Tag Archives: Ships

The Sculptor’s Mother

I’ve been working my way through all of the artists who were born or lived in Salem since I began this blog so many years ago, but one very notable and successful artist whom I have yet to cover is the sculptor John Rogers (1829-1904), chiefly because I don’t really care for his work. They have not aged well, but the “Rogers Groups” were important expressions of American material culture in the later nineteenth century: often Rogers is referred to as the Normal Rockwell of sculptors, and plaster castings of his best-selling works, depicting sentimental scenes of a young couple about to proclaim their marriage vows before a country parson and a convivial games of checkers “up at the farm,” sold thousands of copies for $15.00 each from 1860 to 1890. Even though Rogers studied in Paris like so many aspiring American artists, he firmly rejected the neoclassical sculptural style of his teachers—-and his time—in favor of a more accessible “vernacular” approach. He wanted to be a successful, popular artist more than an artist: he told his mother so, many times, in letters we can read at the New York Historical Society. The mother of John Rogers was Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers (1805-1877), and she is really my interest and my focus; but I can only get to her through him. And my interest in her started with a dress, the beautiful, ethereal, dress seemingly spun from air and mica (but really Indian muslin and silver) which she wore to her wedding reception in 1827.

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20191031_153222Indian Muslin and silver wedding reception dress of Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers, 1827, Peabody Essex Museum (Gift of Miss Jeannie Dupee, 1979).

This dress is in the stunning new Asian Export gallery of the Peabody Essex Museum. Since its opening about six weeks ago, I have snuck into see it (and several other things) about three or four times: I’m obsessed with it (and several other things)!  The dress is beautiful, but I feel a connection to Sarah largely through her younger sister, Mary Jane Derby (Peabody), who was an artist and the author of a hand-written and -bound journal composed for her grandchildren which a lovely lady from Maine bought at a yard sale and sent to me: I know that I should turn this little book over to her family, or an archive, but I’ve held on to it simply because I cherish it. In the journal, Mary Jane writes about her wonderful childhood in the large mansion on Washington Street that she depicts in one her most alluring paintings. This is the mansion to which Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers would return after her marriage to John Rogers of Boston, and the birthplace of her son John Rogers (Jr.) in 1829.

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Pickman Derby House 70 Wash

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Sara Rogers Salem Literary and Commercial Observer June 9 1827

Mary Ellen Derby, the Pickman-Derby Mansion at 70 Washington Street, c. 1825; Detroit Institute of Arts; a Moulton-Erickson Photograph from the 1880s, Cornell University Library—the house was demolished in 1914 for the present Masonic building; The Margaret, co-owned by Mary Jane’s and Sarah Ellen’s father John Derby, was one of the first American ships to reach Japan, in 1801, Old-time Ships of Salem, Essex Institute, 1917; The Rogers wedding announcement in the Salem Literary and Commercial Observer, June 9, 1827.

Mary Jane and Sarah Ellen Derby seem to have had a perfect Salem childhood growing up in this mansion during Salem’s most prosperous period, the granddaughters of Salem’s most prosperous merchant, Elias Hasket Derby, and the daughters of John Derby, Esq, part-owner of The Margaret, one of the first American ships (and THE first Salem ship) to dock in Japan. I’m so dazzled by her childhood (and her dress) that I make the cardinal historical mistake when I look at the post-marriage life of Sarah Ellen: I judge this life by my own standards and perspectives, rather than hers. By all accounts Sarah and her husband had a happy marriage (they had eight children, after all, of whom John Jr. was the second-eldest) but their lives together don’t seem to have been as comfortable as her Salem life. Despite his Harvard degree and Boston Brahmin pedigree, John Sr. was not a very good businessmanshortly after John Jr.’s birth in 1829 the young family was off to Cincinnati where Mr. Rogers attempted to establish a sawmill (and where Mary Jane met her husband, the Reverend Ephraim Peabody, while visiting her older sister) after this failed it was back to (western) Massachusetts for a silkworm enterprise, which also failed after a few years. There was a brief stint in New Hampshire, and then the (now much larger) Rogers family settled in Roxbury, with John Sr. taking up a post (a political appointment?) at the Boston Custom House which he held for the rest of his life. There was no Harvard for John Jr.: he was briefly established in a Boston apprenticeship before he ran off in pursuit of an artistic career. Perhaps this background explains his entrepreneurial attitude towards that career. All of this makes me feel sorry for Sarah: all those moves,, all those children! Did she have any help? Did she look back at her wedding reception dress and think: how did I get here?  But I’m just projecting my own feelings on to her: she had a large and by all accounts happy family and a successful son who addressed all of his letters to that family to her, at its center, or heart (and it looks like despite all of those children, she still might have been able to fit into that dress).

