Monday, September 13, 2010

William Anderson Roberts (1837-1900)

William Anderson Roberts
(click on photograph for larger image)
Envelope Addressed to Wm. A. Roberts, Esq., apparently from the J. W. Williams Artists Emporium in Philadelphia, PA.

Three-cent Dull Red, Type III Stamp. Rich color with some oxidation, tied by grid, "Philadelphia Pa." circular date stamp on cover to Yanceyville N.C. with Artist's Emporium brown embossed corner card with illustration of palette and easel, minor edge wear, Very Fine, very attractive design.

William Anderson Roberts (1837-1899/1900): A native portrait painter, William Anderson Roberts, was born in the Prospect community about three miles west of Yanceyville, in 1837, and he began painting portraits at the age of 20. His appointment book indicates that the painted more than two hundred portraits before his death in 1899. He served as a Confederate soldier and therefore painted little between 1861 and 1865, but after the war he traveled seeking commissions throughout Caswell County as well as into neighboring counties of North Carolina and Virginia.

He was also in the Shelbyville and Louisville areas of Kentucky in 1869. A great many of his portraits have survived and are identified. They clearly reveal his talent and skill. The 1860 census identified Roberts as an artist, but after the war he was forced to resort to farming to supplement his income to support his family.

Source: When the Past Refused to Die: A History of Caswell County North Carolina 1777-1977, William S. Powell (1977) at 416-417.

The following is from Plumblee, M. Q. "Roberts, William Anderson." Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, Volume 5 P-S. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1994: 228-229. Print:

Roberts, William Anderson (22 May 1837-1899), artist, farmer, and Confederate soldier of English descent, was born in new Prospect Church [community] three miles west of Yanceyville, the son of Elijah, a farmer, and Rebecca B. Davis Roberts. Reared in Caswell County, he knew the deprivations of rural farm life and was educated in the local schools. Early in life he manifested an interest in art, but how and from whom he received raining is unknown.

At age twenty he was painting portraits on a commercial basis, the first of which was of Starling Gunn, a veteran of the American Revolution, for which he received $20. His commissions grew and the cost of individual portraits soon advanced to $35. His standard charge for groups of three was $60. During 1857 he painted 106 portraits of well-known people in his native county. In 1858 and 1859 he painted in adjoining Rockingham County, primarily in the families of Scales, Timberlake, Montgomery, Leissure, Spencer, Willard, Watkins, and Dillard.

His career interrupted by the Civil War, Roberts enlisted in Alamance County on 21 June 1861 and later in Halifax County he was assigned to the Fourteenth Regiment. On 17 Sept. 1862 he was wounded in the right hand at Sharpsburg, Md. Suffering from this injury and other disabilities, he entered the Confederate hospital at Danville, Va., on 23 Dec. 1862 because of chronic bronchitis.

Roberts participated in the Battle of Gettysburg, which he described as "commenced on July 1, 1863 and continued 3 days." Ill with jaundice, he entered Moore Hospital, Richmond, Va., on 17 Sept. 1863, but in November was transferred to the hospital at Danville with a dislocated elbow. Complications ensued because he "failed to enter at proper time." Other illnesses that plagued him while in service included chronic diarrhea, neuralgia, and "general disabilities" for some of which he also was hospitalized. Although absent from his unit on many occasions, he remained in service for the duration of the war. On 13 Jan. 1865 he was transferred to the invalid corps and finally paroled at Greensboro on 13 May [1865].

After the war Roberts returned to his family in Caswell County, where he farmed and resumed his occupation as an itinerant painter of portraits. Between 1865 and 1868 he worked in his home county for fees of $50 for individual and $75 for full-length portraits.

From January to July 1869 he was in the Shelbyville-Louisville, Ky., area seeking commissions but found only fourteen. Returning home, he soon painted seven portraits. During the period 1870-72 he was in Virginia at Danville and Richmond, where he painted nineteen portraits. In 1872 he painted a picture of General Robert E. Lee, apparently from a photograph or another portrait, since the subject had died in 1870; his account book indicates that "no charges" were made for this one, although his customary price at the time was $80. A diligent search for this work has not been successful.

As age and infirmity had their effects on the artist, the number of his portraits declined. In 1874 he painted only the picture of Mrs. Bartlett Yancey. Between four and six each year continued through 1883, the last being that of Travis Wilson. Those of Dr. S. A. Richmond, Dr. and Mrs. A. C. Yancey, and Dr. and Mrs. L. G. Henderson were charged off to doctors' bills. Many descendants of the subjects own and prize the portraits that Roberts painted.

A deeply religious man, he carried a Bible and a copy of a Book of Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs during the war. His Bible was lost on 1 July 1863 at Gettysburg but later found and returned to him. It bears his marking of choice passages. A member of Prospect [United Methodist] Church, Roberts believed in the fundamentals of Methodism. In the 1870s he strongly disagreed with the creed of the Campbellites or Disciples of Christ.

On 1 July 1859 Roberts married Mary Catherine Watlington, and they were the parents of Annie Cutler (Mrs. William Franklin Lyon) and Mollie Belle (Mrs. Sidney Thomas Hicks). His grave, marked by a native stone, is at Prospect [United Methodist] Church on land he gave for a congregational cemetery. A self-portrait of Roberts survives.

