Tag Archives: Ships

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 One

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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.


In-Vested

Yesterday I was treated to a very special tour of the China Trade gallery and basement of the Peabody Essex Museum by a distinguished and generous curator, and while I was able to snap lots of photographs (exhibition items, packing and conservation materials, amazing things in storage, including a whole subterranean gallery of ship models, some in their original Peabody Museum cases) I came away thinking about just one item, a portrait of Captain William Story by the Chinese artist known in the west as “Spoilum” (Guan Zuolin). The Story portrait stuck with me for two reasons. I had just been reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Custom-House” prelude to The Scarlet Letter, which disses Story as one of the venerable figures, sitting in old–fashioned chairs, which were tipped on their hind legs back against the wall. Oftentimes they were asleep, but occasionally might be heard talking together, ill voices between a speech and a snore, and with that lack of energy that distinguishes the occupants of alms–houses, and all other human beings who depend for subsistence on charity, on monopolized labour, or anything else but their own independent exertions. These old gentlemen—seated, like Matthew at the receipt of custom, but not very liable to be summoned thence, like him, for apostolic errands—were Custom–House officers. By all accounts this is an unfair characterization of Story, who was ending his storied maritime career with a post at the Custom House as Weigher and Gauger, but you can read about his long career here. The other reason I was so taken by Story’s portrait is far less weighty: once again I wondered, why is his hand in his vest? This is a portrait by a Chinese artist who probably knew nothing of that western convention—or perhaps Spoilum was such a popular artist precisely because he did.

Story PEM

Story Spoilum

Importing Splendor gallery wall at the Peabody Essex Museum with portrait of Spoilum’s Portrait of William Story, c. 1804; close-up from MIT’s “Envisioning Cultures” website.

Everyone seems to associate the hand-in-vest/waistcoat pose with Napoleon but many such portraits predate those of the little emperor. Why put the hand in this position in an expression of apparent disablement? Or is it cloaked power? Then there are the rather spurious theories of Masonic hidden hands or attempts by the artists to lessen the challenge of rendering hands by painting just one. Apparently it was simply a dictate of genteel behavior, handed down from the ages of Greece and Rome (which explains the pose’s eighteenth-century origins, in that most neo-classical of centuries). If it was a question of gentility, you can see how the pose would appeal to merchants and sea captains, self-made men who perhaps wanted to appeal a bit more polished for posterity.

Piggot

Young Mariner

George_Washington,_1776

Spoilum Cranstoun

Portrait of a Western Merchant

American Sea Captain Dutch School

Ships Model PEM

Pre-Napoleon in-vested sea captains (+ General Washington): Joseph Blackburn, Portrait of Captain John Pigott, c. 1752, LACMA; John Durand, Portrait of Young Mariner, ca. 1768–1772, collection of John and Judith Herdeg; Charles Willson Peale, General George Washington, 1776, Brooklyn Museum of Art; Chinese-export Reverse Painted Mirror of Captain John Cranstoun, c. 1785, Bonhams; Spoilum, Portrait of Western Merchant, c. 1785, “Envisioning Cultures at MIT; Portrait of an American Ship Captain (Purported to be Captain John Thompson of Philadelphia who engaged in the China trade), c. 1785, Sotheby’s + in the basement of the Peabody Essex: what a treat!


Sail Boston 2017

It was probably not the best day for it—the city was hot, humid, and teeming with people—but yesterday we took the Salem Ferry into Boston to look at the tall ships in town for Sail Boston 2017. Apparently there were more than 100 in the harbor, the largest number in many years due to Boston’s status as an official port of the trans-Atlantic Rendez-Vous 2017 Tall Ships Regatta. We didn’t see them all, but we saw many, before I dived into a breezy hotel bar in pursuit of water, which I quickly followed with a gin and tonic (or two). The stars of the show were undoubtedly the Chilean barquentine Esmerelda and the German barque Alexander von Humboldt II–I wish I had seen them in Saturday’s Parade of Sail. For striking photographs, I think they docked the most dramatic, pirate-ship-looking vessels at Rowes Wharf : the bright red Atyla from Spain and the beautiful Dutch barque Europa. I certainly took my share of shots of the latter (including the first photographs below), but the crowds were so thick around the former it was hard to get a good angle (plus a Sail Boston staffer kept yelling at us to KEEP MOVING). I’m really glad we took the ferry in, not just because driving and parking would have been a nightmare, but also because we got to see the smaller schooners under sail, darting around each other and the islands in Boston Harbor. The ships are here until Thursday: if you have some precious weekday time off they are well worth seeing, especially as the crowds will be a bit sparser.

