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December 06, 2019

A Portrait as a Present: the Art of Francis H. Finch

A Portrait as a Present: the Art of Francis H. Finch

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

During the holidays, it’s common to give professionally made family photos as gifts. Things were much the same in the 1870’s and 1880’s, but the technology was a little different. People would need to go to someone like Francis H. Finch (1852-unknown) – usually known as Frank – who was one of the local crayon portrait artists.

Frank was from an old county family. His father was Hiram G. Finch (1807-1879), who was County Assessor in 1841-1843 and County Treasurer in 1844-1850. His mother was Maria Passwater (1819-1885). His grandfather John Finch (1767-1849) was a brother of some of the first settlers in 1819 and arrived soon after they did. A later history said that John was a “fine mechanic and good blacksmith” who built the first horse-powered mill in the county and was a county judge from 1823 to 1829. The Finches were among the families forced to move to Wayne Township when John Conner bought the land from under them.

Frank had health issues, particularly heart trouble, and held several jobs in his life, some of which were in Indianapolis. It’s not known where he got his artistic training. A crayon portrait was made from a photographic negative that was enlarged and printed on a piece of paper. Then an artist using charcoal or pastel would add color and detail to make it look like a drawing or painting.  Frank worked in tandem with local photographer Jesse Baldwin. His portrait work was first mentioned in the Noblesville Ledger on November 2, 1877, in a pair of Christmas advertisements.

“F. H. Finch is now prepared to paint life size portraits at less than one-third other artists’ prices. Both photograph and painting for $10.  Satisfaction guaranteed.”

“A fine cabinet sized photograph by Mr. Jesse Baldwin, and a life sized bust painting of yourself by F. H. Finch for $10, a splendid Christmas present.”

In the next week’s issue (November 9), he got clever with the phrasing of the ad.

“Christmas is nearing. To steer clear of the big elephant – disappointment, better to buy your own portrait and thus pay off your family Christmas debts at once.  Frank H. Finch furnishes photographs and all for $10.”

He went into more detail about what he could do in his November 16 advertisement.

“The price continues to be $10 for life size portraits, Inclusion of large photograph. Person having only daguerreotypes of departed friends may, if not much faded: obtain from them paintings entirely satisfactory, receiving also an extra copy of photo of the same, with large picture a same price. Call on Frank H. Finch.”

During Frank’s career as a crayon artist, he would do several posthumous portraits, including one of his father. A crayon portrait was a tasteful alternative to another practice of the time – posthumous photography, where a photo would be taken of the dead person lying in bed or in a coffin. Gruesomely, sometimes posthumous photographs would be taken with the corpse dressed and propped up in a chair. Even more, if the deceased was a child, the parent would sometimes actually hold them as if they were alive. A crayon portrait of an old photograph would be far preferable.

As December began, the advertisements became more intense. On December 7, he wrote:

“Wonders will never cease! The actual production of life size portraits, including fine cabinet photos, for the small sum of $10, is fully deserving of the notice it is receiving.  The same price also applies the copying of old fashioned daguerreotypes, which are also accompanied by a fine copy photo. Hand in your orders for Christmas before the 10th instant.

F. H. Finch”

In other advertisements, Frank explained that the deadline of December 10th was necessary to complete the portrait before Christmas. Despite this, he continued to advertise through December, up to the 21st.  While it’s not known how successful he was in 1877, he continued to do crayon portraits for about ten more years. It’s also not known if any of these portraits still exist. In a future blog post, I’ll look at the rest of his career and list the portraits that are named. Perhaps there are some still hanging in the Noblesville area.