Entry into the world, Paints Miniatures, Leaves for England, Exhibits at the Royal Academy, Gives up painting.

     In 1782 when seventeen years of age, Fulton left his native town for
Philadelphia, there to seek his fortune. That city was the capital of the
State of Pennsylvania, which, under the mild and beneficent rule of members
of the Society of Friends, enjoyed the distinction of being the pioneer in
the arts of peace among the States of the Union. Hither came men of science
and scholarship, finding the atmosphere congenial to work and study. In
Philadelphia were founded the first American Philosophical Society, the
first public library in America, the first medical and law schools; the
first printing press in the middle colonies was set up there, and prior to
the Revolution more books were published in Pennsylvania than in all the
other colonies combined. It is not surprising that Fulton should develop
quickly in the new field of thought and activity which opened before him.
     Not much is known of his doings during the first three years of his
stay in the Quaker City. It is said that he was apprenticed to a
silversmith, but he would be too old for that; another statement which is
much more probable is that he was glad to turn his hand to almost any kind
of work in drawing plans, designing buildings, and painting portraits.
Already in In 1852 by his application and industry, he had established
himself as a miniature painter, and during the next two years he met with a
considerable measure of success. Several miniatures and one or two portraits
of some merit remain to this day to prove his proficiency. Charles Willson
Peale was then the principal painter in the city, and Fulton may have had
lessons from him.
     Fulton was a personable youth of agreeable manners, and appears to have
embraced the opportunities for social intercourse that the city of
Philadelphia afforded. Among the number of those whose acquaintance he made
was Benjamin Franklin, who not only allowed him to paint his (Franklin's)
portrait but also gave him introductions to people of consequence from whom
he received commissions.
     Franklin himself as a young man had gone to England to improve himself
in his trade of printer, and, having greatly benefited from his stay there,
was ready to encourage others to go and do likewise. Besides his example,
there was that of Benjamin West, who had now attained to an eminent position
among English painters. Small wonder then that Fulton should be fired by a
similar ambition, and cherish the thought of visiting the Old World.
     Having this object in view he had an incentive to save something from
his earnings; but, like a dutiful son, as a first charge on his savings he
made provision for his mother by buying a farm for her in the township of
Hopewell, Washington County, Pa., for the sum of z80. The choice of locality
seems to have been determined by the fact that his maternal uncle, the Rev.
Joseph Smith, had acquired land and was in charge of the Presbyterian
congregation there. The deed, dated the 6th day of May 1786, is too long to
reproduce in full, but the more interesting points in it can be briefly
     The parties to the deed are " Thomas Pollock and Margaret his wife " of
the one part and " Robert Fulton, miniature painter, of the city of
Philadelphia and State aforesaid, Yeoman," of the other part. The estate the
area of which is given as 840 acres is described as "a certain parcel of
land on the waters of Cross Creek, it being part of a tract of land granted
by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania the 12th day of December A.D. 1785 to
the Reverend Joseph Smith his heirs and assigns called Wiliome." It would
therefore seem as if the reverend gentleman had sold part of his original
grant to the Pollocks. Fulton's purchase brought it back, as it were, into
the family.
     At Hopewell Fulton's mother spent her declining years till her death in
1799, watched over by her widowed daughter Elizabeth. The latter continued
to reside there with her children, and was eventually confirmed in the
ownership of the estate by her brother's will.l
     Fulton also, on September 18, 1786, bought from John, Elizabeth, and
William Hoge,2 four building lots in the neighbouring town of Washington,
Pa., just then being laid out; he made the purchase, doubtless, with the
idea of giving one lot to each of his sisters and one to his brother.
     About the time of the purchase mentioned above, Fulton had a serious
attack of inflammation of the lungs, accompanied by spitting of blood, which
must have warned him that he was not robust physically. He went to the warm
springs of Virginia to recuperate, and incidentally made new acquaintances.
It appears that it was during his stay there that his decision to make the
journey to Europe was finally arrived at.
     At length his preparations were made, and Fulton, shortly after he had
attained to man's estate, sailed for England, buoyant and hopeful. It must
