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A special homecoming happened in Natchez last week as the childhood portrait of Julia Davis made her way back to the Melrose parlor for the first time since its departure 30 years ago. Painted sometime in the1850s, the oil painting was attributed to German born artist William Frye in the book Mississippi Portraiture.
Julia was the daughter of Elizabeth Shunk and George Malin Davis who purchased Melrose in 1865 from the first owners, John and Mary Louisa McMurran.The purchase of Melrose included the furniture, window treatments, and floor coverings.The Union army forces that occupied Natchez after the fall of Vicksburg in 1863 had moved into the homes of Confederate officers and well-known secessionists like George Malin Davis. After the end of the Civil War, the Davis family returned to Choctaw but retained ownership of Melrose.
In 1867, Julia began boarding school in New York City. Her letters document having dinners at the home of the family of Samuel Meeks, whose family owned White Wings, a home in Natchez located across the street from Choctaw Through the Meeks family, Julia met Stephen Kelly, son of Richard Kelly, Founder and President of the Fifth National Bank in New York City. Although educated to be a physician, Stephen Kelly never practiced medicine. He would follow his father as President of the Fifth National Banks. Stephen and Julia were married in New York City in 1873.
Julia Davis Kelly inherited Melrose in 1877 upon her mother's death. Elizabeth Davis's will states all property be given in equal shares to her husband, George Malin Davis, and her daughter, Julia Davis Kelly. There was one exception, Melrose. Julia was to inherit Melrose. Julia and Stephen Kelly lived at Melrose with their son, George Malin Davis Kelly, until 1883.After Julia Kelly died of tuberculosis, Stephen Kelly returned to New York with his son. G.M.D.. Kelly and his wife Ethel Moore Kelly returned to Natchez to live at Melrose after their 1901 marriage.
Mrs. Kelly opened Melrose for the first Spring Pilgrimage in 1932, and this childhood portrait of Julia can be seen hanging over the fireplace in the Melrose parlor in early Pilgrimage photographs. G.M.D. Kelly died in 1946, and his wife in 1975. The portrait of Julia Davis left Melrose a few years after Mrs. Kelly's death.
Melrose eventually became part of Natchez National Historical Park.In 2011, Julia Davis Kelly's great-granddaughter and namesake donated the childhood portrait to Natchez National Historical Park and had the painting shipped back to Natchez from Maine.
"Since Julia Davis Kelly's great-granddaughter and namesake often received in this room at Melrose during Spring Pilgrimage, it is most appropriate for us to return the portrait to public view during Spring Pilgrimage," said park superintendent Kathleen Jenkins.
An exhibit about the Davis and Kelly family and the portrait is on exhibit at Melrose free of charge daily. Visitors touring Melrose will once again see the original painting and frame hanging over the fireplace in the parlor, where it hung for more than one hundred years. Tours of Melrose are offered throughout the day for $10.00 per adult and$5.00 for students and those 62 and over. Please contact 601-446-5790 for more information.