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  • Cherished Mementos

    Engravings by Richard Brunton from the Earliest Years of the American Republic

    Pursuing one’s ancestral lines does not always involve a paper trail. While researching the life and times of engraver Richard Brunton (1749–1832) for a forthcoming biography, I have discovered a cache of outstanding brass and silver medallions on which he painstakingly incised the birth, marriage, and death dates of some ofour earliest citizens. For those who commissioned these items, these mementos serve as a legible and tangible record of their loved one’s existence. For us, the medallions demonstrate a growing early awareness of the need to capture personal information for posterity.

    Many of Brunton’s medallions passed by descent in families, and are treasured for their subjects rather than their maker. Not surprisingly, scholarship on this aspect of Brunton’s work has been somewhat sparse. In 1906, images of six of his medallions were published in a monograph, An Early Connecticut Engraver and his Work.[1] In the 1950s, four more of his medallions were illustrated in Art in America.[2] Since then, another eight medallions have been ascribed to him. Today, six can be viewed in museum collections, three are privately owned, and the remaining nine I have yet to locate.

    Retracing Brunton’s life has been equally challenging. He was born in Birmingham, England, in 1749. In 1766,he began a seven-year apprenticeship to learn the art of engraving and dye-sinking.[3] The latter involved making dies used for stamping or embossing designs on coins, medals, and buttons.Birmingham was then a leading exporter of jewelry, plate, hardware, buckles,watches, and chains to the colonies.

    In 1773, Brunton enlisted in his Majesty’s Service; in the summer of 1774 he arrived in Boston with his regiment. He served at Bunker Hill and in every major battle of the Revolution until his desertion in the spring of 1779. Shortly thereafter he returned to Boston and the following spring advertised his services as an engraver and dye-sinker at a shop on Quaker Lane. By 1781 he was seeking work in Providence, Rhode Island.[4] He again settled briefly in Massachusetts before moving to Connecticut, where he worked as an itinerant engraver through the turn of the century.

    Today Richard Brunton is best known as the engraver of possibly the earliest preprinted broadside family register in America.[5] Formatted to include family birth, marriage, and death dates and illustrated with charmingly rustic vignettes, his registers were widely distributed throughout New England, possibly by a third party.[6]

    Unlike the registers,Brunton’s engraved medallions were direct commissions. As such, the medallions are very useful for tracking where Brunton went and with whom he interacted as he moved around New England. Given their solid surfaces, the engravings also provide some of the best preserved examples of his dexterity with a specially adapted chisel known as a burin.

    One of Brunton’s earliest known engravings is a family register commissioned by Scottish-born Angus Nickelson, a proprietor of iron works and stone yards in New Milford, Connecticut. New Milford, on the postroad from Boston to Philadelphia, was a prosperous town which drew tradesmen and craftsmen to the area. The register is clearly inscribed on the plate “R. Brunton Sculp.” The largest of Brunton’s engraved family registers,it is the only known example that is not reversed for printing. I assume the Nickelsons displayed the register as a plaque on the wall or a table.

    Genealogists especially can appreciate the information preserved on this priceless engraving. In addition to listing family members, the register records the patriarch’s place of birth,where his ship arrived in America, his residence upon arrival, his date of settlement in New Milford, and his occupation. The register can be firmly dated: youngest son Donald’s birthdate of 16 August 1789 is inscribed in Brunton’s hand but Donald’s death date of 26 September 1791 was not recorded,so Brunton must have engraved the work between those dates.

    His family was clearly important to Angus Nickelson. When he commissioned the register, he also arranged for his family to pose for an informal portrait by American-born but English-trained portrait artist Ralph Earl. The life dates of family members recorded on Brunton’s register make it possible to identify every sitter present. Brunton may well have observed Earl painting this very portrait.

    By the 1790s, Brunton’s opportunities to make a living from his craft were declining. With the influx of printed matter from the Continent and rising competition from more skilled engravers offering a greater variety of techniques, Brunton’s somewhat archaic rococo style of line engraving was rapidly losing its appeal. Moreover, life as an itinerant craftsman carrying heavy printing plates on his back was no doubt proving to be difficult. Brunton was growing older and was reportedly lame. In November 1795 he was arrested in Enfield, Connecticut, along with silversmith and dye-sinker Abiel Pease, for making counterfeit paper money. Pease made bail, but Brunton lacked sufficient funds. Instead he languished in the Hartford jail until all charges were dropped the following February.

    Any intent to reform proved shortlived. In March 1799, Brunton and local clockmaker Joel White were arrested in Woodstock, Connecticut, for counterfeiting silver coins. About this time, Richard Brunton engraved a memento mori—a commemorative piece marking the death of John Brunton on a clock dial. As metal was a scarce commodity, Brunton may well have appropriated the dial from White’s shop inventory. While the subject John Brunton was likely a relative of the engraver, the relationship has yet to be ascertained.

    For his crimes, Brunton was sentenced to two years hard labor in Newgate prison in East Granby, Connecticut. Originally a copper mine,the prison housed Loyalists and British soldiers during the Revolutionary War. By the time Brunton arrived, Newgate was a state prison. Brunton created twelve known medallions—including Lydia Phelps’s token—while incarcerated at Newgate. Made from coin silver, these unusual tokens were a less expensive substitute for the more costly painted miniatures favored by the wealthy. As Brunton was required to pay the cost of his prosecution, these commissions offered a way for him to earn money to clear his debt and secure his freedom.

