Clayton and William Norman stand in front of a portrait of their great 10 grandmother Tabitha Scarburgh
By Shannon Cousineau Gordon
Thirty years ago, Shore native, former educator, and local historian Dennis Custis ventured to the University of Virginia to locate a portrait of his ancestor Tabitha Scarburgh. He discovered that her portrait was being stored in the basement of The Fralin Museum of Art located in the Thomas H. Bayly Memorial Building. According to records, Tabitha’s portrait hadn’t been on display since 1955. At the time, UVA denied Mr. Custis’ request that Tabitha return to her native Eastern Shore to be displayed at the Ker Place Museum in Onancock.
Tabitha Scarburgh (1639 – 1719), by birth and through a series of marriages, was notable for being a 17th Century Eastern Shore woman of social and political influence. She was the daughter of Edmund Scarburgh who Custis says, “was the most politically and economically powerful man of his generation on the Shore.” He was a surveyor, lawyer, businessman, farmer, Native American trader, head of the militia, Speaker of the House of Burgesses, and owned over 45,000 acres of land.
According to Dennis Custis, when Tabitha was 14, she married planter John Smart. After his death, she married merchant Devoreaux Browne in 1659. It is believed that Tabitha’s portrait was painted during this time period when she accompanied her husband on a voyage to England and sat for Sir Peter Lely, a Dutch painter known for painting portraits of the Royal court. After Browne’s death in 1673, Tabitha married John Custis who served on the Governor’s Council. After his passing in 1696, Tabitha married Edward Hill who, like her father, also served as Speaker of the House of Burgesses. Hill’s plantation, Shirley located in Charles City County, Virginia, is considered to be the oldest in Virginia.
After Hill’s passing in 1700, Tabitha returned to the Shore residing with Edmund Custis who was the nephew of John Custis, Tabitha’s third husband. Edmund married Tabitha Scarburgh Wittington who was Tabitha’s granddaughter from first husband John Smart. Dennis Custis explains that the portrait was listed in Edmund Custis’ estate in 1704 and disappeared from records until Custis’ decendant, Thomas M. Bayly’s will in 1808. The portrait moved with the Bayly family to their home, Mount Custis. The last known owner of the portrait was Evelyn Bayly Tiffany who left the portrait to the University of Virginia in 1929.
In 2016, Dennis Custis met with 40 ladies from the Charlottesville, Virginia, area who were on the Shore to tour 18th Century Eastern Shore homes. One evening during dinner, Mr. Custis explained how his request to bring Tabitha’s portrait home to the Shore was denied. Afterwards, two ladies approached him saying they were on the board of The Fralin Museum of Art, and promised that they would bring up his request at their next meeting. A short while later, the museum director contacted Hilary Hartnett-Wilson, Executive Director at the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society.
On May 25, 2017, thirty years after Dennis Custis’ initial attempt to bring Tabitha home, the portrait of Tabitha Scarburgh finally returned home to the Shore and is currently on display at the Historical Society’s Ker Place Museum on limited, long-term loan from The University of Virginia’s The Fralin Museum of Art. On Friday, November 10, in a packed-out room, the Historical Society held a reception in honor of Tabitha. Dennis Custis gave a presentation about the history of Tabitha Scarburgh and her portrait’s long journey home. “Our family is thankful to the University of Virginia for returning our Great Grandmother’s [10 times removed] portrait to Onancock where it rightfully belongs,” says David Norman, Accomack County native and Tabitha Scarburgh descendant, who attended the portrait reception Friday night.
The portrait will be on the Eastern Shore for at least a year. The museum is open to visitors Tuesday through Saturday from 11:00 AM – 3:00 PM. For more information about the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society and their mission to preserve and interpret the history of the Eastern Shore, and to educate the community about its past, visit www.shorehistory.org and follow ESVHS on Facebook and Instagram at @esvhs. To video of Dennis Custis’ presentation about the history of Tabitha Scarburgh and her portraits long journey home can be found below.