Sally Blackburn-Daniels (@drSallyBD)
At the end of 2022 I received an incredibly exciting message via my ancestry.com account:
Hello, my name is David Devan, I live in Northeast New York, not too far from the Canadian border. I buy, sell, and sometimes just collect cool antiques when I find them here and there. I believe I own the only portrait of Amelia Sofia Adams (Macpherson) in existence. It has a print date of Dec 1795 and has her married name of Adams written on the bottom, rather than Macpherson in Dec of 1795, I’m assuming it was because she was already betrothed and was to be married next year, as history tells us (possibly even done as a wedding gift). The print date and her name appear to be handwritten. I found this in a local antique store for $14. I like solving such little mysteries when I can, so for $14 I thought it cool to own such an amazing antique piece of art. When I Found out her father was a privateer, a notable citizen of the colonies, she married an East India Company Slaver, and she had a Granddaughter who was an author (who wrote under the pen name, Vernon Lee) and one who was a suffragist… it all became even cooler. My goal is to someday convince Mount Pleasant in Philadelphia, her childhood home that her father built and eventually sold to Benedict Arnold, to hang this portrait in its halls. One of my goals is to get her image available on the best platforms possible so that generations of her family can enjoy her image. I feel that I owe this to her since I am (as far as I can tell) the only living person who knows what she looked like, and I bear the responsibility of sharing her image. On that note, you would make my day by adding Amelia Sophia’s pre-wedding portrait to your tree.David Devan
As the first of April is the one-hundred and ninety second anniversary of Amelia’s death, I wanted to share with you David’s incredible find, and a little more about Amelia’s life, and the life of Lee’s immediate ancestors.
I had opened the ancestry.com account in 2016 to map Vernon Lee’s heritage for my PhD thesis, after reading Peter Gunn’s biography of Lee. Gunn acknowledges Lee’s grandfather, Edward Hamlin Adams, was a rich man, coming from ‘an old colonial family’, ‘with extensive business interests in the West Indies, including a banking house in Jamaica’. I was curious as to what those interests might be.
During this process, I discovered that Lee’s grandmother (maternal) Amelia was born on October 22 1776 at Mount Pleasant, Philadelphia – as David explained – and died on April 1 1831 in Florence, Italy, where she is buried. She was the daughter of a privateer, who later suffered from ill health and was locked up in the family home.
Another cool fact about her that only requires a bit of math to figure out… She was conceived a colonist under the British Crown and born an American Girl… one of the very first American born citizens (by only three months).David Devan
Amelia’s beautiful portrait shows a young woman on the threshold of a new life with her husband Edward. As I looked at it, I wondered on what wall did it hang? Amelia was an American by birth, and she married Edward on January 5 1796 in Christ Church Philadelphia when she was twenty years old. Her death in Florence, Italy came after a stint living in South Wales. Her life between her Philadelphia family home, and her life in Wales and Italy was spent in the West Indies, where her first children, Mary, Edward, Sophia, and Caroline were born in Kingston, Jamaica. Vernon Lee’s mother, Matilda Adams (1816-1896) born at Holborn St Giles in the Fields, England, was their seventh (and last) child. Did it ever leave America – and travel to Jamaica, Wales or Italy, or did it remain with her family in Philadelphia? It would be wonderful to know.
I came across glimpses of Amelia in my earlier research, which looked the ancestry of both Amelia and Edward, focusing on the Jamaican & Barbados Church of England Parish Register Transcripts, 1664-1879, census records, and the Caribbean Birth Death and Marriage Index information. Edward’s family had a brutal presence in the West Indies which stretched as far back as colonial plantation settlements in the 1640s. Whist there are no records showing Edward’s (Lee’s grandfather) ownership of such settlements, he undoubtedly benefitted extensively via inheritance and the family lived very comfortably. Furthermore, Edward was the trustee for the Hungerford Spooner Charlottenburg Estate in Jamaica, and a retired partner for the Kingston Merchant House in Jamaica alongside more ‘innocuous’ positions with the merchant trade, and employment as a lawyer and banker.
On Edward’s return to England after abolition he bought Middleton Hall in Carmarthenshire in 1824, with money marked by the forced labour of African slaves in the West Indies. Whilst Lee’s aristocratic lineage and her family’s lavish and indulgent lifestyle is something she obliquely returns to in her oeuvre as an antithesis to her own moral erectness, it is essential that we interrogate these links further.
Many thanks to David Devan for allowing us to share this image.
 The Adams’ family tree was traced back using ancestry.co.uk. The tree I have produced, including searchable Census, Birth, Death and Marriage Indexes, and other records can be found here: https://www.ancestry.co.uk/family-tree/tree/117923617/family?usePUBJs=true
Sally, this is amazing! Those ancestry sites sure have a lot of information in them, and how great the David Devan contacted you. I’m going to have to figure out a way to embroider this interesting background into Violet’s musings in an upcoming mystery….!
This is an absolutely fascinating discovery, and the portrait is lovely… But I’m not sure what you meant by “it is essential that we interrogate these links further”. Was there any prosperous, mercantile or aristocratic family at the time, in any land, whose fortunes weren’t due to some form of forced labour ?