have been at the end of the year 1786 or the beginning of 1787 that he
arrived in the mother country. He had but forty guineas in his pocket not a
large sum truly to start life with, but lack of money has never been an
obstacle to a young man with energy and enthusiasm. He was not friendless
exactly, for he had brought with him a letter of introduction from Franklin
to West. When he arrived in London and presented this letter, he met, as
might have been expected, with a warm welcome; the Wests were noted for
their hospitality to their fellow-countrymen, and in this case there was
between them the additional bond of relationship. We can hardly doubt that
they invited Fulton to stay with them till he found lodgings. West
recommended him to rooms at Mr. Robert Davy's, 84 Charlotte Street, Rathbone
Place, just vacated by William Dunlap. Probably Fulton went there, but he
could not have afforded to stay long, as the terms were a guinea a week.l He
did not, as has been often stated, reside with the Wests during his art
student days. This is proved incidentally in a letter to his mother quoted
below, wherein he says of West and himself, " we live near each other."
     It is almost certain that Fulton, like Gilbert Stuart before him, was
working under West's direct supervision. Merely to have been allowed to
frequent his studio must have been an inspiration for any young man, apart
from his art studies, for West was already very high in his profession and
was visited by the most famous people of the day. What Fulton's impression
on his entry into this new world must have been may be imagined from the
description given by one 2 who had preceded him by a few years:
     " The impression made upon an American youth of eighteen by the long
gallery leading from the dwellinghouse to the lofty suite of painting rooms
a gallery filled with sketches and designs for large paintings the spacious
room through which I passed to the more retired attelier the works of his
pencil surrounding me on every side his own figure seated at his esel, and
the beautiful composition at which he was employed, as if in sport, not
labour; all are recalled to my mind's eye at this distance of half a
century, with a vividness which doubtless proceeds in part from the repeated
visits to, and examination of, many of the same objects during a residence
of more than three years in London."
     A period of close attention to art now ensued so close that it is
uneventful. The only serious problem that Fulton had to face during this
time was how to secure the wherewithal to pursue his studies. Many an
anxious hour did he spend pondering over ways and means; how he did manage
to support himself we can only guess, but although often on the brink of
want he never actually lacked a meal. This Bohemian life, although not
altogether to his liking, broadened his sympathies and increased his
knowledge of the world. No doubt poverty also inculcated self-restraint, but
it should be put down principally to his early training and moral character
that, placed at a critical age amid the temptations of the metropolis, he
did not yield to the attractions of profligacy and vice.
     It must have been a great comfort to Mrs. Fulton to have received such
a reassuring letter as the one that has been preserved, dated July 25, 1782
from a friend named George Sanderson, who had just returned to America. He
commends Fulton's progress "in the liberal Art of Painting" and also
mentions the influential friends that his personal accomplishments and
prudent behaviour " had won for him.
     Those were the days when letters were few and far between, on account
of the prohibitive cost of postage and the lack of postal facilities, so
that people used to take advantage of the occasions when friends or
acquaintances were travelling in order to get their correspondence
forwarded. Some of the affectionate and dutiful letters that reached Mrs.
Fulton by such roundabout channels have been preserved and make continual
references to the difficulties in the way of letter-writing. In one letter,'
dated July 3I, 1789, Fulton asks his mother "to write small and close that
you may say a great deal in small cumpas for the ships often put the letters
ashore at the first port they make. They then come post to London And I have
often paid half a guinea for a small package of letters the better to
accomplish this you better buy letter paper as it is thin for we pay
according to the weight and not the size so if you can send me a pound of
news upon an ounce of paper I shall save almost a guinea by it."
     Fulton also remarks, "I am frequently Changing my Lodgings to suit my
Convenience": indicative no doubt of his Bohemian existence during his stay
in London. The Royal Academy records show that he lodged at 67 Margaret
Street, Cavendish Square, in 1791, and at 18 Newman Street in 1793.
     Another letter 2 of earlier date tells of his prospects, and makes
mention of the way he intends sending correspondence. It is as follows:

     DEAR MOTHER, It being so short a time since I wrote my last letter to
you this will consist of very little more than an account of my very perfect
state of health And good prospect of succeeding in my profession. My
pictures have been admitted this year into the Royal Academy And I hope in
time to be a proficient in the Art. Painting Requires more studdy than I at
first imagened in Consequence of which I shall be obliged to Stay here some
time longer than I Expected But all things work together for good in the end
and I am Convinced my exertions will have a good tendency. In your next
letter please to give me a very particular account of everything you know
particularly how you like the little farm if you have a good garden And what
kind of Neighbours you have got. And in fact I should like to know every
thing that will give you pleasure or promote the happiness of the family
There is nothing Interupts my happiness here but the desire of seeing my
Relations but time will bring us together. And I hope at my return to see
you all happy as the day is long. I hope Mr. Smith is well Please to present
him my kind Love Allso to Polly, Abraham, Bell, Cook and Children The
gentleman who carries this letter and many others of mine to Baltimore is
not a very particular friend therefore I cannot trouble to take a large
Package in this case Polly, Abraham and Bell must excuse my not writing to
them by this opportunity What letters I do send will be delivered to George
Sanderson Baltimore he sends them to Turbitt and so on to you Please to give
my Compliments to Mr. and Mrs. Hoge and friends in general] and believe me
to be with the most Sincere regard for my Relations a loving Brother and
Affectionate Son,

     We are unable to reconcile Fulton's statement that pictures of his were
admitted into the Exhibition of the Royal Academy of 1789, with the fact
that he does not appear as an exhibitor there till 1791; possibly up till
then his paintings had been rejected. The pictures that he exhibited in the
latter year were two "portraits of young gentlemen": lest it might be
thought that he owed the distinction not to his own merits but to his having
a friend at court in the person of Benjamin West, who was a Royal
Academician, we hasten to add that Fulton also had four other pictures in
the Exhibition of the Royal Society of British Artists in the same year.
Although Fulton in a subsequent letter says that "these exertions are all
for honour," it is difftcult to believe that the portraits, at least, were
not commissions for which he received payment.
     At any rate, the fact that he had been " 1lung,'' or, more likely
perhaps, the recommendation of West, induced Viscount Courtenayl to
commission a portrait of himself from Fulton, and for this purpose the
latter left London in June for Powderham Castle, Lord Courtenay's seat near
Exeter, where he was for the time being the guest of the steward of the
     His stay in London had been broken only by a three months' visit to
France in 1790, of which we have no details, so that this trip to Devonshire
must have been very welcome, especially as the part of the county that he
was visiting was noted even then for its salubrity.
     Lord Courtenay was so pleased with his portrait that he introduced
Fulton to all his friends, who gave him commissions which enabled him to pay
off some debts he had contracted and lay by a little money for the future.
     The details of Fulton's life during this period are gleaned largely
from a letter which he wrote to his mother from Devonshire on January 20,
1792. As it is so important, we give it in full 

