“A wealthy merchant of Kittery, Maine”.
So reads the caption, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, beneath this John Singleton Copley portrait of Nathaniel Sparhawk, one of Kittery’s most prominent citizens of the 18th century, mostly because he had the good fortune of marrying Elizabeth Pepperrell, the only surviving daughter of Sir William Pepperrell. But the few words of the caption – which likely would have pleased Nathaniel Sparhawk — do more to obscure than to illuminate his story. Neither the caption nor the portrait hint at the darkness in his life: bankruptcy and financial ruin, children forced into exile, the humiliation of having his wife sign off on all checks.
I encountered this portrait of Nathaniel – I’m going to call him Nathaniel, because he feels like a long-lost neighbor — last winter, when I visited the new Art of the Americas wing at the Museum of Fine Arts. Unexpectedly coming face to face with Nathaniel gave me the same thrill that someone else might experience upon meeting her favorite celebrity. Here he was, maybe not in the flesh, but in a life-sized portrait that helped me to connect the dots of the Sparhawk story. An added bonus was standing before the elaborately carved door of the Sparhawk Mansion, also on display in the new wing.
This 1764 painting was Copley’s first attempt at a life-sized portrait similar to those of royal monarchs on display at the Town House in Boston. Many of these full-length portraits came to be known as “swagger portraits,” because they were intended to create an aura of grandiosity around the subject. Sparhawk poses before imaginary Grecian columns in a classical setting, and wears a richly textured red velvet coat, with extra buttons added to give him more girth and thus more status, since a large belly was associated with wealth.
Nathaniel is smiling and relaxed in this portrait and appears to be a perfectly contented wealthy merchant. In 1764, he probably could smile, but only because his inheritance from Sir William Pepperrell, his father-in-law, had allowed him to settle his debts and re-establish himself financially. In 1758, Nathaniel was forced to declare bankruptcy and much of his property was sold at public auction.
One source attributes Nathaniel’s bankruptcy to increased taxation on real estate imposed by the British to pay for the Seven Year’s War (the French and Indian War on this side of the pond), but I suspect that taxation was a convenient scapegoat for that age-old problem of buying and spending more than the purse allows. (All of the major taxation efforts to pay off the war, such as the Revenue Act and the Stamp Act, happened in the 1760s, after the war’s end). In the 1750s, colonial businessmen flush with raw materials and agricultural products developed a taste for imported British goods. When the supply of such goods waiting to be sold outstripped the demand, many New England merchants found themselves in debt to British vendors.
Although bankrupt, Nathaniel continued to live at Sparhawk House, a luxurious 13-room mansion that Sir William had built in 1742 as
a wedding gift for his daughter Elizabeth (and once located at the end of today’s Sparhawk Lane, next to the Congregational Church in Kittery Point). In this house, which featured many examples of fine wood-working, the Sparhawks raised five children, four sons and one daughter (two additional children had died in infancy).
Sir William died in 1759. Although he had a close relationship with Nathaniel, who often helped him to manage his business affairs, Pepperrell’s will suggests that he didn’t quite trust his son-in-law to provide for his family.
The will left many parcels of land formerly owned by Nathaniel to Nathaniel’s various children, but not to Nathaniel himself. It seems that when Nathaniel went bankrupt, William Pepperrell bought up many of his properties, with the intent of keeping them in the family. Also telling is the fact that in an age when women lacked a legal identity apart from their husband, Sir William was quite clear that while income from certain properties would go to Nathaniel for “the support of his wife and children,” the property was not his to sell or mortgage, with the will stating that Elizabeth was “required to sign all receipts and to have sole power to bequeath her legacy.”
But just because Nathaniel’s portrait suggests that he wanted to look more prosperous and more important than he truly was doesn’t mean he wasn’t a good man. He represented Kittery in the General Court of Massachusetts and served as a justice on the Court of Common Pleas, assuming the role of Chief Justice after the death of William Pepperrell. He attained the rank of Colonel in the local militia.
