A voyage to England in a sailing ship took time; probably six weeks at least elapsed before Robert Fulton could discern the long gray coast line of “Mother England.” If anxious about the new venture, or lonely for the family he had left behind, he pushed aside all gloomy thoughts and made ready to meet the new conditions of a strange land.
He journeyed directly to London to present to Benjamin West the important letter of introduction which he carried from Dr. Franklin. The strong sea air and the long rest on shipboard had benefited his health, and he was thirsting to get to work as soon as possible.
His ease of manner and self-confidence had sufficed for the experiences of Philadelphia, yet it is reasonable to assume that his heart beat fast when he finally stood, letter in hand, at the imposing doorway of Benjamin West’s fine house, for it surpassed his expectation of grandeur. To his eyes it appeared a palace! The main house was connected by a long art gallery with the studio, a lofty suite of rooms, filled with sketches and designs for historical paintings; for West had specialized in this form of art and had already been favored by royal recognition. Approval by the king was the highest honor England could bestow, and in time West was elected president of the Royal Academy. If young Fulton had profited by his personal intercourse with Dr. Franklin and other men of genius in America, we may readily believe that he gained even greater mental stimulus from West, who, like himself, was a Pennsylvania farm-bred boy.
West and his wife gave the young American a hearty welcome and an invitation to stay in their home until he found suitable lodgings. He gladly accepted their kind hospitality and a strong bond of friendship was formed between the two men which endured throughout their lives. One of the finest portraits we have of Robert Fulton was painted by Benjamin West.
It is said of West that his work was never a burden to him but always a joy. He sat at his easel as though in sport, not in labor, and painted more than a hundred portraits, in addition to large canvases depicting historical scenes. In studying the life of any and every great man, his industry becomes our wonder. The same number of hours—twenty-four—are allotted to us all, yet how sadly different are the results accomplished, how differing the totals! Hard and well directed work is always the secret of success.
It was not long before Robert Fulton’s easel was set up in West’s studio, and, under the tuition of the older man, the student was working with infinite pains. West must have seemed to Fulton like a king among men, and he endeavored to gain all possible profit from the master’s lessons.
His dear mother, on the Pennsylvania farm, must have been greatly cheered when she received letters from over the sea. She treasured the following, written by Fulton’s friend George Sanderson, of Baltimore. Yellow with age, it is still carefully preserved. It begins with old-time formality.
Baltimore, 25th July, 1788.
I am happy in informing you that I arrived here a few days since from London where I had the pleasure of meeting with your son, Robert Fulton. He was when I left him in perfect health & what will I believe be pleasing information to you, that his improvement in the liberal art of painting is almost incredible. Add to this his personal accomplishments & prudent behavior has gained him many friends & those who have ability & inclination to befriend him.
Mr. West, a Gentleman who is the King’s Historical Painter & a Man of independent Circumstances I am happy to inform you is number’d among his Friends & has in consequence of your Son’s ingratiating address & manners, patronized him.
He further speaks of “Bob’s regret that his friends have not dropped him a line since he arrived in England,” and offers to forward any letters that may come enclosed to his care in Baltimore. The letter, with its quaint phrases, gave good reason for joy in the quiet farm-house by Cross Creek.
Although Fulton stayed for a time with Mr. and Mrs. West in their delightful home, the burden of self-support was before him. He soon found lodgings in the vicinity, but a “guinea a week” was too great a price for his slender purse and he made another change; in fact, he made several during the succeeding years, “to suit his convenience” as he terms it in a letter to his mother, but he always arranged to reside near Mr. West.
You will notice that George Sanderson spoke of “Bob’s personal accomplishments and prudent behavior.” It is well to make a special mental note of this latter fact, for many a temptation comes to a youth in a strange land, yet there never echoes a whisper of reproach against Fulton’s conduct. This “prudent behavior” was a safeguard to his character; he was merry-hearted and had many friends but all of the right kind.
On April 14th, 1789, Fulton wrote his mother that he was in perfect health and had good prospect of succeeding in his profession. He confessed that “painting requires more study than I at first imagined, in Consequence of which I will be obliged to stay longer than I expected. But,” he adds, “all things work together for good and I am convinced my exertions will have a good tendency.” There is brave hope in the letter but a touch of home-sickness: “In your next letter,” he continues, “please to give me a very particular account of everything you know, particularly how you like the little farm,—if you have a good garden, and what kind of neighbors you have got. And in fact I should like to know everything that will give you pleasure or promote the happiness of the family. There is nothing interrupts my happiness here but the desire of seeing my relations, but time will bring us together and I hope at my return to see you all happy as the day is long.”
It is a very human letter, just such as any fond son might write from a strange land. The constancy of affection, the admission of loneliness, the confession that his task is hard and long, yet withal, the brave faith in the Bible promise taught by his good mother that “all things work together for good,” is stronger than any note of weakness.
It was not long before Fulton’s winning manner gained him a host of friends in London, for in West’s studio he met many prominent men, and they in turn introduced him to others. With one of these, Mr. Henry Fulton, a distant kinsman, he became intimate and arranged that all his letters should be sent in this gentleman’s care, for he was a London merchant and well known. Mails were very irregular in those days, and it was uncertain whether a letter, even when properly started, would reach its destination. Postage rates were high and kindly friends who were crossing the ocean carried packets of letters which they passed on to other travelers, until the missives finally reached the persons for whom they were intended.
