In Search of Documentation of Miniature Portrait
The image at right, used by permission, is a photograph by Kathy Lauder, edited and reproduced by Mike Slate, Nashville Historical Newsletter, and submitted October 3, 2002, to facilitate research and discussion on this miniature watercolor in possession of a James Robertson descendant, Dr. Henry J. Llewellyn, of Brookline, Massachusetts. Kathy Lauder and Mike Slate's full story of this discovery is posted on the NHN website, http://pages.prodigy.net/nhn.slate
THE Robertson portrait at left ~ (photograph by June Dorman, edited by Mike Slate, NHN, of artifact 78.19.44 in the Tennessee State Museum Collection) ~ is Washington Bogart Cooper's c. 1834 composite portrait of Robertson; it has long been the accepted image of the mature General James Robertson.
When Robertson-descendant Henry Llewellyn contacted Nashville's Mike Slate last summer (see Kathy Lauder's letter in WNFM Guest Book ) about the tiny (three inches high) painted-from-life watercolor of the youthful James Robertson---hoping to initiate research and discussion on the miniature's authenticity---the wheels were set in motion to unveil this heirloom. The questions that immediately come to mind: When and where was it painted? Who was the artist? Has the portrait been "modernized" over the past 200+ years? (On the right side of the painting, the lighter-than-background vertical shape behind the figure's neck and upper back suggests that possibly the eighteenth-century's fashionable men's hair queue ---from Old French cue, meaning "tail"or "line"---was erased or cut out. See Dr. James Kelly's October 18 response below. ) An intriguing note on miniatures painted on paper was found in Erica E. Hirshler's chapter, "Copley in Miniature," included in the 1995-96 Copley exhibition catalog (John Singleton Copley in America, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995). Dr. Hirshler observed that the earliest American miniatures were painted in watercolor on vellum, which were mounted on card stock, then framed. Vellum was supplanted in the 18th century when watercolor on thin wafers of ivory--sliced from tusk or whalebone--became "very fashionable" in the mid-1760s. The Robertson painting in watercolor on paper certainly appears to fit within the historical "production" timeline of miniature portraiture.
October 21, 2002 ~ "I can't tell you who made this portrait, but I'm pretty sure it's not from the 1760's -- the long, tousled locks and sideburns are early nineteenth-century "romantic" style, and from the collar and pose, I'd guess the picture was 1805--1820. This may be too late for the purported sitter, who died in 1814; family folklore aside, this guy seems to be a young man, maybe born ca. 1770, so maybe this is the son of the supposed sitter?". . . postscript of October 22: "Looking forward to further speculation! I'll be surprised if it's from before 1800, but maybe he was very avant-garde in his appearance! Keep me posted." Kathleen A. Foster, Robert L. McNeil Curator of American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.
October 17 and 18, 2002 ~ 1) "From looking at the miniature portrait on the website. . . The cravat and sideburns don't seem to me to be of the 1760s at all, but more like the French Revolutionary period [ 1792--1802 ], when James was too old to be the man depicted in this miniature. However, I am not an expert on dress. From what little I know, however, such facial hair was very much frowned upon in the middle of the 18th century." 2) re: missing queue? "The drawing is mounted on a card. A piece of the drawing paper itself has been torn away from the brown mounting beneath. The space behind him, where you think there was a queue, is merely the piece of the drawing paper that remains. Behind it is the underlying brown card. . .The space where you think there was a queue is the same color as the paper in front of the sitter's face. The fact that the area of the "queue" goes well above his head discounts its ever having been a queue. Besides, this hairstyle was much later than the period of the queue." Dr. James C. Kelly, Assistant Director for Museums, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, VA.
(NOTE: Also see Dr. Kelly's comments added to Sarah Kelley's descriptions of the Robertson portraits below. IJC )
October 17, 2002 ~ "Ms. Dixon's thorough response [see letter below] has probably given you enough information about our drawings to conclude that our [John Singleton] Copley drawings are not relevant to your research. However, you have come to the right place as I am one of several Copley scholars! Your miniature, however, does not look to be by his hand and, on the basis of costume, points to a later date--perhaps the first decade of the 19th century. An absolute authority in these matters is Dr. Ellen G. Miles, Curator of Paintings and Sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery. . .she is an absolute whiz at this kind of question. Good luck with your exciting research." Emily Ballew Neff, Curator of American Painting and Sculpture, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX.
