manchester’s image and affixed ­[page 87:] to it a note explaining:

This is a good likeness of Edgar Allen [sic] Poe. Painted by the undersigned from a Daguerreotype taken in 1844 by John Plumb [sic] of New York City. I knew Mr. Poe personally well, and in painting the picture followed the color of his complexion, eyes and hair. Also I made a daguerreotype of Poe in 1847, and finished an enlarged photographic copy in colors under the eyes of Mrs. Clemm (his Mother-in-law) for the purpose of getting the true colors, and which picture I presented to the Long Island Historical Society together with Poe’s wedding ring, in 1865.

Gabriel Harrison.(49)

This painting, reproduced in the Baltimore Sun for November 9, 1941, is an oil on canvas measuring approximately 10 by 8 inches. Although its date of completion is uncertain, its known history is almost identical to that of Harrison’s 1896 replica, discussed above. Both portraits were once owned by Poe scholar E. C. Stedman, after whose death in 1908 they were consigned to the Anderson Auction Company in New York City. They were sold on January 25, 1911, to New York bookseller George D. Smith.(50) The pair were eventually separated, with one portrait going to rare book collector A. Edward Newton, the other entering the collection of an unidentified Pennsylvania college professor.(51) In 1941 both portraits were acquired by Joseph Katz, a Poe collector from Baltimore, who in 1959 donated them to the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

 


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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) (Gabriel Harrison)