While Mary Telfair was born in Augusta, Georgia to a very prominent family in 1791, she had a huge impact on Savannah. Her father, Edward Telfair, was governor which afforded her some exceptions to the “rules” for women at the time. Her unique educational experience for women in the 19th century allowed her to form strong opinions about national and world events.
Religion and intellectual pursuits helped her find peace when she lost six of her family members throughout the years (her father, two brothers, two nephews, and a brother-in-law). She then devoted her life to traveling and assisting others. A powerful way to enlighten religion and intellect in her eyes was through art, which she appreciated through her travels. Among her favorite artists were Titian, Guido, and Raphael. Not everyone had the ability to go overseas, so she started bringing a collection of art home with her. Over 200 pieces of art (paintings, prints, statues, plaster casts, and a photograph) were documented in an estate inventory after her death.
As the heir to her family’s wealth, she showered Savannah generously with her fortune. She included a stipulation in her will that Hodgson Hall be finished for the Georgia Historical Society. Additionally, she established the Savannah Widow’s Society and founded the Mary Telfair Hospital for Women. In another final grand gesture, she left her art collections, home, and the remainder of her funds to endow the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences, which opened its doors in 1886 to the public as the first public art museum in the South.