It was allegedly painted in 1638, when Captain John Underhill made
a return visit to London.
In the version of the portrait published in 1932 the words "John
Underhill of Warwickshire" appear in the upper right portion, but these are not found
on the portrait itself. On the back of the portrait was a label (reproduced on the reverse
of the frontispiece to Volume 1) which reads as follows:
"A Portrait of John Underhill Esq. of Warwickshire son of Thomas
of Barton on the Heath and brother of Sir Edward Underhill Kt of Eatington. He, John, went
to New England with Governor Winthrop to train the people in military discipline and was
appointed Captain in command of the New England detachment by Sir Henry Vane. He was made
Governor of Dover in Piscataqua. He died at Killingworth 1672."
A second label reads "Relined and restored October 1866."
The unexpected appearance of this portrait was met with surprise and
also with some skepticism, since there was no provenance to show where the picture had
been for nearly three hundred years, and no known Underhill will, inventory, or other
family document had ever mentioned its existence. Among those who were skeptical was the
scholar John H. Morrison, whom Mr. Taylor had commissioned to research the Underhill
ancestry in England. In his 1932 book The Underhills of Warwickshire Morrison makes
no mention of any portrait of the Captain.
In spite of this Mr. Taylor had the portrait published, and it hung in
his house at Locust Valley until his death in 1960, after which it became the property of
the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities (SPLIA), which still owns it
and displayed it for many years.
When I first began to research my Underhill ancestry in the 1950s, I
was naturally much interested in the portrait, as relatively few ancestral likenesses
survive from colonial times. I noticed, however, that the label identifying the portrait
was in a much later handwriting than that of the 1630s. The names of the Captains
father and brother given in the label are incorrect, but match the names given in the
Captains biography published in 1882 in the British Dictionary of National
Biography (the correct ancestry remained unknown until the research of Mr. Morrison).
It therefore appeared that the label might be younger than the painting by at least 274
The mystery deepened around 1966 when my mother saw a color
reproduction of the portrait on display in the gift shop of Burdines, a Miami
department store. There was a label on the back in a language which she couldnt
read, but it clearly did not mention the name Underhill. On my next trip to Florida I went
to the store and found that the label, in Italian, stated that this was a copy of Van
Dykes portrait of Viscount Stafford, from the original now in the Museum of Art,
São Paulo, Brazil.
At the New York Public Library I read the Dictionary of National
Biographys account of Stafford, which identified him as William Henry Howard
(1614-1680), a member of the well-known Howard family whose senior member is the Duke of
Norfolk. The account revealed that he was twice painted by Van Dyke, one portrait then
(1882) being owned by the Marquis of Bute and the other by the Duke of Norfolk. It is the
latter portrait that we are concerned with. It was reproduced in 1908 in Brenan and
Stathams The House of Howard, but as an engraving in which the features are
slightly distorted so that I was still uncertain it was the same portrait.
About 1973 I noticed an entry in the catalog of a New York print shop
for a copy of Van Dykes Viscount Stafford. This turned out to be a full color
reproduction (printed in Italy from the original at São Paulo), and it matched the
alleged Underhill portrait exactly. There was no longer any question that the alleged
portrait of Captain John Underhill was a copy of Van Dykes portrait of Viscount
Stafford. I purchased a copy of this print and it is now in the collection of the Society.
About 1980 a representative of SPLIA advised me that tests on the
portrait in their possession had shown that the paint was about 100 years old, not 300.
Tests on other alleged 16th and 17th century Underhill portraits given to SPLIA from the
Taylor estate showed similar results (for these portraits see the Bulletin, October
1974, pages 12-13).
It seems clear that sometime in the late 19th century or early 20th
century an artist made an exact copy of the Van Dyke portrait of Stafford. This was a
perfectly legitimate exercise, as long as the copy was identified as such. However, the
art dealer employed by Mr. Taylor, having failed to find any portrait of Capt. John,
apparently took the copy of the Van Dyke, added false documentation, and presented it as a
likeness of the Captain. Obviously, if he had not perpetrated this fraud, he would have
lost a large commission.
Mr. Taylors generosity to the Underhill Society is well known.
Without him none of the 1932 publications would have been possible, and the Society itself
probably would not have survived. There is no question that he sincerely believed that he
had found his ancestors portrait. He was by no means the only American to fall
victim to such a fraud.
In 1976 I presented the evidence and arguments against the portrait to
the Societys Board, and they decided to quietly withdraw it from use. The Board
chose not to publicize my discovery because of the embarrassment it might cause to the
Society, to members who cherished copies of the portrait, and especially to Mr.
Taylors family. However, since 1976 the Society has told the true story to anyone
who inquired about the portrait.
I think the time has now come when the truth should be told to
everyone. It could in fact be even more embarrassing to the Society if an outside party
made the same discovery and told it to the world. We must acknowledge that the likeness we
have believed to be the Captains actually is that of an entirely different person,
and that there is no known portrait of Capt. John Underhill.
Harry Macy, Jr., is a former President of the Underhill Society. He
is a professional genealogist, and since 1987 has been Editor of The New York Genealogical
and Biographical Record, the second-oldest genealogical journal in the United States.
An Artist’s Conception of Captain John Underhill
At the First Muster
By Artist RALPH FOURNIER, AIA
In the preparation and research for this painting we have made
assumptions as to what we believe a rough colonial soldier would
look like. We know where he lived and what his career was. We know
from history that he called the "First Muster" of the
Militia on the commons at Salem, MA. From here on we have made
assumptions of an officer at that time. This all we have to go on,
but we came pretty close so that the Underhill Society will have
some indication of what our founder looked like at that time in is
life. His age was 39 years at the time of this muster.
UNIFORM: The British War Museum advised us that
the field uniform of the Queen’s forces in Holland, where Capt.
John served, is as shown in the painting. His helmet carries a
Pheasant feather denoting the rank of captain.
ARMAMENT: He carries a field piece similar to that issued in Holland. As a
side piece he carries a combat knife. We can assume that he brought these to the
new colony in America.
FACIAL DETAILS: We gave him the Underhill nose, clean shaven with a ruddy
complexion. Since he was raised in Holland, a goatee was added.
HIS BODY: We are advised that most military men of that time were 5’10"
tall. So we made Captain John that size.
PAINTING BACKGROUND: We faced Capt John looking out to Massachusetts Bay from
the Commons at Salem. This is where the fortifications were to be on the south
side of Boston with Marblehead to the north.
The colonists had more than Indians to contend with. The King
had indicated he would revoke the charter of the colony and fortifications were
to be placed at these two locations.
Since it was December, we put snow on the ground. We show a chicken and we
know that they brought White Leghorns with them. Dogs were important for field
hunting for grouse, pheasant and woodchuck. The only breed that was in use in
England at that time was the English Springer Spaniel. The houses in background
are authentic for that period.
N. Robert Underhill