     MY DEAR MOTHER, This Morning I Recd a package of letters from
Philadelphia among which were one from you one from Abraham and two from Mr.
Morris one of which was for Mr. West. In Consequence of my leaving London on
June last for to do some business for Lord Courtney In Devonshire which is
about 200 Miles from London The letters by some accident have not reached me
till now. As you rely on it I should have answered them by the first
Conveyance But I Recd them with Infinite Pleasure as they come from you and
Informed me of your good health. And now I will attend to the particulars As
I am well convinced every Incidant Relative to my life will Communicate
pleasure to you. You express much desire to know how my pictures were Recd
at the Royal Academy this I believe I answered before but posibly the letter
has miscarryed you will be pleased to hear that I sent eight pictures which
Recd every posable mark of Approbation that the Society could give but these
exertions are all for honor there is no prophet arising from it. It only
tends to Create a name that may hereafter produce business My little tour
through France proved very agreeable and was of some service to me as a
painter in as much as I saw the works of some of the most able masters in
the art which much improved my eye and taste.
     Mr. West and me are on a very familiar footing and when he is in town
pays me much attention which is extremely agreeable as we live near each
other. This evening I forwarded Mr. Morris's letter to him which I have no
doubt he will be very happy to receive And I shall call on him immediately
on my going to London which I Suppose will be in about six months. When I
wrote you last I beged you would Settel everything to You(r) mind relative
to the Lotts and after Regulating everything with Mr. Hoge and putting me on
the way how to act I would transfer my Right in the manner you Can best
Settel among yourselves tho I could wish one of them were sold to pay
pollock For I Realy feel my honor Concerned in keeping the poor man so long
out of his money nor had I the least idea of its remaining so long unpaid or
I should have endeavored by some means to have it done but I hope when I
hear from you next in Answer to these letters you will have everything so
Situated so as I may transfer them to your wish And if no other method can
be found one lott ought to be sold to pay pol'k It gives me much Pleasure to
hear of Abrahams attention to you tho I am sorry he has run away with the
Idea of my Getting Rich I only wish it was true but I Cannot Concieve from
whence the Report arose And I must now Give Some little history of my life
since I Came to London. I Brought not more than 4o Guineas to England and
was set down in a strange Country without a friend and only one letter of
Introduction to Mr. West here I had an art to learn by which I was to earn
my bread but little to support whilst I was doing it And numbers of Eminant
Men of the same profession which I must Excell before I Could hope to live
Many Many a Silant solitary hour have I spent in the most unnerved Studdy
Anxiously pondering how to make funds to support me till the fruits of my
labours should sifficant to repay them. Thus I went on for near four years
happily beloved by all who knew me or I had long ear now been Crushed by
Poverties Cold wind and Freezing Rain till last Summer I was Invited by Lord
Courtney down to his Country seat to paint a picture of him which gave his
Lordship so much pleasure that he has introduced me to all his Friends And
it is but just now that I am beginning to get a little money and pay some
debtt which I was obliged to Contract so I hope in about 6 months to be
clear with the world or in other words out of debt and then start fair to
Make all I Can. You see dear mother this is very different from being Rich
(?) not that I can say I ever was in absolute want heaven has been kind to
me and I am thankfull hoping now to go on Smooth and happy as the absance
from my friends will admit of. My Poor Sister bell I hope she and her little
family will be happy I hope she will not think I forgot her because I dont
write her She may believe me she Occupies much of my thoughts And I wish
much to know why Poyton left the situation of the saw mill but none of you
have informed me. I am happy to hear that all relations are well I shall
write to them seprately. I enjoy excelant health which I hope will Continue
till I may have the happiness of seeing you. Please to remember me kindly to
Mr. Smith and all friends And may Heaven Continue its blessings towards you
is the most unfeigned wish of your Obedient Son

     The "Lotts" referred to in this letter were the building lots in
Washington township, whose purchase has already been mentioned. Fulton
thought that the time had now arrived to transfer them into the names of his
sisters, who had married in the meantime: Elizabeth to one Scott, Isabella
to one Cook, and Mary to David Morris, the nephew of Benjamin West. There
are references to these transfers in several letters, and it appears as if
some difficulties occurred in the process.
     The "pollock" who is mentioned was the one from whom Fulton had
purchased the Hopewell Farm. One would almost have thought that Fulton's
brother, Abraham, would by this time have done something towards paying off
the debt on his mother's farm, but there is a hint that instead he was
content to build on the hope that Robert would become rich.
     Preoccupation with commissions in the West Country, lasting till about
the middle of 1792 did not give Fulton much opportunity to exhibit in
London, so that his absence from the Royal Academy in that year is
explained. Several historical paintings,l known to us only through
engravings published early in 1793, may have been part of the fruits of his
labours during this period. At any rate, he did get back to town in time to
send to the Academy Exhibition of 1793 a portrait of a Mrs. Murray.
     Fulton was in good spirits and apparently still engrossed in his work,
when he wrote to his brother-in-law a "business" letter, dated London, May
21 1793; it contained a eulogy on Benjamin West which is worth quoting :