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Sarah Rogers NYHS

Sarah Rogers Checkers

Checkers photograph Essex Institute

Rogers Marketing

Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers and her family, New York Historical Society Rogers Collection and the archived online exhibit John Rogers: American Stories where you can see more photographs, get more context, and read letters from John to Sarah; Checkers at the Farm—the second most popular work of Rogers—Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of John Rogers and Son; photograph of “Checkers”, Smithsonian via Essex Institute Lantern slide: E24240; Advertisement for “Checkers”, Harper’s Weekly 3 (March 18, 1876): 235.


A Viking Ship, Two Black Hats, and One Special Street

Despite the fact that I am a middle-aged woman rather than an adolescent boy, I was absolutely determined to see the reproduction Viking ship Draken Harald Hårfagre as it sailed into Plymouth Harbor yesterday. Plymouth is just one of the stops on the ship’s east coast tour, and it was the most convenient for me in terms of time and geography, so down to the South Shore I went. It was a humid day and all was gray as we waited for a pending storm and the ship, which slid into Plymouth Harbor very gracefully. I had hoped to see it under sail, but of course that wasn’t going to happen in the wide, calm harbor. You (and I) will have to see it under sail here. I always enjoy seeing the juxtaposition of “old” and new vessels; of course Plymouth has that all the time with the Mayflower II in the harbor—but the Draken is so much more “alien”.

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Well, that’s it for the ship (which will be in port until Friday evening and then it’s going down the coast). Both before and after its arrival I occupied myself in my usual way: looking at old houses and comparing Plymouth to Salem as a tourist destination and purveyor of local history. Even though they are very different places, I can’t help making comparisons between these two New England ports, put on the map by their seventeenth-century origins and happenings as symbolized by two omnipresent black hats: of the Plymouth Pilgrim and the Salem Witch. Indeed, Salem and Plymouth have both been on the heritage map for quite some time, whether it be for educational or tourism purposes.

MA MAP 1966Colonization in America visual wall map, 1966, prepared by the Civic Education Service, Washington, D.C.; David Rumsey Map Collection.

In terms of physical size, Plymouth is one of the largest towns in Massachusetts, whereas Salem is among the smallest cities. Plymouth’s population is actually larger, I was surprised to realize, but Salem’s is much more concentrated. Salem is urban and closer to Boston; Plymouth doesn’t quite feel “suburban” to me but I guess it is. Both places are county seats and have vibrant downtowns and tourist-based economies. Both towns are “historic” but in very different ways: Salem’s history is predominately commodified while Plymouth is more committed to public history. As a heritage destination, Plymouth is what Salem would be if the Peabody Essex Museum had not absorbed and essentially obliterated the Essex Institute: its Pilgrim Hall Museum (founded in the very same decade—the 1820s–as the Essex Historical Society, one of the Essex Institute’s founding organizations) and Plymouth Antiquarian Society serve as public repositories and interpreters of the history of “America’s Hometown”. This makes for a very different projection. I’m not trying to pass judgement here (although regular readers will know how I feel): Plymouth seems to have preserved quite a bit of its “ye olde” parochial identity whereas we all know that the Peabody Essex Museum is a very sophisticated, global institution.

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Plymouth Adventure 13The Jabez Howland House is presented much like Salem’s “Witch House”, as a singular survivor and link to the seventeenth-century past.

Both Plymouth and Salem have impressive inventories of historic structures, although their waterfronts were altered considerably by twentieth-century state and federal initiatives designed to highlight their maritime heritages, ironically: the preparations for Plymouth’s tercentenary in 1919-1920 cleared out its unsightly wharves and created Pilgrim Memorial State Park while the Salem Maritime National Historic Site was created in a similar (but less radical) manner in the next decade. Salem has more concentrated historic districts but Plymouth has several special streets too: on this particular trip I could not get enough of Leyden Street (below) in particular. So many brick- or shingle-ended houses! And so few Federals, both compared to Salem and even the towns just to the north, Kingston and Duxbury. Both Plymouth and Salem had spectacular Tercentenary pageants and parades, and Plymouth is definitely gearing up for its 400th in 2020: Salem, I’m not so sure.

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Plymouth Adventure

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Plymouth adventure 12Leyden Street, with the storm coming in.


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.


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.

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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.

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Young Mariner

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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.

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SB Collage

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SB OOST

SB Galeon

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


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