She Knew Purgatory When She Saw It

by Sandra Markham, Project Archivist, Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University Library

Although Annie Burr Lewis is primarily associated with Farmington—and her world there with Wilmarth Lewis and Horace Walpole—she was born in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1902, and that seaside city on Narragansett Bay always held an important place in her life. Her grandparents John and Elizabeth Auchincloss purchased a forty-acre estate on the bay in 1852, and by the time her parents Hugh and Emma Auchincloss inherited Hammersmith Farm, the sprawling shingle-style house on the property was the family’s summer respite from their New York City townhouse. Before her 1928 marriage, Annie Burr Auchincloss was an active participant in the summer social set in Newport’s private clubs and on the ocean beaches in nearby Middletown. After their marriage the Lewises continued to spend time at Hammersmith Farm, but following her mother’s death in 1942, Annie Burr Lewis purchased her own home, small early eighteenth-century house at the edge of the family estate. Renovations made it comfortable for the Lewises to enjoy their own property and to host a stream of guests when they spent their summers in Newport.

It was different there from British-inspired scholarly focused Farmington: Newport offered Annie Burr Lewis a more relaxed lifestyle and regular access to her adored nephews, nieces, and their children, as well as a house full of American family furniture and treasures she’d grown up with. She had grown up too with Aquidneck Island and knew well its topography and history, which she documented with her camera and by collecting local landscapes in prints and paintings to hang in her home.

She was no doubt pleased to add to her collection a small wash drawing of a familiar scene near Second Beach in Middletown when she received it from longtime friend Frances “Doll” Hamill (1904-1987), in 1959.

wash drawing of the Rhode Island coastline near Newport, with a sailboat in the distance on the left

Scituate Beach & Purgatory from the Hanging Rocks near Newport R. Id.
by Anthony St. John Baker
Wash with black ink and pen, Sept. 1825
Lewis Walpole Library

Hamill was an antiquarian bookseller in Chicago and a trusted source of eighteenth-century British material for the Lewises’ Farmington collections. The drawing, entitled “Scituate Beach & Purgatory from the Hanging Rocks near Newport R. Id.,” was made by British diplomat Anthony St. John Baker (1785-1854) while he was visiting Newport in September 1825. In addition to providing another view of familiar places in Newport to hang, Hamill’s gift had a second relevance for Annie Burr: to remind her of the time ten years before when she had challenged the text on an exhibition label in the National Portrait Gallery, London, and provided the evidence to effect the change.

Typed card signed WSL

Typed account of the history of the drawing and Annie Burr Lewis’s identification of the setting of the National Portrait Gallery (London)’s Bishop Berkeley portrait

The Lewises had been touring the museum in 1948 or 1949 with its director Sir Henry Hake (1892-1951) when they stopped to admire a painting of the renowned Irish clergyman and philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753), who had spent several years living in Newport. The accompanying wall label said the portrait had been painted by John Smibert in 1730 in Bermuda.

Color portrait of a man in black gown with white-tabbed collar (indicating he is a clergyman) seated half-length, turned toward the right. On the right in the distance is a landscape scene of a bluff by the ocean with trees on the top of the bluff

George Berkeley
by John Smibert
oil on canvas, 1730
NPG 653
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Annie Burr Lewis knew about Bishop Berkeley, and she knew about Newport. She disagreed with the Bermuda attribution, and she spoke up about it. To her, it was a matter of local history, topography, and iconography. She knew Berkeley had come to the American colonies in 1728 intending to establish a seminary in Bermuda. She knew he had instead settled in the northern section of Newport (now Middletown) in a house he named Whitehall, but he had never gone on to Bermuda—he returned to England in 1732 after funding for the school could not be secured. With her keen interest in historic buildings, Annie Burr had likely toured Whitehall, which by 1949 had been the property of the Colonial Dames for fifty years, and Annie Burr was a member of that society. With male family members alumni of Yale University, she also likely knew that Berkeley had given his house and nearly a thousand books to Yale College when he departed. Most importantly, though, she recognized the rocky bluff that Smibert painted in the background of the portrait. It was not Bermuda, it was Purgatory, one of Rhode Island’s most noted geological features, as familiar to her as it would have been to George Berkeley. That promontory on Sachuest Bay (not Scituate) has the famous Purgatory Chasm, a glacial cleft in  conglomerate rock 120 feet long, 150 feet deep, and 10 feet wide. It is just a mile south of the Paradise Rocks—also known as Hanging Rock and Berkeley Seat—where Bishop Berkeley is known to have spent time composing his treatise Alciphron or The Minute Philosopher (London, 1732).

On her next trip to Newport, Annie Burr photographed Purgatory from a vantage point similar to that of Smibert and sent the evidence to Hake; he validated her findings in a letter to Wilmarth Lewis and pledged to correct the museum’s record.[i]

Typescript letter signed by H.M. Hake

Henry Hake to Wilmarth Lewis, October 12, 1949 (Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis Papers, The Lewis Walpole Library)

A triumph for Annie Burr Lewis? Not quite. According to the painting’s entry in the updated National Portrait Gallery’s collection catalogue Early Georgian Portraits (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1977), Wilmarth Lewis is credited with the new information,

The artist is known to have painted details of actual landscapes in some of his American pictures and the background is perhaps the whale-head promontory on Rhode Island known as Hanging Rock to which the sitter possibly refers in the lines from Alciphron: ‘we then withdrew to a hollow glade between two rocks where we seated ourselves’ (dialogue II, section i). W.S. Lewis, in September 1949, noted when staying near Whitehall, Newport, R.I., the farm where much of this work was reputedly written, that the headland about two miles away resembled Hanging Rock.[ii]

and the headland actually resembles Purgatory, not the craggy outcrop ledge of Hanging Rock. Anthony St. John Baker, in a second drawing titled “Hanging Rocks on Scituate Beach near Newport R.I.,” provides that evidence in an opposing perspective to the work given to Annie Burr. [iii] This view—from Purgatory toward Hanging Rock—shows the distinct difference between these two glacial topographies.

wash drawing of a rocky coastline in Rhode Island

Hanging Rocks on Scituate Beach near Newport R.I.
by Anthony St. John Baker
Wash with black ink and pen (?), 1850
in Mémoires d’un voyageur qui se repose : with illustrations: in four parts
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Annie Burr Lewis died of cancer one month after she received the gift from Doll Hamill and never saw the “corrected” entry in the National Portrait Gallery catalogue. While Baker made these two drawings a century after Smibert painted George Berkeley’s portrait, it is clear the landscape in the background of the painting is not Hanging Rock but Purgatory. That point and the mistaken credit leave Annie Burr’s contribution in Limbo, and the catalogue record in the National Portrait Gallery to be revised once again.


[i] Henry Hake to Wilmarth Lewis, October 12, 1949 (Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis Papers, The Lewis Walpole Library).


There is another version of the portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

[iii] Anthony St. John Baker served a variety of diplomatic posts in Europe and America, but resided in Washington for three terms, 1811–1813, 1815–1822, and 1824–1828, after which he retired to England and wrote a seven-part remembrance of his years abroad. Titled Mémoires d’un voyageur qui se repose, it was published privately in London in 1850 in an edition of fifty copies, at least two of which were extra-illustrated with maps, prints, and his own drawings in ink and watercolor. The wash drawing “Hanging Rocks on Scituate Beach near Newport R.I.” is in volume three of the four-volume set at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. That volume also includes three other views of Newport and the area. In both of his drawings, Baker identified the beach “Scituate” rather than its correct spelling Sachuest; locally, it is known as Second Beach.