NANTUCKET, MA –The Friends of the Nantucket Historical Association (NHA) are pleased to announce that they have recently acquired a painting of Sampson Dyer (1773-1843), a Nantucket China Trade officer of African-American and Wampanoag descent, for the permanent collection of the NHA. One of the only known works of an American man of mixed race by the Chinese master painter Spoilum (1760s-1806), the portrait portrays a prominent member of Nantucket's diverse historical community.
Sampson Dyer, a free man of mixed race, was born in Newport, Rhode Island. He came to Nantucket and settled into the community south of town known as New Guinea, where most of Nantucket's people of color lived, including a few surviving Wampanoag. Dyer first shipped as steward aboard the China Trader Active. In 1802, he was in command of a sealing operation at Más Afuera, in the Juan Fernandez Islands of Chile, when the Nantucket China Trader Lady Adams called.
He most likely had his portrait painted by Spoilum sometime between 1802 and 1804. By 1806, Dyer had shipped aboard the President to undertake a sealing operation off the Cape of Good Hope, a rocky headland on the Atlantic coast of the Cape Peninsula, South Africa. He subsequently established a guano business there and became a successful member of the business community, later becoming a British citizen. Dyer Island, located off the Cape of Good Hope, is part of his legacy.
The portrait of Dyer sheds light on Nantucket's brief but significant involvement in the China Trade from the late 1790s to 1812. With the whaling economy devastated by the Revolutionary War, island captains and merchants initiated direct economic ties to Canton, trading sealskins taken in the islands off the coast of South America and the South Pacific, as well as New England ginseng for Chinese export goods like porcelain, tea, silk, and souvenirs. Nantucket households soon became filled with exotic furnishings from the Chinese export market.
Also brought back to the island were portraits by Chinese artist Spoilum of several leading figures in the trade. The Spoilum portrait of Sampson Dyer was purchased by the Friends directly from an island family, who have requested that the details of the sale remain private.
"Being able to purchase such a rare and important painting for our wonderful museum is what the Friends of the NHA are all about," says Arie L. Kopelman, chair of the Friends of the NHA Acquisition Committee. "We're just thrilled about keeping this treasure here on Nantucket."
"This major addition to our collection preserves one of the greatest of Nantucket portraits for the public to enjoy forever. We are very grateful to the Friends of the NHA for their outstanding generosity, and to the family for helping to secure this treasure for the public," says NHA Robyn & John Davis Chief Curator Benjamin Simons. "Think of the significance of a portrait by a Chinese master artist of a free Nantucketer of African-American and Wampanoag descent!"
Support from the Friends of the Nantucket Historical Association, organized in 1986 to seek significant acquisitions for the collections of the NHA, has enabled the NHA to acquire numerous works of art and artifacts and to ensure that such objects stay on or return to Nantucket to be shared with future generations. The organization has also supported such projects as the construction of the NHA's Gosnold Center, the collection-storage facility; the conservation of paintings and other artifacts; and restoration of the parlor in the Hadwen House. The gracious assistance of the Friends has greatly strengthened the preservation and acquisition efforts of the NHA.