The portrait of Captain Nicholas Lurty Dawson painted by preeminent Portraitist Joshua Johnson,
which hangs in Wright's Chance today, is the generous gift of the Tucker family who also donated Tucker House itself. Captain Dawson was the great grand uncle of Emily Dawson who married Alfred Tucker the father of Clarence Tucker who owned Tucker House, which is restored today in Centreville.
Captain Nicholas, his brother Thomas and nephew James ran a Packet line weekly between Centreville and Baltimore in the early 19th Century. It is likely Baltimore where Captain Dawson first met portraitist Joshua Johnson and commissioned this remarkable portrait.
Portrait Artist Joshua Johnson began his life as the son of an English-American father George Johnson and an unnamed slave mother. He is the first African American to become a fine art portrait painter in America. In a Deed of Manumission (statement of freedom) George Johnson acknowledged Joshua as his son and agreed to free him under the conditions that Joshua either complete an apprenticeship with Baltimore blacksmith William Forepaugh or have turned 21.
Johnson received his freedom in 1782 and began advertising, identifying himself as a portrait painter and limner (portraitist to gentry) as of 1796. He moved frequently in Baltimore, residing often where other artists, specifically chair makers lived, which suggests that he may have provided extra income for himself by painting ornamental design on furniture.
No records of education or creative training exist for Joshua which make his portraits all the more remarkable. In Baltimore, Joshua Johnson likely knew Raphael Peale and worked with Charles Peale Polk, whose painting in the "Naïve" style is similar to Johnson's.
Joshua Johnson's mastery of body contour, expression, and detail make his paintings among America's 19th century creative treasures. Typical of Johnson's work Captain Dawson is painted with a tool of his trade, a scope used by a Packet Captain and fine, accurate detail in the Captains clothing.
Over the two centuries of the sailing "Packet" craft evolution, they came in various rigging configurations including schooners, sloops, cutters, brigs and ultimately clipper ships. Earlier they were also known as "dispatch boats" which was a service provided by privateers during time of war. News of "record passages" was eagerly awaited by the public, and the craft's captain and crew were often celebrated in the press. Ironically, the sloops which served us were also popular among pirates for their agility and speed. Behind this search for sailing "fast as the wind" however lay the foundations for a development in naval architecture and its science which would serve until the appearance of the steam vessels. Packet Captains were brave and celebrated. The trip from Centreville was most likely calm and routine on most days but weather governed their success and the trip was 6-8 hours at 10+ knots, in sometimes challenging currents. * Sources Wikipedia, the Genealogy of John Brown and Joshua Johnson, Freeman and Early American Portrait Painter, Maryland Historical Society
Written by QACHS Curator Rebecca Marquart and Portraitist Elaine Studley
Packet Sloop Configuration
Packet James 1864
They carried US mail, packages and boasted "commodious space for ladies and gentlemen to travel"