The Winterthur Library

 The Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera





Creator:          Henry Benbridge, 1743-1812                          

Title:               Letters [photostats]

Dates:             1767-1787

Call No.:         Col. 777

Acc. No.:         Ph31-Ph44

Quantity:        14 items

Location:        34 J 3






Henry Benbridge was a portrait and historical painter and a miniaturist.  He was born in Philadelphia on October 20, 1743, the son of James and Mary Benbridge.  James Benbridge died in 1751 and his widow then married Thomas Gordon.  Henry’s interest in art was encouraged, and he is believed to have studied with John Wollaston in Philadelphia.  From 1765-1769, Henry studied in Italy at the art academy of Pompeo Batoni.  He also spent some time in London, where he associated with Benjamin West and painted a portrait of Benjamin Franklin, before returning to Philadelphia in 1770.   


Around 1771, Henry married Hetty Sage (first name also variously reported to be Letitia or Esther), a miniaturist who had studied with Charles Willson Peale.  They had at least one son, Harry.  Mrs. Benbridge apparently died young, perhaps around 1780.  By 1773, Henry and Hetty had moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where he set up as a portrait painter, working there until at least 1790.  He spent some time as a prisoner of the British after they occupied Charleston during the American Revolution.  Not much is known about the last decades of Benbridge’s life.  He lived in Norfolk, Virginia for a time around 1800, and while there, he taught Thomas Sully.  Benbridge was buried in Christ Church cemetery in Philadelphia on January 25, 1812. 





Copies of 13 letters written by Henry Benbridge from Rome, London, and Charleston, South Carolina, and one written to him by his step-father Thomas Gordon from Philadelphia.  From London, Benbridge reported on visits with Benjamin West and Benjamin Franklin and his plans to show some of his portraits at an upcoming exhibition.  In one letter, Benbridge discussed West’s intention to do history paintings rather than portraits and his hopes that this would open a place for him in the portrait market.  Benbridge believed he could make as good as living in America as in London; although he could not charge as much per painting, the cost of living in America was lower.


Over half the letters are addressed to his sister, Elizabeth Saltar, and were written from Charleston, chiefly after the American Revolution.  These letters contain family news and discuss the exchange of plants, but several times he mentioned that he stayed busy with painting commissions.  In one letter, Benbridge asked his sister’s help to forestall Mrs. Sage, his son Harry’s grandmother, from spoiling the boy while he was living in Philadelphia with her.    





The letters are in chronological order.   





Copied from originals owned by Gordon Saltar.






            Franklin, Benjamin, 1706-1790.

            West, Benjamin, 1728-1820.

            Gordon family.

            Salter family.



            Painters – United States.

            Painters – 18th century.

            Portrait painters – United States – Correspondence.

            Plants, Cultivated – United States.






Location: 34 J 3


Ph-31   Henry Benbridge, Rome, to his sister Elizabeth (Betsy) Gordon, Magnolia Grove, near Philadelphia, June 6, 1767.


            Thanks her for her letter; if she hasn’t enough to fill another, get Dolly and Polly to add to it.  Glad they like living in the country.  Read in the newspaper of Miss Allen’s marriage to the governor.  Asks after friends and send his compliments.  In Rome, one can buy flowers made of feathers that are difficult to tell from a real plant.


Ph-32  Henry Benbridge, London, to his stepfather, Thomas Gordon, Magnolia Grove, near Philadelphia, December 7, 1769.  [parts of original were missing]


            Arrived safely from Leghorn, and was warmly received by Mr. West [i.e. Benjamin West].  Found a room near their home for 25 shillings a week but shall look for another.  Intends to paint Mr. Coombs and Mr. Franklin for an exhibition in the spring.



Ph-33  Henry Benbridge, London, to his stepfather, Thomas Gordon, Magnolia Grove, January 23, 1770.


Had received his first letters from home in almost two years when he arrived in London.  Called on Benjamin Franklin.  Believes that West will be willing to promote his work as West intends to do historical paintings rather than portraits and they won’t be in competition with each other.  Wants to do portraits of Coombs and Franklin for the upcoming exhibition as they are well known and therefore people will be better able to judge the quality of his work.  Believes he can make a good living in America as the cost of living is cheaper than in London.  Discusses politics and the Revenue Acts.



Ph-34    Henry Benbridge, London, to his mother, Mary Gordon, Magnolia Grove, January 23, 1770.


He was kindly received by Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin West.  Is able to execute portraits quickly and accurately, so hopes to earn some money soon.  Has seen Nancy Hunt.  Hopes his other sisters will follow Dolly’s example in choosing a husband.


Ph-35  Henry Benbridge, London, to his sister, Elizabeth (Betsy) Gordon, Magnolia Grove, January 23, 1770.


            Thanks for her letter.  Please give sister Dolly his wishes for her joy on her marriage to Mr. Salter (or Saltar). 


Ph-36  Thomas Gordon, Magnolia Grove, to Henry Benbridge, London, March 2, 1770.


Glad to hear of his safe arrival in London.  Has he yet visited Mr. Franklin?  His rooms seem to be expensive.  Wants to hear more about Henry’s trip to Corsica.  Dolly has married Lawrence Salter.  Gives Henry marriage advice. 


Ph-37    Henry Benbridge, Charleston, S. C., to his sister, Elizabeth (Betsy) Gordon, Magnolia Grove, near Philadelphia, February 21, 1773.


            People in Charleston most interested in “dress and dissipation.”  Hetty caught cold during her laying in.



Ph-38    Henry Benbridge, Charleston, S. C., to his sister, Mrs. Elizabeth Saltar, Magnolia Grove, May 28, 1784.


            Hope all are well.  Is sending her a number of plants: pomegranate, flowering almond, wild orange, sweet scented shrub, lemon mint, cat mint, curled parsley, and yellow jessamine.  Still trying to procure cucumber seed.  Adam doing much better down here.


Ph-39  Henry Benbridge, Charleston, S. C., to his sister, Mrs. Saltar, May 10, 1785.


Letter is being delivered by Henry’s son Harry.  Please try to not let his grandmother (Mrs. Sage) spoil the boy.   Harry can sing, dance, and play the violin.



Ph-40  Henry Benbridge, Charleston, to his sister, Mrs. Eliz. Saltar, Magnolia Grove, November 4, 1785.


            Hope all are now well.  Adam is always sober when Henry sees him and he goes to church.  Thanks for her kindnesses to Harry.


Ph-41  Henry Benbridge, Charleston, to his sister, Mrs. Elizabeth Saltar, Magnolia Grove, December 8, 1785.


            Congratulations to Mr. Saltar on being elected to the state legislature.  Mrs. Radcliffe will be sending her some ground nuts.  Greetings to sisters Fanny and Nancy.


Ph-42  Henry Benbridge, Charleston, to his sister, Mrs. Elizth Saltar, care of Mrs. Ann Sage, Front St., Philadelphia, March 8, 1786.


            Might come for a visit in the summer.  Mrs. Radcliffe will send more plants and a jar of orange marmalade.  Is staying busy with work.


Ph-43  Henry Benbridge, Charleston, S. C., to his sister, Mrs. Eliza Saltar, Magnolia Grove, near Philadelphia, December 8, 1786.


            Family news.  Health news.  Exchange of plants between Mrs. Radcliffe and Elizabeth.


Ph-44  Henry Benbridge, Charleston, to his sister, Mrs. Elizabeth Saltar, Magnolia Grove, near Philadelphia, April 28. 1787.


            Sending oranges trees, curled parsley plant, and cucumber seed.  In the fall, wishes her to send him some plants.  Is working on a very large painting which will prevent his coming for a summer visit.