Sailboston 4

SB Collage

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SB OOST

SB Galeon

SB ESSEX

SB BEST HARBOR

SB SECOND BEST

SailBoston Church

Around and in Boston Harbor for Sail Boston 2017 on Sunday—and look at this beautiful NEW Catholic Church in the Seaport District: Our Lady of Good Voyage Shrine.


Black Ships

My title is literal, or descriptive. While the phrase “Black Ships” has a larger historical and cultural meaning, as a term used by the Japanese to refer to western vessels approaching their shores in the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries (with a long stretch of relative isolation in between), in my typical materialistic fashion I’m referring to my latest collection obsession: reverse glass painted silhouette ships. It’s a potential collection, because I haven’t actually collected anything yet, but a particular Salem example has captured my fancy, so who knows what else I might find?

Black SHip Salem 1st dibs

Perseverance Crop19th Century Reverse-Painted Ship Silhouette on Glass Maple Frame, circa 1840, Trinity Antiques & Interiors, 1stdibs.

Love this. I’ve seen lots of reverse glass paintings before, mostly on clocks and mirrors, but this silhouette version is more striking and timeless—I’m going to need to see more. There were two Federal-era Salem ships named Perseverance: one was shipwrecked off Tarpaulin Cove, Naushon Island in Vineyard Sound in 1805; the other had a later (and longer) life sailing to Sumatra. The former ship was memorialized by Italian-born Salem painter Michele Felice Corné in his 1805 painting Perseverance Wrecked near Tarpaulin Cove, and the dashing Salem sea captain Richard Wheatland has a connection to both vessels: he was master of the first Perseverance, and part-owner of the second. I’m not sure which ship is portrayed in “my” painting: obviously the lighthouse is a prominent feature, leading one to assume that this is the first Perseverance, but the lighthouse on Naushon Island was not built until 1817 (but this is an 1840 perspective, perhaps creative license is being taken?)

Black Ships Corne_PerserverenceWrecked

Perseverance Richard Wheatland Salem Michele Felice Corné’s Perseverance Wrecked (1805), and a portrait of Captain Richard Wheatland by the Chinese artist Spoilum (Guan Zuolin), from MIT’s “Visualizing Cultures” site.

I found some super-tacky ship silhouettes from the twentieth century, and some elegant Victorian examples: there seems to be no in-between. I’ll spare you the former, and here are some of my favorites of the latter category, nearly all of them from auction archives, and well-beyond my price range. I think my “collection” might end up being more virtual than tangible!

Black SHip Victory

Black Ship Royal Albert

Black Ships collageH.M.S. Victory, H.M.S. Royal Albert, H.M.S. Foudroyant, another Victory, and View from the Coast of H.M. Ships MarlboroEuryalus.


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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ropes-constitution-vs-java

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


Go West, Young (Salem) Man

The California Gold Rush began on this day in 1848, when the foreman of workers constructing a sawmill on the American River near Coloma, California uncovered several large pieces of gold: when it was over, more than 300,000 people had gone west, including many from Salem. In the first two years after the strike, two joint-stock mining companies were organized by Salem men (of 124 from Massachusetts alone), and at least seven Salem ships departed for California, filled not only with potential prospectors but also lots of stuff to be sold there: this was an entrepreneurial opportunity in more ways than one! Here again you see Salem’s local history intersecting with a national event: the city’s trading economy had been on the decline for several decades so this would have been a very welcome opportunity as well, for both those who wanted to go west and those who were in a position to transport them there. The news of the strike spread like wildfire, and there seems to have been an immediate effort to retrofit ships as quickly as possible to carry eager passengers to San Francisco. The last of the great Salem ship captains, John Bertram, prepared his bark Eliza for the voyage,and she became the first gold-rush vessel from Massachusetts to sail for California, departing on December 2, 1848 with a cargo of “flour, pork, sugar, dried apples, bread, butter, cheese, rice, figs, raisins, pickles, boots, shoes, stoves, axes, picks, domestics, and a variety of small articles, lumber, a store, and materials for building a boat or scow, for dredging the rivers or on sand bars, together with a small steam engine, a lathe, and tools for repairs” along with passengers.

gold-rush

gold-rush-cartoon-aas

gold-rush-eliza

gold-rush-la-grange-pem

gold-rush-collage

Company certificate, California State Library; a caricature of the eastern “independent gold hunter”, 1849, American Antiquarian Society;  The Bark “Eliza” from a 1920 catalog of paintings in the Peabody Museum; model of the “LaGrange”, Peabody Essex Museum, New York and Boston “Witchcraft” clipper ships, c 1860, Library of Congress.

