I have a little gallery wall of Salem images I’ve collected over the years in my downstairs hall, mostly prints, but a few photographs–among them a faded hand-tinted image of an ethereally-dressed woman descending the steps of the Andrew Safford house which I long-presumed was by Wallace Nutting. It has all the Nutting touches: the hand-coloring, the colonial-esque setting, the dreamlike character, and of course there are thousands of Nuttings out there, maybe more. But when I actually took it off the wall the other day to see the signature, the attribution was to “Florence Thompson” rather than Nutting: Florence Thompson of Salem, a “Nutting-like” photographer of the early twentieth century. It didn’t take long to find more Florence Thompsons in auction listings, particularly those of the Nutting and “Nutting-like” expert Michael Ivankovich, but I haven’t been able to flesh out her life here in Salem or any of the details of her background or business. There were so many women entrepreneurs in this little city at this time–and then there was Frank Cousins, who must have shared her Colonial Revival leanings if not her predilection for fanciful settings. I wonder if she learned her craft from the master, and was one of the many women who worked for Nutting at his Framingham studio. I wonder where she produced her works—and where she sold them. I’ve got a lot of questions about Florence Thompson, but for now, just a few examples of her Nutting-like work from the 1910s and 1920s: more evidence of the seemingly-insatiable demand for calm and crafted antiquarian images in an age of dynamic change. When I look at these “compositions”, I can’t help but think how radically our artistic sensibilities have changed over a relatively short amount of time, a mere century.
My Florence Thompson print, “The Safford Door” (which looks very similar to the popular Nutting print, “The Sea Captain’s Daughter”, which you can see here); “The Clarks’ Door”, 1911, Etsy seller Bittersweet 13; (same model? Maybe Thompson just moved her from door to door); “The Cushing Door”; “Hillside Pasture”; “Annisquam”, all from Ivankovich Auctions, along with Wallace Nutting’s own “Salem Dignity”, a bit more dignified without the waif. Its title was based on the Alice Morse Earle quote: Salem houses present to you a serene and dignified front, gracious yet reserved, not thrusting forward their choicest treasures to the eyes of passing strangers; but behind the walls of the houses, enclosed from public view, lie cherished gardens, full of the beauty of life.
I was running early for Easter dinner in York Harbor, and by myself because of a sick husband, so I decided to take a detour off 95 into Portsmouth to take a look at my very favorite house. As I grew up just over the bridge and down the road apiece in southern Maine, Portsmouth was our go-to town for pretty much everything, and its downtown became my ideal setting: small New England seaport with plenty of historic housing. There’s no question I settled in Salem in large part because Portsmouth was just too far away from Boston. There are several Portsmouth streets to which I return to time and time again, but only one favorite house: the Tobias Lear House on Hunking Street, which to my untrained eye looks like the purest of Georgian structures. I think I first saw it when I was maybe 16, and it’s been part of my life ever since.
The Lear House, built in 1740, was home to several generations of a Portsmouth family including Tobias Lear, one of George Washington’s personal secretaries. After it passed out of the family in the later nineteenth century it descended into multi-family tenement status (along with much of Portsmouth’s South End), only to be rescued by Wallace Nutting, who purchased the Lear and neighboring Wentworth-Gardner House in 1917. Both properties were eventually transferred to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA–the forerunner of Historic New England) and then to the newly-formed Wentworth-Gardner and Tobias Lear Houses Association in 1940, in whose possession they remain. It seems to me that the Lear House has always been overshadowed by the High-Georgian Wentworth-Gardner, which Nutting restored in the Colonial Revival style he preferred for his ghostly photographs. Here is the sentiment of the SPNEA directors in 1919 that captures this “underappreciation” perfectly: the Society was urged to buy this house, which came on the market in 1917 for $1500, a price considerably higher for which it eventually sold. While considerably out of repair, it was a house but little altered since the days when Tobias Lear, private secretary to Washington, was its owner. Although a house we would have gladly preserved, it lacked the distinction worthy of a campaign for its purchase. It was bought by Mr. Wallace Nutting, whose famous Wentworth-Gardner house adjoins it. [Old-Time New England, 1919] It appears that the present-day restoration of the Lear House will have to wait, once again, until the Wentworth-Gardner houses is put to rights; nevertheless, when President Washington visited Portsmouth in 1789 (just a few days after he left Salem and thishouse), it was the “best parlor” of the Tobias Lear House to which he came.
The Tobias Lear House on Hunking Street in 1917 and today, and adjacent Wentworth-Gardner House on Mechanic Street.