October 16, 2002 ~ "I checked in our on-line collections management system and found five [John Singleton] Copley drawings listed, all gifts of Miss Ima Hogg to Bayou Bend. There were no illustrations, so I can't compare your lovely portrait to ours. . .We own an oil on canvas [by J. S. Copley] dated 1758-60 called "Portrait of a Boy," that is in the period you are interested in. . . . Good luck with your research." Jeannette Dixon, Library Director, Hirsch Library, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX.
Stories of the four already known / attributed portraits of James Robertson were included in Sarah Kelley's General James Robertson: The Founder of Nashville (1980), page 28, as follows:
"The portraits of James Robertson reveal the features of an interesting face. One likeness, which heretofore hung in the War Memorial Building around 1935, was said by a great-granddaughter, Mrs. Nellie Cannon, to be a composite drawing--not from life, but a collection of family features. It was supposedly painted by Washington Cooper [1802--1889], a Charlotte Road neighbor, at the same time he painted Charlotte Robertson [reproduced on page 17 of Sarah Kelley'sChildren of Nashville: Lineages of James Robertson, 1973]. Upon completion the likeness of James Robertson brought tears to the widow's eyes. "The oil painting of James Robertson which hangs in the Hall of Fame at the Tennessee State Capitol, recently  restored by members of the General James Robertson Descendants & Kin Association, is probably the one Lyman Draper wrote about in his letter to Colonel William Martin dated September 24, 1842 [Lyman Draper, Draper Manuscripts, 3XX8]. Doctor Felix Robertson employed a portrait painter about 1834, instructing him in the family resemblances, which resulted in a very good likeness [that was] readily recognized by the General's old acquaintances. The artist's name was Grimes, and this portrait has more stateliness and nobility than any others in existence. A recent  telephone conversation with Dr. James C. Kelley, Curator of Collections at the Tennessee State Museum, [disclosed] that museum records revealed the restored portrait in the capitol was painted by Henry Bainbridge" [sic. Henry Benbridge, 1743--1812].
October 17, 2002 ~ Update by Dr. James C. Kelly, Assistant Director for Museums, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, VA ~ "My 1980 statement that the [portrait] at the Capitol was by Henry Benbridge recited what was erroneously on our [Tennessee State Museum] accession card at that time. . .I didn't succeed Pete LaPaglia as curator until 1980, so I hadn't yet been able by then to do any independent research on these questions. The Benbridge attribution was merely someone's wild guess in the early 20th century. There's no doubt that the Capitol portrait is by or after W. B. Cooper. . . .While I was at the Tennessee State Museum I obtained a virtually identical painting of Robertson, I believe from Dickson Wharton Robertson. Robertson looks identical to the one in the Capitol, but the painting is a bit finer and could be the original from which the Capitol version was copied. This one hung in the State Museum's "Frontier" section. Also hung there was the so-called portrait of James Robertson and one of Charlotte Robertson from Edgar Blair. These never had more than hearsay evidence of being authentic James and Charlotte Robertson [portraits], and I don't believe they are because the costume is c.1800 when James would have been in his sixties, but the man and woman depicted are about 30. These are a generation too late to be James and Charlotte."
"Another portrait of James Robertson is owned by the Tennessee Historical Society, a copy of which was published in [staff writer Red O'Donnell's column] 'Round the Clock in The Nashville Banner of June 3, 1971, page nine. It was said to have been painted by Henry Bainbridge [sic. Benbridge] sometime before the year 1812. It is not the same as the portrait presently hanging in the state capitol.
A sketch of James Robertson [copy at right] was found in pioneer John Cotton's journal and appeared in an article in The Nashville Tennessean of December 7, 1958, page 6A, titled "Old Donelson, Robertson Sketches Found in Diary."
An attractive [engraved] picture of James Robertson was published in the February, 1888, issue of Harper's Magazine" [an engraving by E. G. Williams & Brothers, New York, also was published in H. W. Crews' 1890 History of Nashville, Tennessee. Reproduced at left].
