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The art of Emily Weston

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

English born Emily Esdaile stepped into a new world when she married wealthy American Plowden C.J. Weston and came to Hagley Plantation on the Waccamaw River in 1848.

She became mistress of a vast rice enterprise operated on the backs of 350 slaves. In addition to its magnificent plantation house, Hagley contained a number of architectural gems built by its master carpenter, Renty Tucker. Its picturesque hills rose quickly from the riverside, and the land had been manicured for the masters.

How fortunate for history that Emily Weston came to Hagley Plantation. She drew pictures of her world: the buildings, the landscape, the river and its boats. She had an eye for detail and a deft touch with architecture’s angles. She made pencil drawings — some have a splash of color — of the things she saw for more than a decade beginning in 1848. They are the only record of how Hagley Plantation looked. The drawings remained in the family for more than a century, but eventually a New York art dealer acquired them and offered the lot, 105 in all, for sale. When that failed, the dealer made plans to break up the collection and sell the works separately at an antiques show.

Hal and Margaret Holmes live in the house in Conway called Snow Hill where Emily Weston fled Union gunboats during the Civil War. A sense of history runs through their veins, and they are constantly reminded of their connection to the Westons. Hal and Margaret were planning a trip to New York to visit a daughter, and he promised a friend that he would take a look at the art collection. “I’m not an art critic,” Holmes said to a gathering at the Georgetown County Library recently. “They certainly looked wonderful to me. The colors were beautiful. The attention to detail was striking. Perhaps even more important to us, this is a unique historical record. I’m not aware there are other images of Hagley Plantation that exist. It would have been awful to let these things get disbursed, so we bought it: the whole kit and kaboodle, lock, stock and barrel. I was a happy guy when we left.”

Once the collection was back in Conway, the Holmeses hired a conservator to advise them about preservation and presentation. The works are in remarkably good shape considering how little was done to protect them. The first public showing will open May 9 at Brookgreen Gardens and run through June. Forty-nine pieces will be on display. “That’s all the room they have,” said Holmes, a member of the Brookgreen board of directors.

He plans to display most of the architectural and landscape drawings of the plantation and the Weston summer house on Pawleys Island that they named Westonzoyland, for Emily’s home in England. That building survives as the Pelican Inn today. The art collection includes drawings of a plantation barn with three towers, a very tall house that belonged to the washer woman and St. Mary’s Chapel, the plantation house of worship. Others are of insects, butterflies and even a poisonous coral snake. Emily noted the date and points of interest in the corner of most works and on pictures of butterflies and other critters she wrote who brought it to her. A half-dozen works from 1849 include pressed flowers.

Plowden C.J. Weston was born Aug. 21, 1819, son of Francis Marion Weston and Mildred Weston. As was the custom of the times, the Westons were cousins, and when Mildred died, Francis married her sister, Mary. The patriarch of the family, Plowden Weston, had emigrated from England to Charleston and established a profitable business. In 1775 he purchased Laurel Hill Plantation from Gabriel Marion — it’s unclear whether he is Gen. Francis Marion’s brother or nephew, Holmes said, since both share the name — and some adjoining property at Brookgreen from William Alston in 1777.

Francis Marion Weston purchased Hagley Plantation in 1837 from the estate of John Ashe Alston. At age 21, Plowden C.J. Weston began receiving the yearly profit from Hagley Plantation but was not given title to the land. His father wanted him to be educated first. “Francis Marion Weston believed very much in an English education but wasn’t real fond of England,” Holmes said. While at Cambridge, Plowden C.J. Weston became good friends with William Esdaile, Emily’s brother. That’s how he met his future wife. Plowden knew he would have to overcome his father’s objections to the English and came home to discuss his plans. He convinced his father that marrying Emily would assure his future happiness, and Francis Marion Weston agreed to meet her father to work out a marriage settlement. Emily’s father offered £70,000 as a dowry, and Plowden’s father promised to give the couple £700,000, a house in London and another in Geneva. “Needless to say,” Holmes said, “that ended the discussion.”

The Westons lived a rather secluded life at Hagley, Holmes said. He was a scholarly man, founder of the S.C. Historical Society and a member of historical societies in New York and Maryland. He had an enormous library, described by neighbor Motte Alston as having two large, commodious rooms interconnected and valued at $50,000. One of Emily Weston’s paintings depicts a chapel. Holmes thinks it was inside the main house at Hagley. The pews, banisters and plaques from the plantation are all at the Prince Frederick Episcopal Church summer chapel in Plantersville.