I wonder if working in the shadow of his famous father-in-law chaffed at him. Perhaps he felt that the elite of Portsmouth and Boston gossiped about him and his financial troubles. In 1766, he was “negative-d” from the Council of Massachusetts, probably because he no longer owned enough real estate. In the end, being kicked off the Council might have been a fortuitous turn of events because it pulled Nathaniel out of the political fray that ultimately led to the forced exile of his sons.
By the time of the Revolution, three of Nathaniel’s Loyalist sons, including Sir William Sparhawk Pepperrell, were living in England, exiled from the only country they’d ever known. Pepperrell lands up and down the coast of Maine were confiscated by the State of Massachusetts. The war caused division within Nathaniel’s own family, with daughter Mary married to Dr. Charles Jarvis of Boston, an ardent patriot.
By 1775, in his early 60s, Nathaniel was suffering from poor health, which perhaps explains why he was not pressed harder to declare where his loyalties lay. After he died on December 21,1776, the Boston Gazette and County Post wrote, “In all which Offices he distinguished himself as the Friend of his Country and frequently lamented his weak state of health which would not permit him to take a more active Part in the present Troubles.”
Although his son Samuel eventually returned to Kittery (but not Sir William or Andrew), the family never recovered from the Revolution. According to one account, the Sparhawk mansion was sold in 1815 for a thousand dollars. Another reports that one of the Sparhawk sons was living in a poorhouse by the early 1800s, although that seems unlikely, given the abundance of family members in the area.
In the latter part of the 19th century, Sparhawk Hall was carefully restored by an owner with an interest in preservation. Eventually, Kittery businessman Horace Mitchell, a Sparhawk descendant, purchased the house in the early 20th century and hosted a visit from President Taft. In 1949, the mansion had a role in Louis de Rochemont 1949 movie, “Lost Boundaries,” serving as the fictional home of Dr. Scott Carter, a black doctor passing as white in a small New Hampshire town (check out the movie to see the interior of the house; the exterior shots appear as if they were shot in front of the Lady Pepperrell House rather than the Sparhawk mansion).
But by the early 1950s, the younger Horace Mitchell and his family were living in only four rooms of the house, having closed off the others. The house was a beast to heat and maintain and the Mitchells began to sell off individual pieces of it. The sculpted main staircase and much of the woodwork ended up in a mansion in Winthrop, Maine; the elaborately carved door went to Strawberry Banke. In 1967, what remained of the house was demolished before preservation efforts could save it.
Nathaniel had every advantage in life, but also plenty of troubles. Although his portrait conceals his difficulties, the man himself seems to embody the essence of “swagger”: someone who wanted to be successful and important, but maybe deep down always wondered if he would have been able to make it without his father-in-law behind him. I can almost see Nathaniel swaggering down Pepperrell Road, calling out greetings to his neighbors. He had many losses in his life, but puffed himself up and carried on.
Burrage, Henry S. “Colonel Nathaniel Sparhawk of Kittery.” Collections and proceedings of the Maine Historical Society. Maine Historical Society. Read before the MHS February 24, 1898. P. 225
“Nathaniel Sparhawk.” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Senge, Stephen V. “’The Sparhawk Effect’ in Financial Statement Analysis“. An internet search on Nathaniel Sparhawk often links to this material from a Simmons College professor about practices companies have used or do use to make their financial statements appear better than they really are. However, I find no evidence that anyone other than Professor Senge utilizes this term, which Senge may have coined in using the “swagger portrait” as a classroom lesson illustrating how companies puff up their financial statements.
“Sparhawk Mansion on Death Row.” Link to additional photos of the Sparhawk Mansion before it was demolished in 1967.
Ward, Ellen MacDonald. “Only a Memory.” Downeast Magazine. February 1993, pp. 53-54.
I welcome comments, additional information about the Sparhawks, and corrections.