"An additional portrait of James Robertson, formerly owned by Mrs. W. N. Sloan, a descendant of Charlotte Robertson Napier, appeared [on page five] in Children of Nashville, a book published by [Sarah Kelley] in 1973 about the Robertson family. The late Edgar A. Blair, [a cousin of Mrs. Sloan and] the latter owner, stated that the painting [shown at left, below] was done at Williamsburg, Virginia, when James was a very young man, perhaps as early as 1760--1765. The portrait is now [January, 1979] in the possession of the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville." (See Dr. James Kelly's note above.)
[This portrait has since been documented as that of "a kinsman of James Robertson," but family oral history citing a Williamsburg, Virginia, setting for creation of a portrait of James Robertson in his youth prompts investigation into James's activities in colonial Virginia and North Carolina. Click on "Williamsburg, Virginia" link above to read about miller William Robertson. Also see "Tracing James Robertson" below. ] The Llewellyn watercolor miniature does not resemble this erroneously (?) identified youthful portrait of James Robertson, except in the depicted "gentleman's apparel" common in colonial America. This Sloan portrait is a frontal bust, while the Llewellyn miniature is a profile bust. Can this recently revealed miniature watercolor portrait of young James Robertson be documented / authenticated?
If so, this portrait is a tremendously exciting discovery!
Tracing James Robertson's Scot-Irish Origins and Youth in Colonial Virginia and North Carolina
( Page numbers within brackets refer to Sarah Foster Kelley's Scotch-Irish Origins of General James Robertson, published in 2000. Other cited sources also appear within brackets. IJC )
THE PROGENITOR of James Randolph Robertson was John Robertson, a native of Perthshire, Scotland. His family descended from the Scottish Clan Donnachaidh of Struan in Atholl, where the chief seats were the castles of Garth, Invervack, and Mount Alexander in Perthshire. The Scottish Revolution of 1689 had brought exile to many Robertsons of the old Struan clan of the Atholl district in Scotland. John Robertson is believed to have been the "Prisoner John Robertson of Guay," who fought with the Jacobites in 1715 and had his estate confiscated after he fled into exile. This Jacobite prisoner had descended from at least eight generations in the lineage of the Robertsons of Guay (the settlement is located on the River Tay in what is presently known as Strathtay) from the 1500s [51-52, 81].
John Robertson is said to have been the son of William Robertson and a brother of Jean Robertson, who married Alex Henry and later became the grandmother of American patriot Patrick Henry . Another brother, the Reverend William Robertson, was sent in 1743 from London by the Presbytery of Newcastle as an evangelist to visit the churches of the Virginia colony .
Early in the Eighteenth Century, John Robertson migrated to Belfast, Ireland. Around 1716 he married Ann Elizabeth Randolph, daughter of John Randolph and granddaughter of Richard Randolph of Dublin, Ireland. Ann Elizabeth's father, John Randolph, had fled from the turmoil of the English Revolution during the 1660s.
Two known sons of this Scot-Irish union were John Randolph Robertson (c.1718--1761) and Charles Robertson (c. 1720-- ? ), both born in the Presbyterian settlement northeast of Belfast, near Larne . About 1735, the brothers joined the great exodus of Scot-Irish protestants from Ireland to establish new lives and pursue religious freedom in America. They reportedly entered the country through the port of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, then moved southward into Virginia, where numerous Randolph cousins already resided . John Randolph Robertson settled in Brunswick County and around 1740 married Mary Gower, daughter of Abel Gower, a British sea captain . John R. Robertson became a merchant at Kittle Stick Creek, a smaller tributary of Three Creeks, south of the Nottoway River, situated in present Greensville County. His store served the farmers' needs in the community of St. Andrew's Parish. On June 28, 1742, the couple's first of eight children, James Randolph Robertson, was born .