At this point we may let Fulton tell his own story, for none could tell it so well. The letters which follow are intimate; they confide the secrets he withheld from those about him and confided to his mother only when times brightened and his success as an artist became certain.
Although happy in forming new friendships in a new land, Fulton could not forget the comrades of his early days. The fifty letters he so casually alludes to in the following letter probably represent but a few of the many friends whom he cherished in memory and desired to touch with that far-reaching wand, the pen of remembrance.
The letter to his mother was written from London on July 31st, 1789.
With pleasure I imbrace every opportunity to write you and these letters will be carryed to Phila. by Mr. Benjamin Barton; but as I wrote you some time ago in answer to letters which I Rec’d from you and Polly, to which Letters I have as yet had no answer, this must be a short one In which I must only give you some account of private affairs. My health is perfect: this Climate agrees well with me; my Prospect is good and In Short I am very happy as I have many Respectable Friends. But the Emence desire to see you, together with the rest of my Family gives me many anxious hours And but for this I could sit myself down with Content in England. But I love my Country and Friends And no Consideration shall separate me from them—this is my present Resolution. But why do I make this promise?
Alas I am possessed of no more fortitude than other Men, and some unforseen Stroke may separate us for ever; but hope is ever by my side and I hope ere long to have the pleasure of seeing all of you.…
As I am frequently changing my Lodgings to Suit my Convenience I Shall now give you new directions for your letters. It is to a permanent Merchant’s house, a namesake and Intimate friend of mine, and the letters will be much more likely to find him than me in which case I shall allways get them. You must direct them exactly thus
Mr. Robert Fulton,
To the care of Mr. Henry Fulton,
No. 9 Watling Street,
I beg you’l pay particular attention and have them precisely in the above manner and if they come to London I am sure to get them.…
You must excuse the shortness of this letter as I am under the necessity of writing to my Phila., Virginia, New York, Lancaster and Baltimorien friends, which in the whole makes 50 letters of much the same length as this. Therefore to conclude this I shall (torn place in paper) be very particular and let me know every thing that you possibly can when you write—to write small and close that you may say a great deal in small compass for the ships often put the letters ashore at the first port they make, they come post to London And I have often paid half a guinea for a small package of letters. The better to accomplish this you better buy letter paper as it is thin for we pay according to the weight and not the size so if you can send me a pound of news upon an ounce of paper I shall save allmost a guinea by it.
I have just left myself room to wish all of you every happiness and love and Compliments to Mr. Smith, Polly, Abraham, Bell Peyton and all Friends And believe me to be everything that is dutifull and affectionate in a Son, Brother and Friend,
He adds in postscript:
I was happy to hear by your last letter directed to Mr. West that you were down in the Country among our old friends and that they together with my good old Grandmother were in good health.
This letter fairly depicts Fulton’s hopes, longings, and accomplishments during his student days in London. They were days of anxiety and of hard work; for hours he would ponder over the “ways and means” of life, and had it not been for the friendship of kindly acquaintances he might have yielded to despair, or have been tempted to set aside the chosen career. In poetic terms he speaks of “Poverties’ cold wind and freezing rain”; and it is evident that he suffered, as far as his happy nature could permit, the pangs of loneliness and of almost actual hunger. Yet he pressed on with his work, and in time the magical wand of industry wrought a welcome change.
So passed the first four years of his stay in England, years of fresh impressions, strict economy and untiring labor. Added to his anxieties were the entreaties of his mother to return home, for he writes, November 21st, 1790, “You must not be uneasy at my not returning home as soon as I first intended for it is of the utmost importance my continuing to prosecute my studies in London, and were I to return I must live in Phila. or New York, which would still be distant from you. Besides the certain method by which we have letters from each other ought to make us easy.”
His joy was great when in 1791 he attained the honor and pleasure of admission of two of his canvases to the Royal Academy and four others to the Exhibition of the Royal Society of British Artists; the former were portraits of young gentlemen, the latter more ambitious works similar to West’s—a study from the Bible story, “Elisha Raising the Widow’s Son,” and “Priscilla and Alladine” from Spenser’s “Faerie Queen.”
It was natural that he should take up the study of English history at this time, and two paintings, “Mary Queen of Scots” and “Lady Jane Gray” are interesting and beautiful examples of his art. Both were painted in 1793. No doubt West encouraged and instructed him in this sort of work, and Fulton dreamed of a brilliant future like that of his teacher.
We are grateful for the light which the letters already quoted cast upon the years Fulton spent in England, for, until their discovery, this period was obscure. After he had attained fame, his letters and drawings were treasured, but as a humble student in a strange land, it was difficult to follow his routine of life. At the close of a hundred years, when the city of New York celebrated the discovery of the Hudson River and Fulton’s successful steam navigation upon it, descendants of Fulton’s sisters lent to the New York Historical Society for exhibition, these interesting documents which throw some light on the early years of the inventor’s life. They had been treasured by his dear old mother on that distant Pennsylvania farm, and handed down through several generations to the present owners.