October 12, 2011

Where Are Bill's Portraits

Updated November 2017
After Bill Johnston's arrest in November 1838, authorities held him for trial in Auburn, New York. During his brief stay, Randall Palmer (1807-1845), a locally famous artist, offered to paint Bill's portrait. That Palmer usually painted high society figures, must have impressed Johnston. He agreed.

Accounts describe the painting as 40 inches high by 50 inches wide, with small scenes painted in the margins.

A journalist from the Auburn Journal and Advertiser visited Palmer's studio at #4 Beach's Block, Auburn, in late 1838 and wrote about the portrait in the December 5 issue (page 2). "Among the [portraits] was that of the 'notorious Bill Johnson.' Not having seen the original, we are not able to speak of the likeness, although those who are better capable of judging, pronounce it to be exact. It is by no means a bad countenance, although exhibiting a large share of cunning."

The December 16, 1838, issue of that paper (page 2) included a description of Bill's portrait copied from the Rochester Democrat. "During this notable personages compulsory visit [Bill was under arrest] to Auburn, he was requested to sit for his Portrait, with which request he complied, and the result is, a most striking likeness of the bold 'Buccaneer.' He is 'long favored'—with features spare, yet prominent and bold. There is, in his eye, a perceptible shrewdness, which make him a man of quick comprehension— stern and resolute. He holds in his hand, a spy glass, and in the perspective is seen a boat, propelled by a female—intending to represent Miss Johnston, whose heroism in visiting her father during his sojourn at 'Fort Wallace,' for the purpose of supplying him with food, has rendered her a proper personage for the heroine of a tale. Groups of Islands are also seen in the distance, intending, of course, to represent the 'Thousand Islands,' which are destined to occupy a niche in history…

"The picture does great credit to the young artist Mr. Randal  Palmer, and it will secure to 'the Commodore' a canvass existence, long after tyranny shall have been driven from the Canadas, and long after men shall cease to be hunted for during to favor the cause of republicanism in the New World. A copy of this Portrait is to be sent to Johnston’s family."

This passage suggests there may be two copies of the portrait.

The portrait or portraits of Bill Johnston are harder to locate than their subject was in the Thousand Islands in the summer of 1838. Both disappeared without a trace. Not even a photo can be found. For decades, one copy hung in the ornate staircase in the Carnegie-era public library building in Syracuse. It disappeared when the library relocated its central collection in 1988, according to an eyewitness account.

Where are the portraits now?
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