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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Hughes

The Person Over the Mantel

Updated: Feb 12, 2019

ENCORE | LIFESTYLES The Person Over the Mantel

Inheriting an old family portrait can be a blessing. Or a big decorating problem.

By Kathleen A. Hughes

February 14, 2009

It may be a privilege to inherit an old painting of an ancestor, but it's not always good news.

When Liz Lippincott's father offered her a large portrait of her great-grandmother, Elizabeth Graham Hirst, she hesitated. "It's an intensely dark painting. She looks completely scary," says Ms. Lippincott, who grew up in Pennsylvania but now lives in Manhattan Beach, Calif. "I had to take it because she's my namesake, and no one else in the family wanted it."

The portrait, which has been stashed in a box in Ms. Lippincott's garage for the past decade, shows an attractive but slightly haggard woman in a long, gray gown. Her skin appears mottled, and the frame is mildewed.

"I can't hang this in my living room," says Ms. Lippincott, looking at the painting. "My daughter would never have another play date."

Old paintings of ancestors are usually handed down from generation to generation with mixed reactions. Many people treasure any portrait as a piece of family history. A masterpiece by a famous artist, such as Gilbert Stuart or John Singer Sargent, is proudly displayed over the mantel. But the rest -- your average portraits -- can present a dilemma. What do you do with them? A portrait may be dark and eerie, or just a really bad painting, but it's still a family image, and most people feel obligated to keep them forever.

"Portraits have a magic to them," says Carolyn Kinder Carr, deputy director and chief curator of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. "Sometimes people feel they don't fit their decor, but they don't put them out with the trash."

Who Is That?

Sue Garton, a data administrator for the museum, says she has a large 19th-century painting of a stern relative wearing a brown dress and holding a handkerchief. "It's the ugliest thing I have ever seen," says Ms. Garton, but it hangs over her piano in Bethesda, Md. "Guests always ask, 'Is that an ancestor?' " She finds herself apologizing. "They're thinking why else would we have that in our living room? It doesn't match our decor at all."

Of course, many people love living with old family portraits. Hillary Coffin Post, a descendant of the Coffin whaling family in Nantucket, Mass., says her father gave her an early American portrait of her great-great-great-grandmother, Ellen Elizabeth Coe, as a teenager. The painting shows a young girl with very short hair wearing a dark dress with a Colonial buckle and a tiny piece of jewelry.

"It's a beautiful piece of history, and it makes a statement. It's one of the nicest things I have in my house," says Ms. Post, who lives in Rolling Hills, Calif. (She notes, however, that most people don't realize it's a girl and often ask, "Who's he?")

Showing Your Roots

Most old portraits are owned by families with a long history in New England or the South and the means to commission a painting. "They convey the image of a lineage and wealth," says Alan Fausel, director of fine art for the New York showroom of Bonhams, an international auction house. "By hanging a very old family portrait, you put yourself back in time. You put yourself on the Mayflower." In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, says Mr. Fausel, a number of Americans "wishing to raise their status" started buying old portraits. "You could have instant ancestors," he adds.

However, whether the ancestors are real or acquired, the portraits are not a popular status symbol now. Many of the older portraits are early American folk art or Victorian in style, which don't easily fit in contemporary homes. When a family rejects a portrait, it usually winds up at auction. Prices, though, have dropped sharply, ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the decorative appeal.

"Most ancestral portraits are in the family, and the family always thinks they are worth millions," says Mr. Fausel. "I had a matronly woman sell for $5,000. If it's a man in a business suit, you can't sell it at all."

It helps to be able to identify the person in the portrait, yet many families have lost track of the person over the mantel. Ceci Gilson, a publicist in Topsham, Maine, says that when her father inherited two large portraits of a man and a woman from a distant relative, he hung them in the dining room of their 18th-century house in Groton, Mass. "We were never 100% sure who they were," says Ms. Gilson. She spent many hours as a child wondering why the woman had such sloping shoulders and such a long giraffe-like neck. "It's a little creepy," she says.

Then, recently, when her father decided to downsize, he offered his five children the portraits. No one spoke up. Ms. Gilson turned them down because she lives in a 1950s ranch home with little available wall space. "They would seem very out of place," she says. It fell to her to have the portraits appraised for a possible sale, so she began working with her uncle, the family genealogist, to try to identify the couple.

Much to her surprise, she found they were barely relatives. They turned out to be the in-laws of her grandfather's aunt, not related by blood.

"That broke our sentimental attachment," Ms. Gilson says. However, the portraits were saved from the auction block when her brother, Thaddeus Danforth, bought a rambling 19th-century home in Massachusetts and offered to hang them in his Victorian sitting room. "I was relieved," says Ms. Gilson. "They were a part of my childhood."

