CAPTAIN JOHN UNDERHILL
The Society’s former president N. Robert Underhill commissioned this painting. He and the artist wrote the following explanation for the News and Views of the Underhill Society, volume 34 issue 1, Spring 2001:
The above picture depicting our Family Founder is displayed
in the Society ofﬁce in Oyster Bay, New York. It was donated
by N. Robert Underhill of St. Louis, Missouri. N. Robert
served in many capacities on the Board of Directors to include
Historian and President. In a letter by N. Robert dated
October 25, 2000, he said the following:
“I am enclosing this photograph of an oil painting depicting
Captain John Underhill as he called the 1st muster on the
Commons at Salem, Massachusetts, December 13, 1636. This
oil painting by artist Ralph Fournier is the property of the
Underhill Society of America Education and Publishing Fund
[with] full rights of ownership. It may be copyrighted and
used in future publications.
“For the Fund to accept this gift, I would like the affirmation
of the Board of Directors and would appreciate this
afﬁrmation to be conveyed to George T. Underhill, Jr. The
painting should be located somewhere in the main area of the
Townsend Home and not stored somewhere out of sight.
“The painting will have a nameplate as follows: THE FIRST
MUSTER — An artist’s depiction of Captain John Underhill
calling the first muster of the Militia on the Commons at
Salem, MA on December l3, 1636.
“Background. A painting (shown below) purporting to be that
of Capt. John Underhill was purchased by Myron C. Taylor
from an art dealer in Italy sometime in the early 1930s. Copies
of the painting have been used in publications of our Society.
Recently Mr. Harry Macy, Jr., Genealogist and Underhill Society
Board member has found that this painting was a fraud and
should not be used by the Society.
(See below for Mr. Macy's explanation of the fraud.)
“In reality, it would be a good guess that Capt. John never
had a portrait made of himself. He was not a land-owner for
almost all his life. By the time he was given his land at Oyster
Bay (a rough parcel accessible only by boat) he found himself
in a setting of a pioneer and not that of a manor holder.
“Then about 25 years ago the US National Guard came to the
conclusion that their founding date was the First Muster called
by our Capt. John in 1636. In recognition of this event, they
approached the US Postal Service and asked that a stamp
commemorating this event be commissioned. This was done
and a postcard with stamp was produced with a wonderful
painting of this event on the Salem Commons. I then approached
the Postmaster here in St. Louis and was given a quick refusal.
No part of any stamp could be used. The US Postal Service
owned the painting. No copies for any use whatsoever. This
painting is excellent and copies have been made without
permission from the Postal Service.
“With this in mind, I commissioned Ralph Fournier to extract
from the painting all of the ﬁgures drawn by the artist and
create a painting of Capt. John only, as a rough Colonial
soldier (which he called himself). Then we initiated research
from ﬁve sources and found several mistakes in armament,
“The British War Museum gave us a drawing of uniforms
worn by the English Forces in Holland at the time Capt. John
was a cadet there. We used the ﬁeld uniform, not the dress
one. We also were given details of the ﬁeld guns and swords
of that time. The houses in the background were corrected.
We gave our subject the “Underhill nose.” Since he was
raised in Holland he most certainly would be cleanly shaven
with a goatee. This was done. We felt that he was a strong
man, of larger than medium height. We had some wet snow on
the ground. The settlers had to hunt for game and this game
was pheasant, grouse, woodcock and wild turkey. All upland
game. Most certainly they brought hunting dogs. The dog we
found was the English Springer Spaniel. They brought, most
certainly, White Leghorn Chickens.
“All of the above is a depiction of our Family Founder. We
show him as what he was and it’s all we have to go on. The
title of the painting is a “depiction” and nothing else. We can
copyright it and it is ours to keep and use. If the Board of
Directors feel that this gift is not in the best interest of the
Society, then I’ll hang it in my den. Thank you for your
It should be noted that this Muster was called at the time
fortiﬁcations were being placed at Salem and Gloucester since
King Charles, I had indicated that the Charter of the Colony
would be revoked. They felt that the British Navy would
occupy the Colony. The best harbors [where] a landing [could
occur] were Salem, ﬁrst, and Gloucester. The Pequot War
was in the offing and the Battle at Mystic Fort took place the
following May 20, 1637.”
N. Robert Underhill
How the Alleged Portrait of the Captain Was Found to be a Fraud
by Harry Macy, Jr.
Myron C. Taylor purchased the alleged portrait in the late 1920s, from a London art dealer named Colnaghi. It was exhibited at an annual meeting of the Underhill Society and then published as the frontispiece of Volume 1 of the Underhill Genealogy in 1932, and has since been reproduced many times.
The portrait was supposedly executed in 1634 or 1638 when Underhill made trips back to England. Why it remained in England and was not brought back to America was only one of many questions that skeptical family members raised when they saw the portrait, but for over forty years it continued to be accepted as a likeness of the Captain.
Then in the 1970s, an Underhill descendant spotted a full-color copy of the portrait in the gift department of a Miami department store. A note on the back of the copy identified it as Anthony Van Dyck’s portrait of Viscount Stafford, now in the Museum of Art of São Paulo, Brazil. I obtained a full-color copy of the portrait at São Paulo and saw that it matched the painting purchased by Taylor (that copy is now in the Society's archives). Viscount Stafford was William Howard (1614-1680), son of the Earl of Arundel, and there is a history of the Howard family which contains a black and white print of the same portrait. The artist, Van Dyck, was court painter to King Charles II in the 1630s.
The painting which Taylor acquired had the name “John Underhill of Warwickshire” in the upper right-hand corner, which is not on the São Paulo painting. On the back of Taylor's painting was a handwritten note stating that this John was “the son of Thomas of Barton on the Heath and brother of Sir Edward Underhill of Eatington.” We know that is absolutely incorrect, thanks to research on the English Underhills commissioned by Mr. Taylor himself, but the same erroneous statement appeared in a 19th-century edition of the British Dictionary of National Biography and was obviously copied from there.
The handwritten note also briefly described John Underhill’s New England career and his death in 1672, and beneath it was a label saying “Relined and Restored October 1866,” signed Martin Colnaghi. All these additions to the painting appear to have been created in the 1920s by the art dealer, to convince Mr. Taylor that the portrait was genuine.
At Taylor’s death, the portrait was given to the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities (SPLIA, now called Preservation Long Island), and when the paint was tested for its age it proved to be from the 19th century, not the 17th. In all probability, the painting that Taylor purchased was a copy made by an art student as part of his or her education, and it was a very good copy at that. Colnaghi sold Taylor several other portraits which were supposed to be likenesses of the Captain’s parents and grandparents. They were also given to SPLIA and proved to be painted in the 19th century.
The vast majority of English people in the 17th century did not have their portraits painted, and Capt. John Underhill was no exception.