By Lea C. Lane, Curator of Collections
It’s easy to forget the noise. A historic house is usually encountered as a quiet space, a silence broken only by the cadence of the interpreter’s narrative, and perhaps the footfall of a visitor on a wide floorboard.
John Marshall’s Richmond home would have been filled with sound. The thud of hot coals hitting the iron grate of a fireplace on a chilly January morning, hauled by an enslaved individual through the house for the comfort of the Justice and his family. Clients stopping by to chat by the fire. Children practicing their lessons, or laughing in the upstairs hall. There was also music.
From the 1815 personal property tax inventory, our only legal record of what kind of objects were found in the Marshall House, we know that one instrument was present. The record doesn’t tell us precisely what this instrument was, just options: a harp, harpsichord, or piano. As a nod to this musical presence, you will today notice an ornate double action harp by the London shop of Sebestians Erard in the corner of the drawing room.
It’s also a nod to Jane Marshall (1779-1866). John Marshall had 14 siblings: he was the eldest child, Jane Marshall was the youngest girl. When their parents, Thomas and Mary Keith Marshall, left for Kentucky in 1785, not all of the children accompanied them. We believe six-year-old Jane stayed with her older brother in Richmond, along with her siblings Mary, James, Lucy, and Elizabeth. They appear peppered throughout the entries in John Marshall’s account book in the 1780s, recorded alongside purchases of ribbon, shoes, and even dancing lessons.
Family tradition holds that the harp belonged to the inimitable Jane Marshall. Our collection is fortunate to also have two portraits of Jane: one a miniature of her as a young woman, soon after her marriage, the other a mature likeness in oil of the respected widow. The miniature shows Jane as a newly married, sometime after her 1799 nuptials to George Keith Taylor of Petersburg. According to family lore, she is pregnant with the first of her three children. When George died in 1815, Jane struggled to cope with her grief.
It was by teaching that she overcame this loss, and found a rewarding path forward. By the time the second portrait was taken, Jane had the reputation of being “a lady of genius” who successfully led a series of academies in Petersburg, Richmond and Charlottesville. In contemporary newspaper accounts, she was described as “born with talents equal to her illustrious brother.”
Jane was also a founder of the Petersburg orphan’s asylum. She was known for her skill with language and music, knowledge she shared with her pupils and extended family. It’s easy to imagine her seated at the harp, a lady of genius, making noise for the benefit of others.