The portrait of Mary Allan, which currently hangs in the Old Stone House, is a significant work of art purchased by the Poe Museum in 1928. The following recounts the history of this portrait, as well as its subject and the artist.
Mary Allan was the older sister of Edgar Poe’s foster father, John Allan, and the eldest daughter of William and Elizabeth Galt Allan. Mary lived in the Allan Bridgegate home until her death in 1850 (Phillips 99).
Although Mary’s childhood and adulthood remain mysteries, we do have an interesting correspondence between a descendent of hers and the Poe Museum. On October 12, 1927, the museum was approached by a relative of the Allan family, who mentioned that her distant cousin was interested in selling a portrait of Mary Allan. This cousin was Sophie E. D. (whose name is not fully disclosed to protect her prvacy), of Fertshire, Scotland. Mary Allan, who Miss D. referred to as “Aunt Mary,” was Miss D’s great aunt. Upon contacting the museum, Sophie and the Poe Museum began what would be a year long process of organizing the painting’s shipment, payment, and display.
According to the April 26, 1928, “Board of Directors Minutes of the Annual Meeting”, there was a statement explaining that the same artist who painted John Allan’s portrait, also painted Mary’s, which hung on the wall of the Allan home in Ayrshire when the young Poe visited there.
This painter was James Tannock, a native of Kilmarnock. According to the Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Tannock was a distinguished artist who had success at Glasgow and Greenock as a painter of portraits and miniatures. He then moved to London and is notable for contributing forty-four portraits to the Royal Academy exhibitions between 1813 and 1841 (Armstrong). Tannock’s rich oil painting style can be seen in the Mary Allan painting.
On June 2, 1928, the portrait was purchased for seventy-five pounds, stirling [sic]. At that time, this would have been equal to $125.98. Today, the purchase price is estimated to be $1,755.93. On August 2, the portrait of Mary arrived. Martha R. Ford, the secretary of the Poe Museum at the time, stated in an August 10 letter,
I think she is lovely [Aunt Mary]. She must have been a very interesting person to know. She is very like her brother in feature; but oh so different in expression! I am no artist, and my opinion as to the merits of the portrait form an artistic point of view would be worthless. But from my plain human standpoint, I find the picture beautiful and interesting. Everybody who has seen it seems much pleased.
According to a September 14 letter, the Museum buildings were being renovated and “Aunt Mary” was waiting to be hung. Martha R. Ford relates, “’Aunt Mary’ is to come into the new building as soon as the workmen shall have provided for her adequate support.” The next day, everything was in place, and the sale was official. The Consular Invoice was produced, the official charge papers were found to be in order, the transaction was duly closed, and “Aunt Mary” was warmly welcomed into her new home.
Now, thanks to the Poe Museum’s past employees and the gracious willingness of Sophie D. to sell her “Aunt Mary” to the museum, you can view the lovely painting, which gives insight into John Allan’s Scottish family, and, ultimately, into Poe’s world in Scotland.
To view the painting, please visit the following link: https://www.poemuseum.org/collection-details.php?id=105