Two historic objects from the 19th-century Wonson family of Gloucester have been reunited at Cape Ann Museum with a recent gift from Roger Choate Wonson.
Wonson, 90, and his wife, Mary Sue, visited the museum last week to donate an 1850s daguerreotype photograph that depicts a girl with her twin brothers. The twins are immortalized in an oil portrait that is a favorite of visitors to the museum.
The daguerreotype shows Roger’s grandfather, Samuel Giles Wonson IV, with his twin brother, William Newman Sawyer Wonson, along with their younger sister, Ellen. The boys always lived on Cape Ann. William served in the Civil War with the Massachusetts 8th infantry regiment. Both men made their living working on the waterfront when hundreds of fishing schooners filled Gloucester harbor.
A daguerreotype is an early form of photography produced on a silver or a silver-covered copper plate. The process is named after one of its inventors, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. The first successful image was created in 1837.
“This is one of those very rare instances where two historical objects, separated decades ago, are happily reunited,” said museum curator Martha Oaks. “That both items will be permanently preserved here at the Cape Ann Museum and available for public viewing makes it all the more amazing.”
Roger Choate Wonson talked about his recollections of the twins, born in 1843. In the painting, the twins are about 3 or 4 years old, and the daguerreotype was taken a few years later. The painting depicts the boys in a common Victorian-era likeness, while the daguerreotype photograph provides a more boyish depiction.
When asked if grandfather was any relation to the Wonson family of the Tarr & Wonson paint factory, he replied that was another family line. The paint factory was built in 1874.
“As I understand, there are two lines, the Samuel Giles and the George Marble line,” Wonson said.
His grandfather’s family was involved in a shop that supplied marine materials, possibly boat parts, he added.
His grandfather (1843-1912) had six children, three girls and three boys, the youngest boy being his father, Arthur Stanley Wonson. There was a 17-year span between the oldest and youngest.
Roger Choate Wonson, however, was born and raised in Essex, after his father had moved there.
Wonson explained that his Aunt Martha had ended up with the portrait of the twins, painted circa 1846 by Moses B. Russell (1810-1884), after it had passed down to family members. But at one point, she sold the portrait in the late 1960s to an antiques dealer in Marblehead, according to Wonson.
The painting was later discovered at a Newbury Street gallery in Boston. Thanks to an effort to bring it back to Gloucester, Margaret Farrell Lynch made a gift of the painting to the museum in 1994.
“I didn’t know it was at the museum until my nephew told me about it,” Wonson said. “In the meantime, I got this daguerreotype from my Aunt Martha.”
He wonders if, perhaps, his grandfather came to be painted in a portrait because of a visiting painter to Gloucester at the time, in that era prior to the Civil War.
“The family had a business of ship chandling, and they might have had a couple of vessels that they owned, but they obviously had some means to have the portrait done. It’s possible that sometimes portrait artists came and lived with them for the winter and did the painting as part of their board. That’s what we think,” Wonson said. “We think the toys may have been my grandfather’s toys.”
Either way, the family and the museum are pleased that the historic items are now together.
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-675-2706, or via email at email@example.com.