William Seymour, Actor and Collector

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Mary Evangeline Walker (1894-1957), Portrait of William Seymour, no date (1900s). Oil on canvas. Graphic Arts Collection GA 2006.02653.


“Acquisition of the extensive theatrical collection of the late William Seymour, who was actively connected with the American stage as actor and stage manager for seventy years, was announced tonight by Dr. Harold W. Dolds, president of Princeton University.” The article in The New York Times (November 23, 1936) continued, “The collection has been presented to the university by Mr. Seymour’s five children, May Davenport Seymour, curator of the theatrical collection of the Museum of the City of New York; Edward Loomis Davenport Seymour, horticultural editor of New York City; the former Fanny Lydia Davenport Seymour of Princeton, wife of [Geology] Professor Richard M. Field; James William Davenport Seymour of Hollywood, lately on the staff of Warner Brothers; and John Russell Davenport Seymour, actor of New York City.”

William Seymour was born in New York City on December 19, 1855, the son of two actors, James Seymour (The Irish Comedian) and Lydia Eliza Griffith. He had his first speaking role at the age of seven and in 1865, played Hendrick to Joseph Jefferson’s Rip Van Winkle at the Varieties Theatre. After a lengthy career as an actor, director, and stage manager, Seymour died in Plymouth, Massachusetts on October 3, 1933.

We do not know what year Mary Evangeline Walker painted this portrait. A Boston native trained at the Boston Museum School of Fine Art and elsewhere, Walker returned to teach and paint in Boston for most of her adult life. Seymour worked for the Boston Museum Stock Company as stage manager from 1879 to 1889 and married May Davenport, a member of that company. When he retired in 1927, the well-traveled actor chose South Duxbury as his home and spent his last years directing high school theater groups in his neighborhood. It may have been in the late 1920s that Walker asked him to pose.

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This man is my great-great grandfather. I hope to visit someday to see this portrait firsthand.