Before the story of civilization-builder James Randolph Robertson continues, the names of his seven subsequent siblings are listed for reference:
2) John Randolph Robertson ( c. 1743 -- 1780 ), married Dolly Maclin, daughter of William Maclin, issue unknown; 3) Elijah Robertson ( 1744 -- 1797 ), married Sarah Maclin, daughter of William Maclin, and had 5 children; 4) Eliza Sarah (?) Robertson ( ? -- ? ), married William Cash, issue unknown [ James Robertson was mentioned as the "brother-in-law of William Cash," American Historical Magazine, January 1898, p.88 ]; 5) William Robertson ( ? -- ? ), marriage and issue unknown [ historian A. W. Putnam stated that James Robertson "had a brother named William," History of Middle Tennessee, or Life and Times of General James Robertson, Nashville: 1859, p.316 ]; 6) Charles Robertson ( ? -- 1805 ), married Susanna ______ and had 10 children; 7) Mark Robertson ( c. 1755 -- 1787 ), married Mary Bell Hunter, widow of John Hunter, no issue; 8) Ann Robertson ( 1757 -- 1821 ), married c. 1771 to Nehemiah Johnston and had 3 daughters; second marriage in 1780 to Major John Cockrill and had 8 children. [ Sarah Foster Kelley, Children of Nashville: Lineages of James Robertson, Nashville: 1973, p.427 ]
Continuing the activities of James's father, John Randolph Robertson: On March 25, 1751, John Robertson of Brunswick County paid off his mortgage to William Broadnax, and the farm was returned to his former ownership [ 81 ]. The Robertson family moved to John Robertson's land claim, but not until several years later--on August 16, 1756--did he receive an official patent for 200 acres of land on both sides of Avent's Branch [Virginia Patent Book 33, p. 66 ], a southern tributary of the Meherrin River. The headwaters of Avent's Branch flow north from Mecklenburg County into Brunswick County, where the mouth empties into the Meherrin, far north of the Roanoke River. During this time, native Indians attacked the Robertson farm and killed several of their Gower kin. This incident prompted John Robertson to move his family to Lunenburg County, which had been formed in 1746 from Brunswick County. By 1753, however, life was becoming decidedly more complicated as British and French rivalry over the Ohio Valley and Virginia's western claims fueled the forthcoming confrontation of the French and Indian War (1755--1763). Perhaps to reinforce Virginia's frontier holdings, Governor Robert Dinwiddie gave tax-free holdings for ten years to those who would settle on Cub Creek, a southern tributary of Meherrin River. Thus, in 1753, one John Robertson received a grant of 1,604 acres on the lower side of Cub Creek adjoining Thomas Word's corner. Even in this remote settlement, the Robertson children were exposed to education through visits by itinerant clergy, as well as through the ministers serving Cub Creek Presbyterian Church and the Briery Church in Lunenburg County. Most influential was the tutelage of the Reverend Richard Sankey of Monaca, Pennsylvania, who would later found [ 1759 ] a log school called Prince Edward Academy in Prince Edward County, Virginia ( this school would grow into Hampden-Sydney College) .
On January 22, 1754, John Randolph Robertson, a resident of Lunenburg County, sold his Brunswick County land to Mark Harwell [ Lunenburg County, Virginia, Deed Book 3, pp. 507-509 ]. After almost ten years had passed since his original land purchase, John Robertson was making plans to leave the unstable area and relocate in nearby North Carolina. By late summer of 1754, the Robertson family moved farther south, close to the Roanoke River, to be near a widely anticipated new school. Two Presbyterian missionaries, the Reverends Hugh McAdden and Henry Patillo, were building an academy on the Haw River in Orange County, North Carolina, and Robertson was eager to provide educational opportunities for his children, since firstborn James was about to enter his teenage years. Thus, the Robertsons arrived in North Carolina to establish a new home on the headwaters of Six Pound Creek in Granville County. This county, formed in 1746 from Edgecomb County, bordered Virginia's Brunswick and Lunenburg counties. Six Pound Creek, a tributary of the Roanoke River, meandered back and forth through borth Virginia and North Carolina. In the upper mid-section of Granville County, near the boundary between the two states, the Robertson home site was selected. On September 3, 1754, John Robertson purchased from his in-laws, Richard and Mary Huckiby, 300 acres on the head of Little Branch, a western tributary of Six Pound Creek [ Granville County, North Carolina, Deed Book D, pp. 352-353 ]. The deed was witnessed by William Sisson (was this the same William Sisson who had married Frances Gower on August 31, 1727, in Richmond, Virginia?), Richard Coleman, and Daniel Pegram. Jordan's Creek, also a tributary of Six Pound Creek, was named for a family in that area .