     "Your Uncle West is now at the head of his proffession and Presides at
the Royal Academy over all the Painters in England But he is a Great Genius
and merits all the honour he has obtained he has stedily persued his Course
and Step by Step at length Reached the Summit where he now looks Round on
the Beauties of his Industry an Ornament to Society and Stimulis to young

     It is obvious that Fulton was now fairly launched on an artistic
career. At a time when wealth had increased, but no more rapid means of
portraiture than the artist's personal touch was known, there was plenty of
scope in this branch of art, at least, and miniature painting then reached
its highest development. Fulton seems to have done a fair share of portrait
painting, but no miniatures of this period, if any were painted by him as
would seem likely, are known to exist.
     As Fulton now threw up his artistic career suddenly, it may not be out
of place to say a few words as to his technique and attainments as an
artist. On these points we cannot do better than quote the opinion of an
eminent art critic,l based on what little material is available at the
present day. Speaking of Fulton's miniatures, he says:

     "Apart from a curious flatness that he gave his miniatures, which can
be recognised even in the reproductions, they are good, yes, remarkably
good, for so young a man with so little instruction. They are well drawn,
good in design, delicately coloured, as miniatures should be, and well
executed technically. From some of the qualities that they possess, I should
not be surprised if he had had some instruction or help from Charles Willson
Peale, who, at Fulton's time, was at the top of the profession here." This
is quite probable, as they were well acquainted with one another. As regards
his larger paintings, judging by the few authoritative pictures remaining,
the same critic says: "Fulton's work showed strong characterisation and
breadth, a firm brush and good colour sense. He had not yet developed a
style of his own, and while he gave some promise, it is doubtful whether he
would ever have equalled Benjamin West: decidedly he would not have attained
to the stature of John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart, and John Trumbull,
to mention only those who were his contemporaries and compatriots."

     It is not easy to give a plausible explanation of why Fulton gave up
his career as an artist. He may have admitted to himself reluctantly that he
did not possess talent of that high order which was necessary then, as now,
to bring a man into the front rank of artists; it is more probable that he
was dissatisfied with the pecuniary results so far achieved, which, for a
man who had turned thirty, were somewhat meagre. To leave at that age the
profession of art to begin that of engineering, then only in its infancy,
although such a change was not so difficult then as it would be now, must
have appeared to his friends to be the height of rashness.
     It is unnecessary to enlarge upon the close association that exists
between these two professions when we reflect that each involves both the
imaginative and constructive faculties. In rare cases these faculties have
been united in one person Leonardo da Vinci is perhaps the best known
instance. In modern times, specialisation has rendered such a union
impossible, but many engineers have had the artistic feeling highly
developed; we may instance the cases of Fulton's own countryman Samuel F. B.
Morse, the electrician, and in this country of James Nasmyth, the inventor
of the steam hammer, himself the son and brother of eminent artists.
     Fulton's was a like case; in him the artist and the engineer struggled
for expression, but the latter was undoubtedly the stronger. H is early
training was by no means wasted, however, for his skill and rapidity in
putting ideas on paper were of the utmost value to him.
     When, in subsequent years, Fulton had occasion to turn his attention to
painting, whether for profit or recreation, he found to his delight that his
hand had not lost its cunning indeed he was wont to say that his technique
was superior to what it had been in his younger days. 

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