The Telfair family was one of the most prominent in Georgia during much of the 18th and 19th centuries. Patriarch Edward Telfair, a Scotsman who settled in Georgia during the colonial period, married affluent Sarah Gibbons in 1774 when he was nearly 40 and she 16. Together they had nine children, including their first daughter, Mary, in 1791.
Mary Telfair was born in Augusta, Georgia’s previous capital, while her father was governor. Believing in the importance of education, he provided his children with the best opportunities the country had to offer, including Mary’s schooling in New York when she was just 10 years old. A child of keen intellect and curiosity, Mary quickly grew into a voracious reader of theorist Hannah More and poet Lord Byron, who she considered “a Man of taste.” Her education helped lay the groundwork for her strong opinions about national and world events, topics women were not expected to be well-versed in at the time.
In the early 1800s, the Telfair family suffered major losses, including the deaths of Edward, Mary’s brothers Josiah and Thomas, two of her nephews, and her brother-in-law. As a means to find peace, Mary turned more and more to religion and intellectual pursuits. To her, frivolity and fashion inhibited spiritual development, so she focused her efforts on reading, writing, and engaging in thoughtful discussions with friends at her home in Savannah.
Mary’s inherited wealth freed her from the societal expectations placed upon women, and she devoted her life to travel and helping others. At 50, Mary made her first trip to Europe and is believed to have traveled back three additional times, seeking out every museum, garden, church, ruin, and university along the way. Her detailed notes reveal her appreciation of antique and neoclassical sculptures as well as Baroque and Renaissance paintings, especially those with religious imagery. Titian, Guido, and Raphael were a few of her favorite artists.
Art was powerful to Mary – it had the ability to enlighten spiritually and intellectually. Since great masterworks were not easily accessible for her Georgian neighbors – and not everyone had the means to travel to Europe – Mary decided to begin her own collection at home. Following her death in 1875, an estate inventory documented that her collection included over 200 pieces of fine art, including paintings, prints, statues, plaster casts, and a photograph.
As the last of the Telfairs, Mary became heir to the family fortune and shared her wealth with the city of Savannah. Her will stipulated that some money be used to complete Hodgson Hall for the Georgia Historical Society, and she also endowed the Savannah Widow’s Society and founded the Mary Telfair Hospital for Women. Perhaps Mary’s best known contribution, however, is leaving her home, art collections, and remaining money to establish the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences. The Academy opened its doors to the public in 1886, making it the first public art museum in the South.