The Robertsons settled on a southern tributary of the Roanoke River, in the upper mid-section of Granville County, very near the boundary between the two states . This section of North Carolina was sparsely settled in the mid-1750s. The backwoods families enjoyed forests full of wild fruits and berries, honey bees, bears, boars, and turkeys. Their cattle and sheep grazed on grassy slopes. To buy food staples and supplies, residents of the area took the Trading Path to Hillsborough in Orange County (that district had been formed in 1752 from Johnston, Granville, and Bladen) . Here, James first began to learn the skill of surveying ,while acquiring "a common school education, including reading, writing, arithmetic, and some knowledge of grammar" (Nina Hill Robertson, "The Private Life of a Famous Statemaker," The Methodist Quarterly Review, April 1912, p. 296, quoted in Origins, p. 113, note 67, and p. 114, note 75).
By 1760 the Robertson family had relocated to St. Stephen's Parish in Johnston County, North Carolina, and less than a year later, in February of 1761, the family patriarch became ill and very weak in body. Within a short time, John Randolph Robertson died, leaving his widow Mary with minor children to support. James was just nineteen years old when the responsibility of family support was thrust upon him . In addition to farming, the Robertsons raised cattle—for which James and his brother John became responsible—which was evident when, during the Inferior Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions held the third Tuesday of April, 1761 (as the last will and testament of John Robertson was proved), the cattle marking (or brand) was recorded for Mary Robertson, widow and executrix of the Robertson estate: two smooth crops, one on each ear, and an undercut under each ear .
The financial strain of providing for a large family had to have been great for the widow Robertson in the early 1760s. On May 8, 1764, she and firstborn James sold 400 acres on the west side of Six Pound Creek in Granville County to Christopher Mothershead for 100 pounds sterling. This land contained 100 acres more than the original purchase four years earlier . It is speculated that the following year, 1765, saw the remarriage of the widow Mary Gower Robertson.
Mary's second husband was Russell Blakely, whose family had settled in James City County, Virginia, after the turn of the eightenth century and who was a kinsman of Mrs. Abel Gower, Jr., the former Obedience Blakely. Russell Blakely was appointed guardian of the Robertson minors: Elijah, Eliza, Mark, Sterling, and Anne, heirs of John Robertson. With the new stepfather taking up residence in the Robertson household, James's life undoubtedly underwent great changes. It is speculated that he constructed a cabin in Johnston County and possibly another in Orange County near Hillsborough, the seat of government, since he eventually owned a residence in that section .
There obviously was dissention between Mary Gower Robertson Blakely and her second husband, for in mid-July, 1766, she appeared in the Johnston County court to exhibit an inventory of her deceased husband's estate and secure permission to sell the personal estate, in compliance with the terms of the will. The court granted her request, and within days James Robertson, at age 24, was appointed guardian by choice of his siblings Elijah and Eliza. James also served on the Johnston County petit jury during the July session of the court. At a later date, Sheriff Phillip Jones, an old friend of the Robertsons from Lunenburg County, Virginia, was appointed guardian to Charles Robertson, orphan of John and James's brother. Thus three of the Robertson minors were no longer subject to their mother and stepfather, but the youngest son Mark, older brother Sterling, and nine-year-old Anne were still residing in the Robertson-Blakely home. James's brother John isn't mentioned, having reached his majority / legal age of independence before 1766 [92-93].
As this domestic dissention was swirling around James, he strengthened his relationship with the Robertsons' Johnston County neighbors, the Reverend George Reeves and family. He courted the second oldest daughter named Charlotte, aged 17, who had been born in Northhampton County, North Carolina. Their relationship led to marriage on October 20, 1768. During their first year of marriage, James and Charlotte probably resided in Orange County, North Carolina, since Wake County was not formed until 1771 .