    The relationship between Brunton and prison keeper Reuben Humphreys was apparently a close one. Brunton undertook two memento moris—one for Reuben Humphreys and another for his father Oliver Humphreys, a bookplate, and an elaborate engraving featuring Reuben’s likeness with his family’s coat of arms. Brunton also painted pendant portraits of Reuben and his wife posing with their youngest child, Eliza.[7] John Foot,who lived about ten miles south of the prison, commissioned two items from Brunton before Foot died in June 1803: a bookplate for Foot himself and a silver memento mori for his wife Lois. These two commissions prove Brunton stayed in the area until at least spring 1803.

    The Bird medallion is one of the most striking I have located to date. Despite Brunton’s advancing years, his skill as an engraving remained intact. In addition to birth dates, the medal is engraved with figural representations of three generations:Anna Kingsbury (1755–1810), wife of Jonathan Bird; their daughter Anna Bird (1790–1864), wife of Thomas Coburn; and the latter’s daughter, Eliza Ann Coburn (listed as Elizaan Cobunon the medallion), born October 11,1806. Note the bird present on both sides of the token. This signature feature is present throughout Brunton’s work. As Jonathan Bird was an innkeeper in Watertown, Massachusetts, Brunton may have engraved this token in exchange for room and board. This medallion is especially noteworthy as its 1807 dating suggests a time frame for when Brunton returned to Massachusetts.

    Brunton would spend the remainder of his life in Massachusetts, eventually becoming a ward of the state and dying in the poor house in Groton in 1832. As I researched his life, I took particular pleasure in identifying many of his previously unknown works and uncovering information about his later years, a time that puzzled scholars for over a century.

    What was Richard Brunton’s legacy?A resident of Groton, Massachusetts—where Brunton spent his final years—reported “he was a British soldier who came here in Revolutionary times,deserted his army, remaining here [in Groton] many years and was finally supported by the town. He was a man of great ingenuity and skill, a fine engraver of silver and an adept at making counterfeit money.”[8] I see his life as rich in paradox. Although a soldier who had marched into some of the bloodiest battles of the American Revolution and spent most of his life without home or family, Richard Brunton created poignant mementos and registers that still bear witness to the importance of familial bonds.


    1Albert Carlos Bates, An Early Connecticut Engraver and His Work (Hartford, Conn.: Case, Lockwood, and Brainard Company, 1906).

    2William L. Warren, “Richard Brnton—Itinerant Craftsman.” Art in America 39, no. 2 (April 1951): 81–94; “Richard Brunton,” Art in America 41, No. 2 (Spring 1952), 69–78.

    3Richard Brunton, Birmingham, Warwickshire, England, 1766, Apprenticed to Joseph Troughton, £30/00/00. Board of Stamps Apprenticeship Books, National Archives, Kew, Surrey, UK, Series IR 1:56, folio 65.

    4Brunton’s military service is recorded on themuster rolls—38th Regiment of Foot, His Majesty’s Service, at The National Archives(UK). Newspaper advertisements which cite Brunton include “Engraving, Jewellary [sic]and Silversmiths” New England Chronicle(Boston, Mass.), April 27, 1780, Vol. XII, Issue 609, 4; and “Richard Brunton,” American Journal and General Advertiser (Providence,R.I.) January 31, 1781, Vol. II, Issue 97, 2.

    5Georgia Brady Barnhill, “‘Keep Sacred the Memory of Your Ancestors’: Family Registers and Memorial Prints,” in The Art of Family:Genealogical Artifacts in New England, D.Brenton Simons and Peter Benes (Boston,Mass: NEHGS, 2002), 60−74.

    6For an excellent discussion on distribution of printed material in this era, see William J.Gilmore, “Peddlers and the Dissemination of Printed Material in Northern New England,1780− 1840.” Itinerancy in New England and New York, Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife: Annual Proceedings (Boston, Mass.:Boston University, June 1984), 76−89.

    7Locations are unknown for the Oliver and Reuben Humphreys memento moris (in 1951 owned by Mr. Frederick B. Humphreys, Forest Hills, Long Island); the Humphrey bookplate (in 1953 in the collection of William L. Warren); and the original copperplate engraved with Humphreys’s portrait and his family’s coat of arms (in 1951 in the collection of New Haven Colony Historical Society). The pendant portraits are held by the Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford.More information on Oliver and Reuben Humphreys and their family can be found in Fredrick Humphreys, The Humphreys Family in America (New York: Humphreys Print, 1883),300−01, 314, 389−91.

    8Document signed by Mrs. Mary Williams Shattuck and dated July 25, 1894 accompanied her gift to the Groton Historical Society,Groton, Mass., of a woodcut for printing textiles carved by Richard Brinton [sic].


    Deborah M. Child is an author, lecturer, and independent curator. As an art historian, she finds genealogical methodology invaluable for authenticating and attributing early American works of art and for establishing provenance.Her biography Soldier, Engraver & Felon—Richard Brunton’s Life on the Fringe in America’s New Republic will be published by NEHGS next spring. Her website is deborahmchild.com.

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