The Eliza reached San Francisco but never made it back; this seems to have been the fate of most of the Salem gold rush ships: they were sold, dismantled, and/or repurposed. The most dramatic example of a repurposing of a Salem ship was the LaGrange (see model from the Peabody Essex Museum above), which sailed on March 17, 1849 and ended up as a prison ship in Sacramento! We have insights into the financing of gold rush voyages from the diary of Salem forty-niner William Berry Cross, a member of the “Salem Mechanics Trading and Mining Association”, which purchased the ship Crescent for passage to California in 1850. Cross’s diary includes a complete roster of his fellow passengers, an inventory of the cargo, and the revelation that the enterprise was to be financed by the profitable sale of both the cargo and the vessel upon arrival in San Francisco.Over the next decade, celebrated clipper ships like the two Witchcrafts above would sail west and return to their eastern home ports, but these first Salem ships seem a lot more disposable.


Cabin in the Sky

The evening before last I was incredibly privileged to be able to attend a gathering in a ship’s cabin at the top of the Hawthorne Hotel. Not an actual cabin of course, but a rather convincing model, built for the Salem Marine Society in the 1920s as a condition of the sale of their building to the developers of the hotel. The Society, which was founded in 1766, had met continually at this location since 1830, and while its members do not seem to have been particularly attached to their Italianate Franklin Building (which replaced the earlier McIntire Archer Block, destroyed by fire in 1860), they were very attached to the site. And so the new hotel opened in 1925 featuring not only six stories and the latest accouterments, but also a rooftop cabin room, inspired by the actual captain’s cabin of one of the last great Salem East Indiamen, the barque Taria Topan. This cabin in the sky also represents the fruitful collaboration between the barque’s one-time commander, Captain Edward Trumbull, and the architect of the Hawthorne, Philip Horton Smith. It remains the private meeting room of the Salem Marine Society and their occasional guests, of which I was fortunate to be one.

Salem Marine Society Cabin HH

Cabin Room HH

SMS Cabin Interior

Hawthorne Hotel Buildings Collage

Cabin HH Exterior

Nathaniel Bowditch presides over the Salem Marine Society’s cabin at the top of the Hawthorne Hotel, the evolution of construction on the spot, from Samuel McIntire’s Archer Block (completed by 1810) to the Franklin Building (built after 1860) to the Hawthorne Hotel (built in 1925); X marks the spot of the rooftop cabin.

I was so excited to be in this space that I was a bit frenzied and not very good company, I’m afraid. I just wanted to see and capture everything. My skittishness was compounded by the fact that it was an absolutely beautiful early evening, and the ship’s cabin opens up onto an equally enticing (on such a day) ship’s deck, affording amazing views of Salem in every direction. Up in the air, surrounded by water on three sides, Salem’s original maritime orientation is all too apparent: the next time someone complains to me about how inaccessible is, I’m going to tell them to take a boat.

View of the Harbor from HH

View of Salem Common

View of Essex Street from Rooftop

But all those dashing sea captains were back inside, hanging from the teak-paneled walls in the form of portraits (alongside navigational instruments and paintings of ships) and encased in the Society’s registry of masters, a vast compendium of faces from 1766 to the present. I could have spent hours with this volume, gazing at all these drawings, paintings, silhouettes, and photographs of men and (finally!) women. There are so many ways you could use this source: it’s not just a record of maritime history, but also genealogy, social history, military history, even fashion history. Hats, no hats, hats, no hats.

Captain Abbot

Captain Fisk of Salem

Captain Collage

Captains Collage

Captain Fillebrownp.

Captains Abbot, Fiske, Chipman, Millet, Ward (clockwise), Tucker (right) and Webb, masters and members of the Salem Marine Society; a 20th century portrait of Captain John Fillebrown, who served in the War of 1812 and died a prisoner of war at Dartmoor Prison in England, along with 270 other Americans.

There were stories to be found in the cabin as well. The most apparent and dramatic one concerned the status of the Society’s very first honorary member, Matthew Fontaine Maury, Commander in the U.S. Navy and the first superintendent of the U.S. Naval Observatory. Despite his maritime magnificence, Maury was a Virginian and so not eligible for membership in the Society, but its membership honored his achievements by bestowing an honorary membership on him in 1859 and hanging his portrait on the wall of their original rooms.Two years later, after Maury resigned his commission and joined the Confederacy upon the start of the Civil War, the Salem mariners rescinded his membership, condemned him as a traitor, and placed his portrait head down and against the wall. This “reverse orientation” remains to this day, though a visiting delegation of the Mary Washington Branch of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities gifted the Society with another image of Commander Maury in 2008, which hangs alongside the reversed portrait. And so now, in the words of the southern Commander, “All is Well”.

Salem Marine Society Cabin Interior

Sticken from our rolls


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