An Old Relic'

Sometimes, it's the childhood memories that people want to avoid. Kirsten Bartholomew says that when she was in second grade in San Rafael, Calif., her father inherited a large portrait of her great-grandmother, painted at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904. Her ancestor, Rose Fitzgerald, is wearing a pleated gold gown and standing by a chair against a muted background. She's not smiling.

"I remember being scared of it," says Ms. Bartholomew, who lives in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif. "I would run past the picture because I didn't want to be near it," she says. "The eyes kind of followed you."

After her mother's death eight years ago, she and her brother were sorting through her mother's possessions when they came across the portrait. "My brother and I looked at it and thought, 'Forget it. We don't want it,' " she recalls. But they didn't feel they could sell it. So they called their aunt after deciding that Rose looked more like that side of the family, meaning dark hair, light skin and brown eyes. Ms. Bartholomew didn't hesitate about giving up the portrait.

"It's not like she was a cherished grandmother," she says. "It's an old relic from an age gone by."

Naturally, the valuable portraits of famous relatives by famous artists rarely drift around in families looking for a home. Copies often need to be made quietly for siblings and cousins. Harry Bond, the owner of Bond Business Products in Timonium, Md., says his grandmother, a descendant of Oliver Cromwell, owned two ancestral portraits by Charles Peale Polk, a famous early American painter. When his grandmother passed away almost 30 years ago, those paintings were passed down to other relatives.

Then, about 10 years ago, Mr. Bond's mother offered him a portrait from his grandmother's dining room. It features a balding man in a dark suit and wide brown tie sporting a large, curved mustache. Mr. Bond's uncles had shot a BB gun at it when they were children, creating several tiny holes, including one at the center of the man's forehead.

No one else in the family wanted the portrait. Mr. Bond decided to keep the painting and have it restored. Now the hole in the forehead barely shows. For a long time, he says, he received only vague answers about the man's identity, but eventually he identified the man as his great- great-grandfather. "He wasn't dashing or debonair," says Mr. Bond. But, he adds, old family portraits are important pieces of family history. "Whether you like them or not, it's good to have them."

And yet...the picture doesn't hang above his mantel. Over the years, it has spent time in the garage and the television room in his basement. Now it's in a corner of his living room. "It's not a particularly good portrait," he says with a sigh. "It's not real cheery. It's dark." He may have trouble passing it along to the next generation. Mr. Bond's son took one look at it and said, "I don't like him."

—Ms. Hughes is a writer in Rolling Hills, Calif. She can be reached at


Those who reject an old family portrait, as I did, may later regret it.

After my grandmother died, my grandfather offered me a portrait that had hung in their dining room in Swarthmore, Pa., a dark, 19th-century painting of a stern woman. She had dark, curly hair parted in the middle and a Victorian lace collar. My grandfather wasn't sure who she was, but he assumed she was an ancestor. Since my mother had already passed away, I was next in line.

At the time, I was in my early 20s, working as a news assistant for The Wall Street Journal, and living in a tiny New York apartment in Soho. I was worried friends might think, "Uh-oh, this is what she'll look like eventually." Besides, it didn't fit the decor of my apartment, which included a mattress on the floor, a wicker chair and an old wooden desk with an electric typewriter.

It's now 30 years later; I'm married and living in Southern California with more wall space and two teenagers. I was in the midst of working on family genealogy when I remembered the portrait. My grandmother and great-grandmother, Isabel Myers and Katharine Cook Briggs, have since become well known for creating the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a widely used personality type test. I didn't save anything sentimental from the house.

I suddenly wanted to try to find the portrait as a piece of family history and a link to my grandmother. No one in the family could remember anything about it.

After a lengthy search using old family letters, I finally found the painting in Madison, Wis. It has been hanging over the mantel of my third cousin, Susan Cook, a professor of music and an associate dean at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The woman in the portrait turns out to be Mary Plumb Fairchild, our great-great-great-grandmother.

Ms. Cook doesn't want to part with it. In an e-mail, she says the portrait "has had the place of honor in my home and is much commented upon by guests, students, etc." She did kindly agree to let me make a copy.

My two teenagers aren't thrilled about the prospect. "She looks like a man with a wig. I don't want that hanging in my house," said my daughter, Isabel, after studying a photocopy of the image. My son, Daniel, echoed her feelings. "She's manly. Where are you going to put that?"

The answer is, over the mantel in the living room. She may be a bit manly, but she is my great-great-great-grandmother, and it's a piece of family history. I wish I had never rejected her portrait in the first place. Mary Plumb Fairchild was one of the first women to attend Oberlin College and an early abolitionist. She died at age 29 after giving birth to her fourth child.

Now that I'm 53, I actually think she looks pretty good.

—Kathleen A. Hughes

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