Text: Michael J. Deas, “The ‘Traylor’ Daguerreotype,” The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe (1989), pp. 58-61 (This material is protected by copyright)


­[page 58:]

The “Traylor” Daguerreotype

Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 23)
The Traylor Daguerreotype
[Illustration on page 59]

The second of two daguerreotypes taken in William A. Pratt's studio, the “Traylor” daguerreotype (fig. 23) differs slightly from its variant, the “Thompson” daguerreotype. Here, the position of Poe's hand has shifted somewhat, and the right coat lapel has been straightened. A crumpled handkerchief, visible in the open vest of the “Thompson” image, has been removed, and a stray lock of hair has been pushed back from the forehead. Photographed approximately three weeks before his death, Poe gazes into the camera wearily, impassively. His hand rests listlessly upon his thigh, while his shirt has been carelessly left open at the neck. The somber dignity of the “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype (fig. 14) has vanished, supplanted by the fatigued demeanor of a man whose life was rapidly drawing to a close.

Wood engraving of Edgar Allan Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 24)
Wood engraving by unidentified artist
[Illustration on page 60]

Although named for its second owner, Robert Lee Traylor, the daguerreotype was originally owned by Poe's fiancée, Mrs. Sarah Elmira Shelton (née Royster). She and Poe had first met in Richmond in the mid-1820s, some two decades before the sitting in Pratt's gallery took place. In 1825 they became engaged to marry, but because of the couple's youth — Poe was sixteen, Elmira barely fifteen — Miss Royster's parents opposed the match and took calculated steps to ensure its end. In 1826, when Poe left Richmond to attend the University of Virginia, Elmira's father began to covertly intercept Poe's letters to his daughter. When he returned home a year later, Poe found that his fiancée, having heard nothing from him and thinking herself forgotten, had become engaged to a Richmond businessman named Alexander B. Shelton. Despondent, he departed Richmond three months later, eventually enlisting in the army under an assumed name. The Shakespearean aspects of the affair were not lost on Poe's friend Lambert A. Wilmer, nor on his brother William Henry Poe, both of whom used the romance as a basis for fictional works published in 1827.(128) When the forty-year-old Poe returned to Richmond in the summer of 1849, he found that his former fiancée had become a widow — and a wealthy one at that. The relationship that had ended abruptly twenty-two years earlier was rekindled, and when Poe made his ill-fated departure from Richmond in late September the couple had evidently become engaged for a second time.

Daguerreotype of Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 25)
Traylor daguerreotype in ruined state
[Illustration on page 61]

Mrs. Shelton learned of Poe's death through a notice in the Richmond Dispatch. The news was obviously disturbing to her, and she later called at the Main Street studio of William Pratt to obtain as a memento one of the two daguerreotypes of Poe that had been taken there in late September 1849. Many years later Pratt would be quoted as saying that he had merely made Mrs. Shelton a copy of the “Thompson” daguerreotype (fig. 22), but a comparison of that image with the plate acquired by Mrs. Shelton (fig. 23) makes it clear that Pratt had in fact sold her a variant of the “Thompson” daguerreotype — not a copy.(129) This original plate would remain in Elmira Shelton's possession for the next three decades, during which time she occasionally permitted the likeness to be reproduced. At least one copy daguerreotype (the “Davidson” plate, q.v.) and an undetermined number of tintype reproductions were made in Richmond about 1855; at least one of these copies seems to be the handiwork of Daniel Bendann, a cameraman at the Jesse Whitehurst Gallery who has been erroneously credited with having taken the original daguerreotype in 1849.(130) In 1874 Mrs. Shelton lent the daguerreotype to the Virginia sculptor Edward V. Valentine, who proposed using it to model a bust of Poe.(131)

Upon Mrs. Shelton's death in 1888 the daguerreotype ­[page 60:] passed to her heirs, and from them was eventually acquired by Robert Lee Traylor of Richmond, a collector of Poe memorabilia. While in Traylor's possession the daguerreotype was reproduced in the form of an unsigned wood engraving (fig. 24) printed in an 1894 issue of the Century Magazine.(132) Later that year Traylor loaned the daguerreotype to the Chicago publishers Stone & Kimball, for inclusion as a frontispiece to their ten-volume edition of The Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Regrettably, an attempt to “clean” the plate was made, and the image was damaged beyond repair (fig. 25). Traylor was deeply distraught when the ruined daguerreotype was returned to him, and years later his daughter, Mary Gavin Traylor, recalled her father's grief as “the first tragic memory I have, affecting even the little ones in the household.”(133) The daguerreotype remained in Traylor's hands until at least 1904, when it was reproduced in its ruined state in The Independent magazine, accompanied by a note explaining that the plate had been “accidently injured by chemicals in the effort to bring out the features more clearly.”(134) The fate of the daguerreotype after Traylor's death in 1907 is unknown.



Ton Fafianie discovered a relevant note in the Collector (New York, NY) for October 15, 1892 (“A New Portrait of Poe”, vol. 3, no. 20, p. 310):

One interesting and valuable relic of Poe still exists in Richmond. Mr. R. L. Traylor of that city, an amateur collector of books, autographs and prints, has, among other interesting and treasured objects in his collection, an original daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe, which is believed to be his last portrait, and the only one of him known to be in existence which has never been reproduced. It was taken at the gallery of Pratt of Richmond, the builder of the unique structure on Gamble's Hill in that city known as Pratt's Castle, and was presented by Poe but a short time before his death to Mrs. Sarah Elmira (Royster) Shelton, whom he had engaged to marry. The purpose of a trip to the north undertaken by him about that time was to complete arrangements for his wedding to that lady. On his way to New York he was seized at Baltimore by the illness which resulted fatally October 7, 1849. The portrait was jealously treasured by Mrs. Shelton until her death a few years since, when it came into the possession of Mr. Traylor. At a time when the appreciation of this unique genius in American letters is steadily growing, it is well to bear in mind the existence of this, probably the last, memorial in point of date personally associated with him.

Consequently, as he points out in his e-mail to the Poe Society (dated December 13, 2019), it is clear that Traylor had acquired the portrait prior to 1892, and probably in 1888, the year of Mrs. Shelton's death.






[S:1 - PDEAP, 1989] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe (M. J. Deas) (The 'Traylor' Daguerreotype)