The Artist and the Laird
In New Orleans one early spring morning in 1837, Alfred Miller (1810–1874), a young artist recently returned from studying in Europe, was surprised by the appearance of a stranger of commanding stature in his studio. The visitor was William Drummond Stewart, a Scottish ex-army officer who was planning a hunting expedition to the Rockies. Stewart must have liked what he saw of Miller’s work, for he subsequently invited him to join the expedition as its artist. So began an adventure for the reserved Miller that would enable him to observe and draw the Western frontier landscape and wildlife as well as intimate scenes from Native American life.
Miller fit into the expedition party and adjusted to the rigors of life on the trail with enthusiasm. Apart from paying someone to pitch and take down his tent every day, the artist did his share of camp chores. At the same time, he sketched quickly in order to capture the activities around him. In later years, Miller wrote his remembrances of the trip. In one account, he and Stewart were confronted with a formidable river to cross. Miller noted that the “river looked a little in opposition” and declared that he was not a swimmer, but Stewart plunged in, forcing the artist to follow him.1 Only upon reaching the other side did Stewart admit that he also could not swim. Generally, however, Miller’s stilted prose conveys little of the feeling of the rough-and-ready adventure or of the characters he encountered in the way that his artwork does.
True to his army background, Stewart led the band of some forty-five trappers and hunters with military vigor. With a hooked nose reminiscent of the great Duke of Wellington, under whom he had served, Stewart dressed in white buckskin and always rode a white horse (Fig. 1). He instilled discipline in his followers and was renowned for his violent temper.
The 1837 expedition was the fifth time Stewart had headed out West to attend the annual rendezvous of trappers at Horse Creek in the Wind River Mountains near the present-day Idaho-Wyoming border. Stewart brought goods to trade with the trappers, but the commerce of the trip was not important to him. He was there for the hunting and the adventure. Immensely rich, Stewart did nothing by halves, and the cavalcade that left St. Louis that spring was loaded with whiskey and such newfangled delicacies as canned sardines.
Stewart, the second son of a Scottish landowner, had served with distinction at the battle of Waterloo some twenty years earlier. Like many of his fellow officers, he had found it difficult to settle down in peace time. Instead of offering his services as a mercenary to one of the fledgling Latin American governments as many of his former comrades had done, he had shocked his family by marrying a farm girl (a disastrous marriage, as it turned out). Then, after a violent quarrel with his elder brother, Stewart swore never to spend another night in the ancestral castle of Murthly and departed for America. He fell in love with the vastness of the West, its abundance of game, the Indians (many of whom were still hostile), and the hardened trappers who carved out a living in its unmapped extremities. Stewart, like some of his contemporaries, must have realized that much of the frontier wilderness was already fast disappearing with the encroachment of white exploration. This perhaps prompted him to enlist Miller to graphically record his 1837 expedition.
By bringing an artist, Stewart was following the example of Prince Maximilian, who had taken the German artist Karl Bodmer (1809–1893) on his expedition to the West in the early 1830s. George Catlin (1796–1872) was another artist who had traveled to unmapped parts, all the while sketching Indians’ portraits. But the quest for both Bodmer and Catlin had been almost a scientific one; they were keen to record the activities and physiognomy of those they encountered with a view to publishing their work as prints for sale in Europe and America. Although in later years Miller made an attempt to produce and sell prints of some of his most popular scenes, his work for the most part was of more modest ambition; he excelled at capturing the moment. For example, he portrayed Jim Bridger, one of the more colorful trappers, in a suit of armor that Stewart had bought him as a present. He recorded scenes such as pursued elk taking refuge in a stream, Indian girls swinging from a branch, or groups within a tribe (Fig. 4). Although most of Miller’s drawings, and all of his paintings, were worked up from original sketches at a later date, they still have an immediacy that evokes the passing of a pristine wilderness.
Stewart’s patronage of Miller took on a new dimension after their return from the Rockies in the autumn of 1837. The next year Stewart returned to the trappers’ rendezvous, leaving Miller in the East to work on the vast quantity of drawings he had made. On his return to St. Louis, the gateway to and from the West, Stewart learned that his brother had died and that he was the new laird of the Murthly estates. The prospect of filling the walls of the castle with canvases recording the scenery and adventures of his Western trips appealed to Stewart, and once he had returned to Scotland, he invited Miller to join him at the castle to work on paintings in his own studio. Miller accepted with alacrity and arrived in late 1840, after organizing a shipment to Murthly of eighteen of his paintings, which had been exhibited to critical acclaim at the Apollo Gallery in New York.
Miller eagerly threw himself into his new artistic life in Scotland by developing paintings from his Western sketches and recording his present surroundings (Fig. 5). The establishment at Murthly was a lively one: Stewart had brought back with him not only a small herd of buffalo, but two Indians to act as their keepers, as well as Antoine Clement, a half-breed Cree who had been his hunter. At Murthly, Antoine acted as butler. In later years, the Indians, perhaps bored by the Scottish rain, would on occasion get drunk and, harnessing two of the buffalo to Stewart’s carriage, would drive it at great speed through the nearby town of Perth. Stewart, keeping his oath never to spend a night under his ancestral roof, slept in a cottage on the grounds and gave his servants strict instructions that if he fell asleep in the castle he was to be awakened immediately.
Much of the time, however, Stewart was traveling, and Miller was left to work quietly on a series of large canvases for the castle. The Crows Attempting to Provoke an Attack from the Whites on the Big Horn River, East of the Rocky Mountains records an incident that took place on an earlier trip by Stewart to the West, when his party had been surrounded by hostile braves. According to the story, the party’s medicine man had told them not to strike the first blow or they would not be victorious. Stewart and his party resisted the temptation to retaliate despite the warriors’ taunts, and they were eventually able to escape. Miller re-created the scene from Stewart’s verbal accounts and his own sketches.
Miller returned to the United States in late 1841. He moved to Baltimore, where he spent the rest of his life as a successful portrait painter. He also produced more versions of his Western scenes for a small group of patrons. Stewart continued to commission works from him including copies of old masters and religious scenes. The two men, patron and artist, despite their adventures together, were never friends; Stewart was too much of a grandee to regard Miller as anything more than a superior servant, but it is clear from Miller’s memoirs that they enjoyed a mutual respect. Stewart lived out his days at Murthly; he built a new wing on the castle so that he could at last sleep under its roof without breaking his oath, surrounded by Indian relics, buffalo pelts, and Miller’s paintings.
After Stewart’s death in 1871, it was revealed that he had left the family estates to an illegitimate son, Frank Nichols, whose mother was a Dallas saloon keeper. The Stewart family challenged the will, maintaining that the estates and the castle were entailed to the next generation and could not be disposed of by Stewart. They won, and Murthly passed to a cousin, but they could do nothing to prevent Nichols from claiming the entire contents of the castle. When he arrived from Texas to claim his inheritance, Nichols then shipped everything to Edinburgh, where it was sold at auction. Over the years, some of Miller’s paintings, along with the great portrait of Stewart that now hangs in the ballroom, have found their way back to Murthly, but most of Miller’s work returned to America and can now be found in public and private collections (Fig. 7). As for the buffalo, their descendants are located in an Edinburgh zoo.
I am very grateful to Robert Steuart Fothringham of Murthly Castle, a collateral descendant of Sir William Drummond Stewart, for his help.
For further reading, see Ron Tyler, ed. Alfred Jacob Miller: Artist on the Oregon Trail (Amon Carter Museum, 1982).
Christopher Hartop is the author of the award-winning book The Huguenot Legacy: English Silver 1680–1760 from the Alan and Simone Hartman Collection (London: Thomas Heneage, 1996).