Riding with Edwin Whitefield

This was supposed to be the summer of LONG road trips but various things keep tethering me to Salem, so I’m taking lots of short ones. My companion over the last few trips has been Edwin Whitefield, a nineteenth-century English expat artist who loved old New England houses, and presented them in a series of portfolios entitled Homes of Our Forefathers published between 1879-1889. I’ve been an admirer of Whitefield for years, primarily because I admire his pioneering preservation perspective: he sketched obscure houses in small towns shorn of their modern additions and “improvements” to reveal their beauty and craftsmanship so that an ever-“improving” society might actually stop and see them and/or to document them, fearing that they were not long for this world. Whitefield had a successful career as a landscape and botanical artist, engraver, and lithographer from about 1840, with a specialty in color lithographs of North American city views. His Homes portfolios represent the last stage of his career as he died in 1892, and the portrayals of these old houses seem not only charming, but also poignant to me, with his little notes about their history and the precariousness of their present conditions. I imagine him walking around with his sketchbook, and now I’m driving around with my camera—and his books in the backseat. I fear that many of the houses which Whitefield preserved on paper will no longer exist in materiality.

The “Whitefield Project” started last week when I decided to drive over to Medford, an old city just outside of Boston which is home to Tufts University and the oldest brick house in New England, once called the Craddock House and now called the Peter Tufts House. There are so many photographs of this structure, but I wanted to see it as it might have been built, and so I pulled out one of my Whitefield volumes, and decided to take it (him) along. The Tufts House was so spectacularly preserved, and it was such a nice day, that I decided to keep going west along Route 16 (through Cambridge, which deserves its own Whitefield post), in search of a house which shares its page in my 1880 edition, the Abraham Browne House in Watertown, now one of Historic New England’s properties. As the Tufts House is a private residences and the Browne house is closed indefinitely, that was about the extent of my trail for that day.

This past Saturday, I had to go down to Plymouth, so I decided to bring Whitefield along. The South Shore was “Pilgrim country” to him: he clearly wanted to trace the tracks and document the efforts and experiences of his fellow countrymen. He sketched lots of houses in this region but I decided to follow Route 53 and focus on Hingham, Pembroke, and Kingston on this trip. I do not need an excuse to visit the Old Ship Meeting House in Hingham, one of the most important structures in New England. It is in amazing condition (but there seems to some kind of issue with its Federal-esque Rectory across the street), and Hingham is one of the prettiest towns in Massachusetts. Then it was off in search of the famous Barker House in Pembroke, which Whitefield believed was the oldest house in New England, built in 1628. Alas, Pembroke has a lovely old Quaker Meeting House, and a seventeenth-century house which serves as the headquarters of its historical society, but the Barker House is long gone: a genealogy of the Barker family informed me that it was likely built in 1650 and “fell to pieces” after the last of its members died without issue in 1883. Whitefield must have been heartbroken.

Heading south to Kingston, Whitefield led me to the Bradford House, another seventeenth-century structure maintained in immaculate condition (although with an altered roofline if we are to believe Whitefield) by the Jones River Historical Society, complete with a period garden. It was still closed for the pandemic, but the gentleman gardener watering on a hot afternoon told me all about the activities that generally went on there, including weekly breakfasts in the summer and the annual Lobster Boil. He admitted that he had added a few modern varieties among the period plants “for a spot of color” and left me to wander the grounds. And so I had a perfect seventeenth-century stroll, at the end of a long hot day.


11 responses to “Riding with Edwin Whitefield

  • Reyna Favis

    While I’m always happy to see preservation of old structures, it generally seems to be the preservation of the lives and history of the well-to-do that make it to current times. Are there any structures, even recreations, that give us a peek into the living conditions of the average person or those eking out an existence?

  • Bettina A Norton

    Your readers might wish to read my book, Edwin Whitefield, Nineteenth-Century American Landscapes, Barre Press, distributed by Crown Publishers, 1977

    • daseger

      Bettina, thank you for commenting: I should have included this reference! Will do so next time as I think Edwin is going to be a “project”.

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    I am glad to learn that you have resumed your historical summer wandering. Particularly interesting since many of these spots are not so far from home. Edwin Whitefield sounds like an excellent guide. I agree that Hingham is a lovely town, haven’t been there in decades.

    If I may add a local angle, the Old Ship (1681) is the only Meeting House in our state to predate Lynnfield’s Meeting House (1714), long preserved by the Lynnfield Historical Society.

    Looking forward to your next excursion…

  • Robert Levesque

    Hi Donna, how many Salem houses are in that book by Edwin Whitefield? I’ve located a copy of it, but they want almost $700. I have three of them framed hanging on my wall. I forget were I got them and I always wondered where they were from and if it was part of a series of prints. Thanks

    • daseger

      In my 1880 copy there are two Salem houses, both now gone. $700!!!! Wow, trying to remember what I paid for my copy, but it was nowhere near that!

  • Alan Pennie

    Hello there. From England
    Edwin Whitefield Pennie ( he changed his name on arriving in the USA )
    He was my Gt Gt Grandfather , he left a wife and son in England the married (?) An Irish girl Kate and had several children , then married a Scottish girl more children a total of 14 from his 3 wives , Whitefields still live in America and the Pennies here in England,
    Edwin had 3 sons in the civil war .
    Regards Alan Pennie

    • daseger

      Hello Alan Pennie! Thanks so much for commenting! Believe me, I admire your gt gt grandfather for his artistic preservation ethic not his life choices. I had about one left family, but not two!

      • Alan Pennie

        Edwin’s father was a prolific author of ,lots of dramatic histories ,and many varied occupations ,even dug at “Stonehenge” in 1810 , wrote plays ,was caught by the ” press gang” for the navy but was able to prove he was a “_Gentleman” and released , another time arrested as thought he was an escaped French Prisoner of War ( the red pantaloon type trousers he wore much like French uniform ),
        The family here continues as adventurous !! Alan

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