It was possibly in the spring of 1769 when Robertson journeyed to South Carolina, perhaps to promote another treaty through Andrew Williamson with the Cherokees—one which was later held at Lochaber, South Carolina. His trip also included exploration of the Watauga River in the western frontier of North Carolina. His friends, such as his neighbor Joseph Houghton, Sr., reminded him when he left to explore beyond the mountains, "Be sure to find good springs and rich lands, enough of both to accommodate us all." Had Robertson heard the reports of Cherokee land cessions over the mountains in the Watauga Valley? Among others who had travelled into the forests in search of new lands was Daniel Boone from the upper Yadkin Valley. Born circa 1735 in Berks County, Pennsylvania, Boone and his family had moved to the Yadkin River when Daniel was a mere boy. Known as a long hunter, Boone had scouted beyond the mountains in 1767 with John Stewart (Stuart), his brother-in-law. His reports that year of the country along Cumberland River, formerly called Shauvanon River by the French and Shawanoe River by the English, were lavish in praise of the country's beauty, rich lands, and abundance of game. In 1769 he returned with John Stewart, John Findley, and several others to the Watauga and Cumberland valleys, where Boone's hunting skills accumulated a load of skins and furs. During the latter part of that year, Daniel Boone and his sister's husband were captured by Indians. Stewart and Boone escaped after seven days' imprisonment. In a short time Boone's brother-in-law disappeared, and he believed Stewart was killed by the Indians .
During James Robertson's journey to South Carolina and over to the Watauga Valley, several notable events took place among his family in Johnston and Orange counties (portions of which would become Wake County in 1771). His wife gave birth to their first child, Jonathan Friar Robertson, on June 13, 1769, and his mother, Mary Gower Robertson Blakely, died. Amidst mixed feelings of joy and sadness, James began to gather family and friends—10 families in all—for a journey over the Blue Ridge Mountains to settle in the Watauga River Valley [100, 103].
Describing this eventful year, Harriette Simpson Arnow wrote in Seedtime on the Cumberland : "In 1769, one of the largest and best-known groups of Long Hunters spent more than a year in the Cumberland Country, and William Bean, not knowing exactly where he was, crossed the Virginia-North Carolina border and built the first cabin in what came to be Tennessee. In spite of Indians, 1769 was a notable one in the history of Tennessee and Kentucky. . .[Daniel] Boone, having failed on the first try, succeeded at last in finding his way through Cumberland Gap. It was also in 1769 that the push of settlement down the Holston [River] went into what was to be Tennessee" .
In October of 1770, Robertson led ten families from North Carolina over the mountains to begin a new settlement on the Watauga River in the western frontier [42, with reference to Draper Manuscripts, 31S34]. Upon arrival, Robertson again met with Daniel Boone, whom he had seen during his previous trip in 1769. In speculating "why so many risked, and often lost, their lives to settle North Carolina and Tennessee," Arnow wrote in Seedtime that "some men looked to the border [lands] to retrieve their fortunes. . .Daniel Boone and most of those who went to Kentucky for [land speculator] Henderson in 1775 are good examples of such men: Boone was deeply in debt; he ever had an eye for good land. . .but [there also] was a love of the woods and of hunting." She added that she "can find no reason why affluent families with position and not a little prestige in their communities should uproot themselves, risk all to settle on the Cumberland. Yet it was families such as the Robertsons, Buchanans, Eatons, and Freelands who did just this" for the Watauga and Cumberland settlements [248-249].
In Seedtime, Arnow frequently mentioned the friendship between James Robertson and Daniel Boone and noted that "on trips between the Yadkin and Kentucky, Boone stopped in the Robertson home and talked much of the pretty land on the Cumberland. Later, when he moved his family to East Tennessee, he lived a time with the Robertsons, and there, he, his wife, and seven children were all baptized by a traveling Episcopal clergyman" [200, with reference to Lyman C. Draper, Draper Manuscripts, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Vol. 6XX, p.651].
Arnow attributed the opening of the western frontier to the 1775 "Treaty of Sycamore Shoals of the Watauga River, [when] Richard Henderson led his land company in treating with Attakullakulla and the Cherokee chiefs for a vast boundary of land that embraced most of the western two-thirds of Kentucky and the mid-section of what is now Tennessee or the Middle Cumberland Basin. The treaty was not yet finished before [Daniel] Boone, Michael Stoner, and other woodsmen were off on the Cumberland Gap trail to Kentucky, where they founded Boonesboro" (Flowering of the Cumberland, p.9). For James Robertson, however, "the opening of the western frontier" had begun five years earlier in 1770, when he served as the "advance guard of civilization" to lead ten families over the Blue Ridge Mountains to establish a new settlement in the Watauga Valley.
(To be continued.)
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