Kitchen Lock at Harpers Ferry

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This watercolor on display in the Breakfast Room provides a rare insight into the development of artistic scenery in early American theatre.
Artist Luke Robins emigrated from England to the United States in the early 1790’s and became one of the country’s premier painters of theatre scenery. Initially he worked at the Park Theatre in New York City in 1792. During the 1792-3 season he was a member of the Old American Company and played roles such as the Magician in Harlequin’s Fisherman and Hawaiian King Terreoboo in Death of Captain Cook. A contemporary described him as a “tall young man who painted some of the scenery, sang in the chorus, and occasionally played small parts.”
After his season in New York, he was involved in theatre in Philadelphia, Richmond, Washington D.C. and Baltimore. The 1790’s saw an influx of talented European artists to major urban centers along the Eastern seaboard. In late December 1794 Robins was in Philadelphia as a founding member of the Columbianum Society of Artists. This group formed with thirty-eight signers, many of them from England, including Robins. The society met at the home of Charles Willson Peale, where they held classes. The society was the precursor of the modern day Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, founded in 1805. Robins returned to New York City in 1813 to become the head scene painter for many of the local theatres. Robins was also an art teacher and had an apprentice, Henry Isherman, who was one of first American-born scene painters to excel in the field. By the early 19th century Robins was one of the country’s premier scene painters. In 1817 he painted a “splendidly illuminated transparent painting of the [coat of] arms of the United States” for the inauguration of President James Monroe.
Little is known of his travels but watercolors like this show that he was exploring his adopted country’s rugged natural landscape. The watercolor is similar to the backdrop of a play and depicts Harpers Ferry, the popular vacation retreat in West Virginia. The scene portrays a family of leisure travelers in the background. The group was not the first to admire the area’s natural beauty. In October of 1783 Thomas Jefferson noted of Harper’s Ferry, “This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.” On the lower left of the watercolor two dapper gentlemen are surveying the area and listening to a laborer with a cart. In this era Harpers Ferry was in the process of transformation as arms factories were being built. In 1810 Harpers Ferry had 700 inhabitants, along with “a good tavern, several large stores for goods, a library, one physician, and a professor of the English language.”
One other known extant piece by Luke Robins, his 1823 work Termination of a Mill Race on the Occoquan, is at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. It was featured in their 2013 exhibition American Encounters.
Occoquan and Harpers Ferry, both historic towns with raw natural landscape, lend themselves well to Robins’skill in detailing nature. In both watercolors you can clearly see that Robins is depicting everyday scenes in early America like the backdrop of a play. Robins died in 1825 in New York City. He was very well liked among his peers; when he died, the theatre rallied around his widow and gave her the proceeds from a play, demonstrating the early development of philanthropy in this country.
Kitchen Lock at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, c. 1804
Artist: Luke Robins, British-American, active 1792-1825
Medium: Watercolor
P18 Museum Purchase in 1951


By Rachel Lovett, Curator and Assistant Director

Posted on Oct 9, 2020 in , by Hammond-Harwood House



Hammond-Harwood House

The mission of the Hammond-Harwood House Association is to preserve and to interpret the architecturally significant Hammond-Harwood House Museum and its collection of fine and decorative arts, and to explore the diverse social history associated with its occupants, both free and enslaved, for the purposes of education and appreciation.
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