Weston had the interest of a million dollars as income in 1848 yet worked hard to improve his rice plantation along with his scholarly pursuits, according to Holmes. “He was a little eccentric at times,” Holmes added. “They said he would walk down to the Waccamaw River and jump in — fully clothed — and swim around.”

He bought True Blue and Weehawka plantations from members of the Alston family in 1858 and sold Laurel Hill to Col. Daniel Jordan. “Basically,” Holmes said, “what he did was to consolidate his property.” Jordan was a prominent North Carolinian and had property in Horry County.

The Westons were known as very benevolent slave holders, according to Holmes’ research. “They had no children and seemed to take a great interest in their slaves and their well being,” he said. The management plan for the plantation set forth the criteria by which overseers would be judged. Of most importance was the condition of the slaves, and second was the condition of the animals, buildings and fences. Third, and last, was the abundance of the rice crop. “Sort of the reverse of how others would do it,” Holmes said. “Rations were to be generously provided to slaves. If there was a question, you didn’t skimp on them. They gave them a heaping measure so they would be well cared for. All punishment was delayed 24 hours until the heat of passion cooled off. The main thing done was confinement, usually not in stocks. They might take away Saturday’s rations. That was about it. Sometimes you might get extra work as punishment, but that was generally not the case. The work they did was the work that the least worthy hand could do in nine hours during a day. They wanted the slaves to be through by 3 p.m. so they could tend their own gardens. If there was ever any reason for extra work they were paid. That was an unusual situation.”

Emily’s pet raccoon was the only cause for distress among her servants. “The house ladies,” Holmes said, “were terrified of it.”

Among Emily’s drawings are landscapes of Pawleys Island and their summer house, Westonzoyland, in 1856. Plowden C.J. Weston had purchased 5.5 acres on Pawleys Island from Peter and Mary Frazier 10 years earlier. Boards for their house were milled at Hagley and numbered to designate how they were to be assembled under the direction of Tucker. Carpenters used wooden pegs and hand-cut nails. The house was more elegant than most of the summer homes at Pawelys Island because, Holmes said, the Westons never had a place in Charleston.

When the Civil War broke out, Plowden C.J. Weston joined the Georgetown Rifle Volunteers as a private. He was made captain but refused further promotion, according to Holmes. He outfitted the entire 150-man company with English Enfield rifles and all the accoutrements as well as uniforms for summer and winter. He even paid for a fife and drum corps and brought slaves to camp as “pioneers” to clear paths for marching.

In the fall of 1861, word came that Yankees were landing on the beaches of Waccamaw Neck. The Georgetown Rifles were sent to repel them but found it was a false alarm. Weston sent word to Hagley Plantation to prepare a meal and when they arrived there was a sit-down dinner with fine wine for 150 men served on fine china with crystal and silver.

Concern about marauding Union troops destroying salt works and stealing clothing, food and slaves grew to the point that Emily Weston was forced to look for a safe place. She moved to Conway, a difficult trip of 40 miles over roads of deep sand and stumps. “Prince, the coachman, was superb with horses,” Holmes said. “He could get a horse to Conway when others couldn’t. He never shouted, never hit a horse. He talked to them quietly and read while riding down the road.”

Emily rented Snow Hill for $120 a year and sent for Tucker and the plantation carpenters to repair the outhouses and stables. She returned to Hagley to pack up books and silver. Some of the slaves came to Conway with the remainder sent to Winnsboro for safety or left at Hagley as caretakers. Prince was among those taken to Conway, but he didn’t like it. “He said Conwayborough must have been the last thing God made,” Holmes said.

The South Carolina volunteers mobilized and fought in Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky. Weston was sent home in 1862 after contracting tuberculosis. He arrived at Snow Hill just in time to see his old friend and brother-in-law before he returned to England. His health slowly deteriorated as doctors could do nothing for a disease of the lungs. Friends had him appointed lieutenant governor. Plowden C.J. Weston died Jan. 25, 1864, and was buried in his military uniform. Emily drew a picture of Snow Hill with a cross on the exterior wall of the bedroom where he died. The window is open to let his soul escape the room. The cross is still there.

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