Picturing past from art


After years of dubious treatment, portraits of two key figures in the history of the Patapsco Female Institute have a new home at the Howard County Historical Society.

The paintings of Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps, who was principal of the finishing school, and her husband, John Phelps, reside in a corner of the historical society's museum building, protected from direct light, smoke and mistreatment that have affected the paintings.

The Historical Society purchased the portraits in 1999 from the estate of Marjorie Phelps, a direct descendent of Almira Phelps, said Michael Walczak, the group's executive director. In addition to the portraits, a small collection of school textbooks, memorabilia and images of the building is on display.

"The opportunity just couldn't be passed up to get those portraits here in Ellicott City," said W. Edward Lilley, an Arbutus resident and a former historical society board member who helped raise money for the restoration.

Funds for the restoration and frames, which totaled more than $5,000, were from a 2002 grant from the Columbia Foundation and private donations.

When the Patapsco Female Institute opened in 1837, it was one of the first schools south of the Mason-Dixon line to teach mathematics and science to women, said Jacquelyn Galkie, executive director of the Friends of the Patapsco Female Institute.

Almira Phelps was "one of the premier principals here" and the school flourished under her leadership, Galkie said. "She had a different kind of vision for young women."

Phelps wrote textbooks that were used at the school and around the country, said Helen B. Mitchell, director of women's studies at Howard Community College who researched Almira Phelps' life for her doctoral dissertation.

John Phelps, the headmistress' second husband, was the financial manager, Mitchell said.

Wealthy families from other countries and as far as the Arizona territory sent their daughters there, knowing that students would graduate in two years with a teaching degree, Galkie said.

But as tensions between the North and the South kindled, the school became the only acceptable place "for planter fathers to send their daughters because it was south of the Mason-Dixon line," Mitchell said.

The principal "was not hostile to a Southern point of view, and that gave it tremendous appeal," she said.

Although Almira Phelps was an advocate for the financial independence and education of women, she was not a feminist, Mitchell said.

Phelps believed a "women's place was properly within the home," but she considered all the employees and students at the school her family.

"She was a CEO and wielded tremendous power," Mitchell said. "She was very assertive but cloaked it."

Almira Phelps was principal from 1841 to 1856, before the Civil War changed Southern economies, Galkie said.

"It never came back after the War Between the States," she said.

Many uses

The school continued to operate until 1891. Since then the building has been used for many purposes, including a hotel, a nursing home for war veterans and performing space for a theater group.

The ruins are open to the public as a historic park.

In the portraits, Almira and John Phelps appear to be seated inside the school, with the building's pillars in the background. Each portrait shows what could be a small part of the valley of Ellicott Mills, Walczak said.

The name of the artist and the date of the portraits are unknown, although some say they are done in the style of Rembrandt Peale, a 19th-century American painter, Walczak said.

Baltimore art conservator Josepha Caraher noted the holes and dents in the canvasses when she first saw the images.

"I had a grin on my face because it almost looks like Dr. Phelps had darts thrown at him," she said.

'Just original'

Caraher said she started restoring paintings in 1963 at the Walters Art Gallery after graduating with a degree in chemistry. New frames and backing support the oil-on-canvas works, which had started to deteriorate structurally, she said.

"They were practically orangy-brown from grime," she said.

The cleaning revealed a lot more detail, Walczak said. Before the restoration, you couldn't see the lace on Almira Phelps' dress or the valley of Ellicott Mills in the background. Caraher was thankful that no one had tried to "touch up" the missing patches.

"It's just original, and that's so nice," she said.

Caraher removed grime from the top layer of varnish on the paintings by rolling a cotton swab dipped in a mild cleaning mixture over the surfaces.

She worked on the paintings for about eight months, although the work was not continuous.

"We have to also step back and stop thinking about them and come back with fresh eyes," Caraher said.

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