Hannah Otis’s (1732-1801) sampler “View of Boston Common” (c. 1750, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) is a charming and significant pictorial narrative, capturing life in Boston prior to the Revolution. The connection of the sampler to a significant New England family, the documentary nature and large over-mantel size all serve to distinguish it as a preeminent example of school girl skill and, in this case, creativity. It is embroidered in wool and silk on a linen canvas.
This sampler is a delight, and the more time one takes to examine it, the more one sees. Note the British flag waving energetically above the pre-Revolutionary blockhouse, for example. Of particular interest is the representation of the impressive Georgian style Hancock Mansion (demolished in 1863) with its fences, orchards and parterres. The elegant occupants are enjoying the bountiful and exuberant landscape, peppered with unusual birds, animals and over scaled plantings, which Hannah Otis has created for them. The couple standing near the wall (just to the left of center) were most likely Thomas Hancock (1703-1764) and his wife, Lydia Henchman Hancock (1714-1776), with their stately home and grounds as a backdrop. Thomas Hancock wears a long red (?) coat with substantial cuffs, a waistcoat, breeches with white hose, and what appears to be a tricorn hat. Lydia Hancock is dressed in the elite fashion of the time, sporting a light colored dress (probably silk) and stomacher.
Thomas Hancock was John Hancock’s uncle. Known as a very wealthy merchant (as well as a probable smuggler) and head of the “House of Hancock,” he opened his home and business to his orphaned nephew, John. Indeed, it would not be surprising if the lad on horseback, with a black liveried groom, depicted in Otis’s sampler was in fact the adolescent John. Born in 1737, he would have been around thirteen years of age. Like his aunt and uncle, young John wears appropriate, fashionable clothing. He is clad in riding gear, including high leather boots.
|Detail, Thomas Hancock, 1730, by John Smibert
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
|Lydia Henchman Hancock, by John Singleton Copley
National Portrait Gallery
“The most expensive sampler ever sold is View of Boston Common by Hannah Otis (1732-1801), stitched around 1750. It’s a huge piece, meant for display over a chimney mantelpiece, embroidered in wool and silk on linen canvas. It was purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston at Sotheby’s in 1996 for a record $1,157,500.
Hannah Otis is closely linked to the American Revolution and American history in general. She was born in 1732, the daughter of Colonel James Otis and Mary Allyne Otis. Her mother was a descendant of Mayflower passenger Edward Doty. Her father was a judge and representative to the Massachusetts legislature. He was a fervent anti-royalist as was his son, James Otis, Jr., who introduced the phrase “Taxation without representation is tyranny” during the Stamp Act debates. Hannah’s older sister Mercy Otis Warren was a poet, playwright and historian who published numerous pro-Revolution writings and corresponded with the luminaries of the American Revolution like John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and John Adams.
The sampler remained in the Otis family until the 1996 sale. It had been on loan at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for over 40 years when the family decided reluctantly that they had to sell it.”