John Ross Key

John Ross Key was born July 16, 1837, two months after the death of his father.  He was brought up in Georgetown, District of Columbia, until age five by his grandfather, Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star Spangled Banner.”  As a teen-ager John Key was forced to go to work to support his widowed mother.  His early talent for drawing led logically to a job as topographical artist and draftsman with the U.S. Coast Survey.  In 1859 Key was hired as mapmaker in the advance party of the Lander Expedition whose mission was to chart the best overland trail for large wagon trains through the hostile Indian territories of Wyoming and Nevada.  In 1861 along with several other grandsons of Francis Scott Key, Key chose the Confederacy and became a lieutenant in the Confederate Engineers, serving as a mapmaker in Charleston, S.C. and Richmond.  His panoramic view of the bombardment of Fort Sumter enjoyed a glamorous exhibition history in the 20th century through its false attribution to Albert Bierstadt.

After the Civil War, Key launched into a career as a landscape painter, dividing his time between Baltimore and New York City.  During the summers of 1867 and 1868, he rusticated at Oakland, on the far western end of the Maryland panhandle, accompanied by his mother, Virginia Ringgold Key. Oakland had become the summer resort to which various branches of the Key and Ringgold families would go to escape the summer heat of Baltimore.  Among these relatives were Key’s maternal aunt, Nancy Ringgold Schley, and her husband, the Maryland state senator, William Schley.  They owned “Herrington Manor,” a 2,000 acre tract about five miles from Oakland that the Keys had named “the Glade.”  John painted several versions of this work, showing Herrington Creek and Snaggy Mountain, a view on the Schley’s property.  One of these, smaller and slightly different, is in the collection of the Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore.  The “Herrington Creek” depicted in these paintings has become “Herrington Lake,” the result of a dam built in the 1950s.  Key kept painting Allegheny scenes later in his career, based on studies done in the late ’60s.  In 1872, the critic of the Boston Evening Transcript reported that Key had almost finished “three or four rugged glimpses of the Allegheny Mountain region in Maryland… a section almost unknown on canvas in our locality, but quite as worthy of attention as the well-worn White Mountain region.” (February 17, 1872).  Later that year, the same critic wrote:  “John R. Key has a spirited view among the Alleghenies, the foreground of which is rich in color and strong in effect.  The water and shadows are finely rendered, and the cattle careful studies.” (March 23, 1872). This is an extremely rare and beautiful exhibition painting in the Hudson River school style of a seldom portrayed part of America.