This is generally a beautiful time of year to take photographs around Salem but it’s been rather cold and dreary for the past few weeks, with the exception of a few isolated days. I’m sure that when everything dries out we will be living in a lush and green world, but for right now I’m more predisposed to take out a book than go outside. So after I finished my grading (always a celebratory moment), I curled up with some old architecture and photography books and soon realized that one “Salem artist” whom I have never featured is Philip Kappel (1901-1981), an etcher and book illustrator who spent several years working with Philip Little and in his waterfront studio off Derby Street. Kappel was not really a Salem artist: he was born in Connecticut, educated in New York City, and as he was employed by several steamship lines over his career, he traveled the world six times over, gathering materials for his etchings everywhere he went. But he did publish a lovely book in 1966 titled New England Gallery with several Salem images inside, as well as some interesting commentary on his time here.
See what I mean about the weather? But Kappel’s Ropes Mansion and Witch House hint at brighter and warmer days, even with no color!
The Custom House (which is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year) Derby Wharf Lighthouse, The Little Studio (just above the compass star)–where both Philip Little and Philip Kappel worked, in different seasons—and the House of the Seven Gables.
Kappel relates the standard histories of most of the Salem structures presented in New England Gallery but is more effusive about Chestnut Street because that is where his friend and mentor, Philip Little, lived. Little summered on MacMahan Island off Boothbay Harbor every year, and during a visit to the mainland he chanced upon a small exhibition of Kappel’s drawings and sought the young artist out. Kappel was teaching art in Boothbay, but Little thought he should and could do better, and offered him his Salem studio on Daniels Street Court, “hard by Salem Harbor, in the heart of the area which made Salem a great seaport in its heyday.” There, Kappel reveals, “inspired by its moods and reveling in its historic past, I never worked harder or produced more work. Every summer passed too quickly.” Kappel’s depiction of the Little house at 10 Chestnut Street includes the entrance pillars of Hamilton Hall, which gives him an opportunity to pass along a charming little anecdote: Many years ago Philip Little took me on a tour through Hamilton Hall. As we were descending the long flight of stairs that led to the second floor from the first, I notices a series of large white circles painted on the top step, and a similar treatment accorded the last step. (I have since learned that the circles have been removed.) When I asked the purpose of this unusual feature, Philip Little forthrightly informed me that the circles served as warning signals for those who might have “sipped too long and too much at the punchbowl,” alerting them to the impending dangers of a fall when taking the first step into the space, the circles on the last step indicating that all was well; a successful landing had been effected. There is carpet on those stairs now, but having been to one or two enthusiastic events at Hamilton Hall over the years, I’m wondering if we should put those circles back!