Tag Archives: Artists

The Last Collector of the Custom House

The life of David Mason Little (1860-1923) began in Swampscott and ended in Boston, but most of it was led in Salem, and in the fullest way possible: he was an MIT-trained naval architect, an inventor, a photographer, a silversmith, a military officer, a historian, a bank director, a mayor, and the last Collector of the Salem Custom House. Born into the wealthy and accomplished Little family of Little’s Point, Swampscott fame, he had many, many advantages, but certainly made the most of them. He was a descendant of Revolutionary soldier and scientist Colonel David Mason, his siblings included the famous maritime artist Philip Little, who lived a few buildings down and across the way from his Chestnut Street mansion, the architect Arthur Little, and the biographer Grace Little Oliver, his wife was the granddaughter of Salem’s great philanthropist John Bertram, and his youngest son Bertram became an influential collector and the director of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA), the forerunner of Historic New England. These bare biographical facts do not do justice to this man, who seems to have been that rare combination of civil servant and polymath.

Little Collage The Honorable David Mason Little, and a Boston Globe article dated July 17, 1904, shortly after his appointment as Salem’s last Collector of the Custom House.

Little’s service–as quartermaster of the Second Corps of Cadets and state ordinance officer during the Spanish-American War, as city councillor, school board member, and Mayor of Salem–is commendable of course, but his inventiveness and artistry are compelling, primarily because of his range of interests. Like his brothers, he traveled around Europe following his graduation and returned armed with a fascination for “instantaneous” photography (capturing movement) and new rapid dry-plate equipment designed to facilitate the technique. He tinkered with this for a bit, and designed a new camera shutter (patent # US 284645 A)) as well as a steam yacht “specially fitted for photographic work” which he took out into Salem and Marblehead harbors during regattas. The result was his pioneering portfolio of yacht photography, Instantaneous Marine Studies, published in 1883–with a cover designed by his brother Philip. Years later, after his term as Mayor of Salem was completed, Little turned to another craft: metalwork. Learning the art of silversmithing from Arts and Crafts smith George Gebelin (to whom he also became a patron), Little crafted housewares for the family home on Chestnut Street, as well as this beautiful teapot for his daughter Marguerite, two years before his death in 1923.

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Little ResidenceCover and plates from Little’s Instantaneous Marine Studies (1883), a Little silver teapot in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Little residence at 27 Chestnut Street Salem.


A Heightened Sense of Detail

It’s rather jarring to read the lines written by Salem’s chatty diarist, the Reverend William Bentley, about his encounter with the Salem artist George Ropes Jr. in 1804: “Paid G. Ropes’ Bill for head of Curwin, Salem, Minister, the painting by him. He is a dumb boy with Corné. Had receipt. $4.00”.  Bentley had commissioned a portrait copy of the Reverend Samuel Curwen from Ropes, who was then an apprentice of the Italian emigré artist Michel Felice Cornè. George Ropes, Jr. (1788-1819), the son of a Salem sea captain (how many times have I written than?) was indeed born deaf and was by all accounts speechless for all of his relatively short life, but Bentley’s notes upon his early death are more telling: Died of consumption, deaf and dumb, a painter, active, acute, circumspect, and esteemed.”  Ropes had to become the primary breadwinner for his family upon his father’s death at sea in 1807 and so he became a practical  painter of signs and such as well as an artist. While all art is evidence for the historian, I’ve always felt that Ropes’ works are more documentary in their detail, particularly two paintings in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, Launching of the Ship Fame (1802) and Crowninshield’s Wharf (1806). I’ve shown it here several times, but I can’t post on Ropes without including his masterpiece, Salem Common on Training Day (1808), which is also in the collection of the PEM. Those poplars! I can never see this painting too many times.

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George Ropes, Jr.: The Launching of the Ship Fame, Crowninshield’s Wharf, and Salem Common on Training Day, all courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum.

My favorite story about Ropes comes from the Pickering Genealogythe source of endless interesting anecdotes about Salem people. In another testimony to his skill and eye for detail, it is noted that on one occasion when the parlor in the house of Jarathmeel Peirce was being papered, it was found that there was not enough, and it being imported paper, more could not be obtained. He undertook to finish it by painting, which he did so accurately that it was impossible to tell where his work began or where it ended. A decorating crisis averted!  Ropes is probably best known for his marine paintings, including a lovely “portrait” of George Crowninshield’s famous luxury yacht Cleopatra’s Barge, and several paintings of the USS Constitution in battle during the War of 1812.The US Constitution Museum has a series of four paintings painted by Ropes (after Corné) depicting the famous engagement with the HMS Guerriere in August of 1812 which earned the victorious American ship the nickname of “Old Ironsides”, and at the end of next month, a Ropes painting of the victory of the Constitution over the HMS Java in December of 1812 will be auctioned off at Dan Morphy Auctions in Pennsylvania. Artistic reportage, and some pretty bold titles, from this silent “signmaker”.

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George Ropes, Jr., the last of the Constitution and Guerriere paintings, USS Constitution Museum Collection; Constitution vs. Java, Morphy Auctions.


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