Thomas Gold Appleton (1812-1884)

March 1, 2012

Celebrated patron of the fine arts, as well as collector, writer, and amateur artist, Thomas Gold Appleton was born in Boston on March 31, 1812 – the eldest child of wealthy New England merchant-manufacturer Nathan Appleton. Appleton was extraordinarily close with his father, and the letters shared between the two men provide a rich record of the Appleton family history.

After graduating from Harvard in 1831, Appleton spent his post-college years traveling through Europe – taking up residence in London, Florence, Rome, and Paris. It was while in Europe that he initially became acquainted with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who would eventually become his brother-in-law and would remain a life-long friend.

After many years abroad, Appleton finally returned to the United States and settled down in Cambridge in 1857, purchasing a home near Longfellow and his sister, Frances. Appleton was close with the couple, and particularly enjoyed the company of his nieces and nephews. Though rooted in Boston, he spent a good deal of time in his Nahant cottage with the Howes (Samuel Gridley and Julia Ward), and also in Newport with the Shaw family, Story family, and Richard Dana, Jr.

In the 1850s and 60s, Appleton began making frequent trips to New York City. It was on one of these trips that he met the artist F.O.C. Darley. The two quickly became friends and it was on a trip together to Moosehead Lake that Appleton penned ‘The Loon,’ inspired by the local wildlife. Later trips through the Adirondacks, Massachusetts, and Maine inspired collections of poems about nature.

Appleton was fascinated by the filling in of the Back Bay, and was himself involved in the project. At the completion of Commonwealth Avenue, he bought a plot of land upon which to make his home. The building was constructed around the foundation of a vast library to house his enormous collection of books. An active member of the Federal Street Unitarian church, Appleton connected with others in the Boston community who were passionate about books and art. He served on the board of trustees of the new Boston Public Library from 1852-1856, donating what would become the foundation of  the library’s print collection. He was also a trustee of the Boston Athenaeum, and in 1870 was appointed to the first board of trustees of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

The sudden deaths of Appleton’s sister, Fanny, and his father, Nathan, severely impacted Appleton’s life. After a brief dalliance with spiritualism and magnetism in an effort to soothe the pain of his losses, he refocused his efforts on his home town. Putting his years of travel, reading, and artistic study to good use, he worked to bestow culture upon Boston. He donated a small collection of works to the Museum of Fine Arts and held his position as trustee until his death in 1884. His legacy can be seen on display at the museum and in the library, where a bust in his image can be found in Bates Reading Hall.


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