Steptoe portrait returns to Courthouse

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By The Staff

Some dream of exotic vacations; others dream of meeting the queen.

For many years local appraiser, Elizabeth Gladwell dreamed of Jemmie Steptoe. For those unfamiliar with Bedford County's earlier years, James Steptoe (nicknamed Jemmie) was the first Clerk of Bedford County Circuit Court. This was a position he held from 1772 through 1826.

Gladwell became obsessed with Steptoe because of his portrait which hung at the Courthouse. Completed just before his death in 1826, the painting had moved from heir to heir until finally it was donated to the County of Bedford in 1953. It was presented to the county by a family member. Prior to coming to Bedford, the portrait had traveled to family homes from New York to California. What preoccupied Beth Gladwell was the importance of the painting and the fact that it was in need of conservation work.

Jemmie Steptoe was born in 1750. It was due to Thomas Jefferson that Steptoe became Bedford County's circuit court clerk. According to Cathy Hogan, the current clerk, "He was given the appointment by Thomas Jefferson who was a good friend of his." They got to know each other at the College of William and Mary, and they ended up becoming very close friends.

The portrait of Steptoe was painted by Harvey Mitchell. Born in Amherst County, Mitchell did a great deal of portraits here in Bedford County. His sister married James Calloway Steptoe who was Jemmie Steptoe's son. According to Gladwell there are many paintings done by Harvey Mitchell. Since he never signed work, the origin of his portraits was based upon family history. Family members knew who painted the portraits of their ancestors and passed this information along to the next generation.

"I've known of Jemmie Steptoe for years, explained Gladwell. "He was part of my master's thesis."

Gladwell's thesis covered Thomas Jefferson's furnishings and those of his neighbors. Naturally she studied the furnishing of Poplar Forest and neighboring homes. Steptoe's home, Federal Hill, was nearby. "I've known of the painting for 25 years," said Gladwell. It was donated by James Ambler Johnston who was a Steptoe descendent.

According to Beth Gladwell, there are a number of reasons why this painting of Steptoe is so important. And it is not just because it is a portrait of Jemmie Steptoe. Yes,he was an important person of his era. As clerk of Bedford County Circuit Court he served for 54 years and the portrait did document this.

More importantly the portrait also includes an image of Jefferson in the background. It is in the form of a physiognotrace by St Memin. In 1804 Jefferson ordered about 40 of these. Similar to a silhouette, these paintings depicted an individual's profile with the features filled in. St Memin was a popular artist of the era that practiced this art form. The subject would stand in profile against a white background and a light would shine on him. Once the artist traced the silhouette he then filled in the features.

According to Gladwell, this is probably the only situation where there is a St Memin depicting Jefferson in a contemporary portrait. "I would like to think that Jefferson gave him one of his St Memins," said Gladwell. "However St Memin did sell them himself. In any case it documents their relationship."

Also within the portrait is a Fry-Jefferson map. Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson, were surveyors, and Peter Jefferson was Thomas Jefferson's father. This illustrates the common practice of decorating with maps as well a documenting Jemmie Steptoe's importance.

"Even the glasses on his head are not common," said Gladwell. "They are undoubtedly coin silver."

A final detail in the portrait that Beth Gladwell finds thrilling is his chair. "The chair is wonderful!" Gladwell exclaims. In fact that chair is still in existence today. While it is not known by the public who owns the chair it has been documented by MESDA (The Museum of the Early Southern Decorative Arts). This organization has documented most of the important items of furniture and decorative arts made in the South prior to 1840.

"That in itself is interesting," says Gladwell. "But the other very interesting thing is that it was made in the Monticello Joinery." The Monticello Joinery was the carpenter's shop at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello home. According to Gladwell not very many things are attributed to the Monticello Joinery.

The conservation of this remarkable painting would not have occurred if it were not for the efforts of Elizabeth Gladwell. "I had discussed the subject of conservation of the painting with several members of the court system over the years but was always told that there were no funds available for it," she explained. Funding was usually reserved for conserving documents. But Gladwell knew that this painting was an important document.

About a year ago at a dinner party, Beth Gladwell spoke to her friend, Judge Philip Wallace of the Bedford County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. Gladwell expressed her concern for the deteriorating condition of this very historic painting. Wallace suggested that Gladwell contact Cathy Hogan.

While the painting was not in terrible condition, it had darkened with age and had to be cleaned. According to Hogan it had no gaping holes but there were some issues that needed to be addressed.

Once Hogan understood the importance of the painting, she initiated the paperwork necessary to conserve it. "I took it before the Board of Supervisors. They decided that it was an asset that needed to be restored and kept," explained Hogan. Gladwell recommended Richmond Conservation Studio to conserve the portrait and Russell Bernabo to restore the frame. The funding for the conservation, which amounted to $2,700, came from the county. "I assumed it was going to be much more expensive," said Hogan, "But when I found out how little it would cost I knew the county would go for it."

"We just got it back," said Hogan, "It hangs in the clerk's office. This is the appropriate place for it." Cathy Hogan explained that the public is welcome to come and see the portrait of Jemmie Steptoe, and in fact a few people have already come to see it.

For Beth Gladwell the conservation of this important piece of art is truly a dream come true. "All of those years, I would forget about it and then remember," explained Gladwell. "I would actually have what amounted to nightmares with Jemmie coming to me saying I am moldering and you are not doing anything for me. I feel like I have accomplished something very important and it looks wonderful."

According to Beth Gladwell, there are not many communities in the country that have a document like this and that it tells us so much, not only about Jemmie Steptoe but also about Bedford County and its place in Colonial History.