Text: Michael J. Deas, “The ‘Thompson’ Daguerreotype,” The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe (1989), pp. 54-57 (This material is protected by copyright)


­[page 54, continued:]

The “Thompson” Daguerreotype

Edgar Allan Poe's final portraits are two quarter-plate daguerreotypes taken by William Abbott Pratt in Richmond, Virginia, approximately three weeks before the writer's death in Baltimore in October 1849. The two images, which differ from each other only slightly, are traditionally known as the “Thompson” and “Traylor” daguerreotypes (fig. 22 and fig. 23).

Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 22)
The Thompson Daguerreotype by William A. Pratt
[Illustration on page 54]

Poe had left New York for Richmond, via Philadelphia, on June 29, 1849. As he bade farewell to Maria Clemm, he promised her that he would not drink during the journey; yet a day later he appeared in Philadelphia disheveled and distraught, suffering from what he termed “mania-à-potu” — insanity brought on by drink.(116) He imagined that he was being pursued, stalked by two men who plotted to kill him and throw his body from the platform of the New York train. Frightened and confused, he sought refuge in the studio of his old friend, the artist John Sartain, who later would recall Poe's pleading with him for a razor to remove his mustache and thus avoid recognition by his hallucinatory assassins.(117) To worsen matters, the valise containing Poe's lectures disappeared, and when it was found ten days later its contents had vanished. It was an ominous chain of events, a portent of the tragedy that was to occur three months later in Baltimore. Exhausted and penniless, Poe remained in Philadelphia for two weeks. By July 10 he had regained enough stability to travel, and on July 13, using a train ticket purchased for him by a friend, he resumed his journey southward.

Poe was forty years old and played out physically, but his arrival in Richmond in mid-July seems to have had a rejuvenating effect upon him. Richmond was the home of his boyhood, and its residents welcomed him with a warmth and enthusiasm that had eluded him during his years in New York and Philadelphia. Old friendships were renewed, and on August 17 a spirited audience thronged the Exchange Concert Rooms to hear him lecture on “The Poetic Principle.” Eleven days later he wrote Maria Clemm: “I never was received with so much enthusiasm. The papers have done nothing but praise me. ... I have been invited out a great deal — but could seldom go, on account of not having a dress coat. ... Last night I was at [Michael B.] Poitiaux's — the night before at [John H.] Strobia's, where I saw my dear friend Eliza Lambert. ... we stayed until nearly 1 o’clock. In a word, I have received nothing but kindness since I have been here.”(118) He took lodgings at the old Swan Tavern, a faded yet still respectable ­[page 56:] hotel on Broad Street, and one neighborhood resident — a boy in 1849 — recalled glimpsing the celebrated poet as he stepped from the shade of the hotel porch:

I remember seeing him as he came out of his hotel — a modest establishment on Broad Street — and watched him as he walked ... a noticeable man clad in black, the fashion of the times, close-buttoned, erect, forward looking, something separate in his whole bearing. ... I can hardly be mistaken as to some points of his face, a beautifully poetic face. The eyes were fine, the forehead challenged especial attention for its breadth and prominence. The mouth was feminine, and took away from the strength of the countenance; but the whole effect was spiritual. He might have been the embodiment of one of his airiest fancies, in no wise the lost soul one sees in some of the artistic creations of today.(119)

Poe remained in Richmond until early autumn, and at some point during his stay encountered the daguerreotypist William Abbott Pratt. A talented if slightly eccentric individual, Pratt had been born in England in 1818, emigrating to America in 1832. He studied architecture and engineering (reportedly excelling at both), but in 1844 abandoned what seems to have been a promising career to open a daguerrean parlor on Richmond's Main Street. As a daguerreotypist, he was immensely successful. During a twelve-year period he reportedly took some 35,000 portraits (including two of Poe and at least one of John Quincy Adams), and in 1851 displayed his wares at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London.(120) He was an inventive man, conceiving a method for taking four exposures on a single photographic plate and patenting a process for permanently tinting the black and white images with color. His early training as an architect, coupled with an English upbringing, seems to have instilled in Pratt an odd fascination with pseudo-Gothic architecture. His Main Street studio, known as the “Virginia Skylight Daguerrean Gallery at the Sign of the Gothic Window,” boasted thirty-foot ceilings, vaulted arches, and leaded glass windows. His residence, a simulated castle nicknamed “Pratt's Folly,” featured circular towers, hidden chambers, and no two rooms with the same ceiling height.(121) In the mid-1850s, as the popularity of daguerreotype portraiture began to wane, Pratt gave up his trade to become superintendent of buildings at the University of Virginia. In later years he served as a Confederate emissary to England and reputedly ran guns for the South. He died at his farm near Waynesboro, Virginia, on January 18, 1879.

