On Artist Edwin Percival, James Gates Percival’s Contentious Brother

by Ann Neilson

Connecticut-born geologist and poet James Gates Percival is largely forgotten by today’s audience, although during his life he was known as a brilliant, albeit “mad,” reclusive literary figure and remarkable player in the scientific field. His even lesser-known siblings didn’t follow their brother’s literary path, although we can surmise each contributed well to their respective fields. Not a lot is known, aside from what might be revealed in letters (which I have severely limited access to at the moment), so this is going to be a pretty brief article, although I feel it necessary to be published.

J. G. P. had three siblings, one of whom died at age 17 (a sister). His other two siblings comprised of Edwin Percival, an artist and, briefly, an actor, and Oswin Percival, a farmer. Percival’s biography, J. H. Ward, has Oswin to thank for providing information about James and their family after James’s death, although that’s the extent of my knowledge about Oswin. Edwin’s a different story.

Edwin and James seemed to have a contemptuous relationship, which is evinced by letters from James to Edwin. For example, in a letter dated December, 1822, James berates his brother for involving himself in (several?) arrests; he feels frustrated with Edwin’s superiority complex; and he chastises Edwin for his luxurious and careless lifestyle. He opens this letter by stating, “I entirely disregard your opinions and your threats, and I am sincerely glad if it can be the means of a wide line between us. I have long seen enough of you to know that the less I have to do with you the better” (Uncollected Letters of James Gates Percival, Warfel, pg. 8).

After a presumedly failed acting career, Edwin took to painting, where he “[assigned] no reason for this sudden determination, but [evinced] much taste and considerable talent” (French 55).* This same article, mentioned in Arts and Artists in Connecticut, implies that Edwin had his own share of eccentricity, much like his brother. Not only did the two share this common trait, but more importantly they commonly shared a melancholic tendency. This despondency—depression—led to Edwin’s demise. After partnering with artist Henry Bryant in Albany, he removed to Troy, where he starved himself to death. According to French, “He was a man of excellent education and culture, but subject to attacks of the most depressing melancholy…under the influence of one of these despondencies, [he] resolved that he would eat nothing more” (55).

Born in 1793, Edwin died October 9, 1848, making him the second to go among the four siblings. I offer my exceptional gratitude to historian Ton Fafianie for finding Edwin’s obituary, which derives from the New York Tribune. It states, “DIED. At Troy, 9th inst. EDWIN PERCIVAL, brother of the celebrated Poet, Dr. James G. Percival.”

But what of his art and skill as an artist? French states, “His drawing was always good, and in color his pictures are pleasing. He excelled in ideal sketches” (55). A few of his paintings can be found here. It is purported he painted this portrait of James. Prior to his partnership with Bryant, he was exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1832 (Art Price).

And what of Oswin? He outlived all three of his siblings. Born in 1797, he died August 30, 1871 (Connecticut Nutmegger, Vol. 4, pg. 246). It makes one wonder if he exhibited the same traits as his siblings, or if he was able to escape the melancholic affliction.

*I was able to trace back to a couple of billings for Edwin. He performed as Spruce in the Adopted Child at the Washington Garden Theatre in Boston, and as Alonzo in Pizarro; Or…the Death of Rolla at his benefit held, also, at the Washington Garden Theatre (Boston Commercial Gazette June 28, August 13, 1821).