John Wentworth and 18th-Century New Hampshire Design

by Steven McNeil

A Decorative Arts Trust Summer Research Grant supported research for my doctoral thesis examining the residences built for the Governors of Canada’s Maritime Provinces during the early 19th century. I have focused on the objects that were commissioned for and installed within these residences, as well as the design and use of the interior spaces of the residences. My thesis argues that these residences were both important centers of artistic patronage and sites through which Governors could cultivate identities through material objects. 

The earliest and most elaborate of these residences was built at Halifax, Nova Scotia, between 1800 and 1808, under the direction of Sir John Wentworth (1737-1820), Governor of Nova Scotia from 1792 to 1808. Wentworth previously served as the last Royal Governor of New Hampshire from 1767 to 1775. A crucial part of my research included learning as much as possible about the spaces and objects Wentworth surrounded himself with in New Hampshire. The grant from the Decorative Arts Trust allowed me to visit multiple sites and collections throughout New Hampshire to view first-hand the material evidence of Wentworth’s tenure as the last Royal Governor of New Hampshire.  

In Hanover, I went to the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College to view the pastel portrait of John Wentworth by Copley and an amazing silver Monteith donated by Wentworth to Dartmouth’s first President.  

In Concord, I visited the New Hampshire State Archives where I was able to consult original 18th-century inventories of the grand house Wentworth built at Wolfeboro, NH. I visited the New Hampshire Historical Society, also in Concord, to see a range of objects, including silver and porcelain, that once belonged to Wentworth and his wife, Frances Deering Wentworth. An ivory miniature portrait depicts the Wentworths’ son, Charles Mary Wentworth. An 18th-century sign once hung outside the Wolfe Tavern, owned by a Wentworth family member and used as a rest stop during trips between the Wentworth houses in Portsmouth and Wolfeboro. The NHHS owns a number of portraits commissioned by Governor Benning Wentworth (John Wentworth’s uncle). 

In Portsmouth, I visited the Portsmouth Athenaeum, where I was able to study the library of 18th-century architectural books that belonged to John Wentworth’s brother-in-law, John Fisher, and were hugely important to Wentworth’s architectural patronage. At the Moffatt-Ladd House, also in Portsmouth, I was able to view and study first-hand an amazing set of Chinoiserie furniture that was once owned by the Wentworth family; to visit the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion that was occupied by John Wentworth’s aforementioned uncle, Governor Benning Wentworth, and to visit the John Wentworth House (now a private retirement home), where one room has retained original flock damask wallpaper installed during his occupancy. 

The trip was absolutely amazing and allowed me to see many objects and historic interiors that have proved crucial to my doctoral research in the Art History program at Queen’s University, Kingston, in Ontario, Canada, and most importantly, to see and learn from objects first hand.  

The Decorative Arts Trusts offers grants, scholarships, and many more opportunities for young researchers and curators as part of the Emerging Scholars Program. To support this program, consider becoming a member of the Trust.

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