See: American Library Association Portrait Index (1906); Weymouth T. Jordan, comp., North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865: A Roster, vol. 4 (1973); Walter Clark, ed., Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina, vol. 1 (1901); Roy Meredith, The Face of Robert E. Lee in Life and Legend (1947); William A. Robert's original list of portraits, personal notes and correspondence and Bible (possession of M. Q. Plumblee, Burlington).

On page 418 of When the Past Refused to Die: A History of Caswell County North Carolina 1777-1977, William S. Powell (1977) are four photographs of portraits done by William Anderson Roberts:

1. Thomas J. Womack, his wife, Anne Elizabeth Yancey, daughter of Bartlett Yancey, and their child (above). This portrait, painted in 1857, was the third one that Roberts did commercially and for which he was paid $60. The child must have been Bartlett Yancey Womack 1856-1897), who married Mary F. Mebane.

2. Amanda McAlphin Totten (Mrs. Joseph S.), the eightieth painted by the artist, is dated 1862 and for it he received $50.

3. Anna Bailey Watt Smith (Mrs. Junius M.) was painted from an ambrotype in 1870, a year after her death. The artist received $45 for his work, the 133rd portrait that the painted.

4. Ella Watt Roan (Mrs. Robert, Sr.), painted in 1879 as the 195th portrait by Roberts for which he received $50.

Apparently a library at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, has a collection of William Anderson Roberts documents. Following is a description that this library has placed online:

"Confederate soldier and artist, of Yanceyville, N.C. Correspondence and other personal and professional papers, relating to the Methodist Church in North Carolina; Roberts's studies with Oliver P. Copeland, an artist of Raleigh, N.C.; Roberts's attempts to avoid army service, his illness while a soldier, and his efforts to leave the service; his postwar career as a painter, including lists of portraits painted and amounts charged; his problems with drug addiction; his conversion to the Disciples of Christ; and the affairs of the Roberts family."

Note that the Duke library referenced above gives the life dates of William Anderson Roberts as 1837-1900.

The 1850 US Census shows a 12-year-old William A. Roberts living in the household of his father, Elijah Roberts (46), along with his mother Rebecca (46) and sister Elizabeth Hanville (12). Query whether William and Rebecca were twins. Also note the presence of several Watlington families in the neighborhood. One, the house hold of Reed (or Rice) Watlington, contained a 12-year-old Mary Watlington. While the middle initial appears to be "P" it could be "C". If so, this could be the Mary Catherine Watlington who became the wife of William Anderson Roberts. The wife of Reed (or Rice) Watlington was named Catherine.

1850 US Census
Name: William A Roberts
Age: 12
Estimated birth year: abt 1838
Birth place: North Carolina
Gender: Male
Home in 1850
(City,County,State): Not Stated, Caswell, North Carolina

In the 1870 US Census, William Anderson Roberts lists himself as a "Portrait Painter".

The 1900 US Census shows William A. Roberts and M. Catherine Roberts as father-in-law and mother-in-law living in the household of Sydney Hicks. This confirms that they were the parents of Mollie Bell Roberts (wife of Sydney Hicks). It also shows that the death year could not have been 1899 as stated above by Professor William S. Powell (and others). William Anderson Roberts lived until at least 25 June 1900, the day the census was enumerated.

1900 US Census
Name: William A Roberts
Home in 1900: Yanceyville, Caswell, North Carolina
Age: 63
Estimated birth year: abt 1837
Birthplace: North Carolina
Race: White
Relationship to head-of-house: Father-in-law

Birth year also seen as 1838.

Paintings by William Anderson Roberts of Caswell County, North Carolina, recorded in his little book, which is housed at the Duke University Library (Durham, North Carolina). Some pages are missing.

First Page

Painted at Elm Grove (Rockingham County, North Carolina)
1. John Lesuenne
2. Nancy Lesuenne -----------both $75
3. Augustine Timberlake
4. Mary Timberlake-----------both $50
5. Rev. Nelson Mebane--------$25
6. Annie Scales---------$20

Painted at Madison, North Carolina
7. Louisa Scales
8. James Scales----------both $60
9. Pinkney Scales--------$30
10. Dupree Watkins--------$40
11. Cornelia Scales-------$30
12. Gen. Thomas-----------$40

Next Page

Painted at Greenwood (Rockingham Conty, North Carolina) (1858)
13. Pinkney Montgomery-------$30
14. Jacob Montgomery--------$30
15. Lizzie Montgomery-------$30

1860 James N. Montgomery $30
Robt. S. Montgomery-$30

Painted at Ingleside (Rockingham County, North Carolina)
16. Robert Scales----------?
17. Yola Scales----------?
55. 4 Portraits of Col. PH Dilliard painted at his house in Henry Co. Va.-------$25 each
59. Mr. DH Ghmcus ------------$30
Mrs. D H Ghmcus----------$33
Mrs. Sally Ghmcus---------$30
63. Mrs. Annie-----------$25
64. Mrs. Sallie------------$25

Next Page

Painted in Madison, North Carolina
Mrs. W. Cartis-------
Thomas A. Scales
Dr. Staples
Mr. James Cardwell & wife

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