Of Poe's six documented sittings for daguerreotype portraits, his visit to William Pratt's studio remains the only one for which we have an almost fully detailed account. Late in 1854, five years after Poe's death, Pratt was interviewed by a St. Louis journalist named Thomas Dimmock, who published the photographer's recollections in an 1895 issue of the Century Magazine: “I knew him well [remarked Pratt], and he had often promised me to sit for a picture, but had never done so. One morning — in September, I think — I was standing at my street door when he came along and spoke to me. I reminded him of his unfulfilled promise, for which he made some excuse. I said, ‘Come upstairs now.’ He replied, ‘Why, I am not dressed for it.’ ‘Never mind that,’ said I; ‘I’ll gladly take you just as you are.’ He came up, and I took that picture. Three weeks later he was dead in Baltimore.”(122)

Pratt's remarks, or at least Dimmock's recollections of them, are not strictly accurate: a comparison of the “Thompson” and “Traylor” images reveals that Pratt had in fact taken two ­[page 57:] pictures of Poe, each differing slightly from the other. The date of the sitting, “three weeks” before Poe's death, may also be slightly in error, for in November 1856 John Reuben Thompson, editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, reported the event as having taken place “but two weeks before [Poe's] death” — that is, on or about Sunday, September 23, 1849. Since Thompson's statement appeared in print some forty years before Dimmock's, his dating may well be the more reliable of the two.(123) In either case, the session in Pratt's gallery was almost certainly held sometime between September 17, when Poe returned from a brief lecture engagement in Norfolk, and September 27, when he made his final departure from Richmond.

Although the process for developing a finished daguerreotype took about only fifteen minutes, Poe evidently left William Pratt's studio empty-handed. When he died in Baltimore on October 7, both the “Thompson” and “Traylor” plates were still in the photographer's possession. By April 1851 one of the daguerreotypes was already being perceived as an artistic rarity, with the Southern Literary Messenger informing its readers that “a very excellent daguerreotype likeness of Poe, taken just before his death, may be seen at Pratt & Co's Gallery, 145 Main Street.”(124) By the end of 1854 the “Traylor” daguerreotype had been sold or given to Sarah Elmira Royster (q.v.), while the “Thompson” daguerreotype remained prominently displayed in the street-level window of Pratt's gallery.(125)

In 1856 William Pratt turned over his business to the partnership of Sanxay & Chalmers, which in November of that year presented the original “Thompson” plate to John R. Thompson.(126) Thompson, who had known Poe and would later deliver a series of exploitative lectures on “The Genius and Character of Edgar Allan Poe,” evidently lent the daguerreotype to a number of artists and photographers; by 1860 several wood engravings and at least two copy daguerreotypes were being circulated across the country. One version of the likeness had even found its way to Europe, where it was engraved and printed in the sumptuously illustrated Poetical Works of Edgar Allan Poe (London: Sampson Low, Son & Co., 1858). The original daguerreotype remained in Thompson's possession until his death in New York in 1873, when it passed to his sister, a Mrs. Quarles. It was eventually acquired by Thompson's second cousin, Isaac Michael Dyckman of New York. Upon Dyckman's death in 1899 the daguerreotype passed to his widow, who in 1909 permitted it to be photographed for reproduction as a frontispiece to George E. Woodberry's two-volume Life of Edgar Allan Poe. From Mrs. Dyckman the daguerreotype passed to her daughter and son-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Alexander McMillan Welch. In November 1950 Mrs. Welch exhibited the plate at Princeton University, and a year later bequeathed it to its present owner, Columbia University.(127)

Despite its small size (it measures little more than four by three inches) the daguerreotype holds a remarkable amount of detail: diminutive features, such as a small mole below the left eye, are clearly delineated, while a sprig of holly — its significance long forgotten — can be found tucked into the lapel of the open vest. The face and hands of the image bear vestigial traces of tinting, possibly an example of Pratt's patented process for tinting daguerreotypes. Except for a small, dark abrasion at the cheek, made sometime before 1909, the plate itself is in an exceptionally fine state of preservation, the image clear and indelibly lifelike. It is mounted in a case of dark leather, lined with claret-colored velvet, across which is embossed William Pratt's trademark: “Pratt's Va. Gallery, 145 Main Street, Richmond.”






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