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Monday, November 20, 2017

Island Treasures of the Nantucket Historical Association

Island Treatures of the Nantucket Historical Association: Celebrating 25 Years of Giving by Ben Simons
Island Treatures of the Nantucket Historical Association: Celebrating 25 Years of Giving by Ben Simons
The island of Nantucket, located south of Cape Cod off the coast of Massachusetts, boasts a rich maritime history and one of the highest concentrations of pre-Civil War structures in the United States. In 1894, the children and grandchildren of the great whaling generations of this island community founded the Nantucket Historical Association to protect and preserve the island’s threatened cultural and material legacy. A sense of urgency toward this goal was relayed by the NHA’s first secretary, Mary E. Starbuck, who wrote of the need to “secure all possible material relating to old Nantucket...before it is too late and these valuable mementoes are carried away from the island as trophies, or by progressive housewives ‘cast as rubbish to the void.’” Since that time, the NHA’s mission has focused on preserving the island’s treasures for posterity, mainly through donations from individuals and families. The collecting mission of the institution was greatly advanced when the Friends of the Nantucket Historical Association was founded in 1986 by a group of collectors who looked beyond the island’s boundaries to secure valuable and vulnerable treasures for posterity.

Gifts to the NHA from the Friends have included remarkable examples of Nantucket decorative and fine arts, whaling paraphernalia, and island artifacts. In celebration of the twenty-five years of Friends’ donations, the NHA has published Island Treasures: Gifts of the Friends of the Nantucket Historical Association, 1986–2011 (NHA, August 2011). A selection of the gifts are included here. For more information about the museum or to purchase the publication, call 508.228.5785 or visit www.nha.org.


Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828) Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin (1759–1839), circa 1810 Oil on scored panel, 33 x 26-1/2 inches Gift in memory of Tucker Gosnell, with a partial gift of Catherine C. Lastavica, M.D. (2005.4.1)
Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828)
Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin (1759–1839), circa 1810
Oil on scored panel, 33 x 26-1/2 inches
Gift in memory of Tucker Gosnell, with a partial gift of Catherine C. Lastavica, M.D. (2005.4.1)

Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin was born in Boston in 1759. His ancestor, Tristram Coffin, was the patriarch of the original English settlement of Nantucket in the seventeenth century. In 1773, at the age of fourteen, Isaac joined the Royal Navy. In 1804 he attained a baronetcy and was given a coat of arms, and by 1814 had advanced to the rank of full admiral. A friend of Lord Nelson and the Duke of Clarence (later William IV), Sir Isaac never forgot his Nantucket origins, returning in 1826 to establish the Coffin School for all who could claim descent from Tristram and Dionis Coffin, which included a large segment of the island’s population. Sir Isaac commissioned his likeness from some of the leading portrait painters and sculptors of the day, among them Gilbert Stuart, who created iconic renderings of American presidents, leading statesmen, and prominent citizens in major American cities. Sir Isaac sat for Gilbert Stuart’s remarkable portrait in Boston sometime close to 1810.


William Swain (1803–1847) Peter Folger Ewer (1800–1855), 1828 Oil on canvas, 27 x 23 inches (1986.30.1)
William Swain (1803–1847)
Peter Folger Ewer (1800–1855), 1828
Oil on canvas, 27 x 23 inches
(1986.30.1)

Peter Folger Ewer was a leading whaling merchant and entrepreneur in Nantucket’s Golden Age. After establishing himself in the shipping trade, with the help of his father, in 1829 Ewer went on to found the whaling and shipping firm of Peter F. Ewer & Co., in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1836, he returned to Nantucket, where he solved the problem of the Nantucket Bar—the shoal of shifting sands that impeded the loading and unloading of whaling and freight vessels—by creating a kind of floating dry dock called the “camels,” which carried the laden vessels over the Bar. A tireless entrepreneur, he shipped to Valparaiso, Chile, in 1848, seeking to open a trading company. In 1850, he went to California and was appointed coroner and sheriff of Sacramento County. He died of cancer in San Francisco in 1855. The portrait of Peter and that of his wife, Mary Cartwright Ewer, also in the collection, are the earliest known Nantucket portraits by William Swain, the most prolific portrait painter on Nantucket during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Swain’s portrait presents the remarkable four-pointed diamond-shaped tattoo on Peter Ewer’s forehead. Later owners of the painting had the tattoo painted over, not to be discovered until conservation on the paintings was undertaken in 1997.


William W. Kennedy (1818–after 1870) Captain David Worth (1773–1855), 1845 Oil on board, 16 x 12 inches (1988.123.1)
William W. Kennedy (1818–after 1870)
Captain David Worth (1773–1855), 1845
Oil on board, 16 x 12 inches
(1988.123.1)

As master of the early-nineteenth-century whaleship Harriet, David Worth sailed around Cape Horn on a voyage from 1804 to 1806. Worth described himself in his will as a “master mariner” and owner of an estate that included a home on Union Street and a farm in Shawkemo. At the age of seventy-two, he had his portrait painted by the itinerant New Hampshire artist William Kennedy, who visited Nantucket in 1845. Kennedy practiced his trade along the New England coast from 1845 through 1847. He moved to Maryland in 1849 or 1850, residing in Baltimore with his wife and three children until 1869. Painting in the trademark style of the Prior-Hamblin School, Kennedy is among the least well known of this group of artists. In Kennedy’s portrait, the hearty “master mariner,” portrayed with ruddy cheeks and pronounced dewlaps, looks out after a life well lived at sea from his contented retirement on Nantucket.


High fan-back Windsor armchair Frederick Slade (1777–1800), Nantucket, 1799 Maple, oak, white pine, yellow poplar, paint H. 43, W. 24-1/2, SD. 16-1/2 (without extension for brace), SH. 15-1/2 inches Handwritten inscription on label beneath seat reads: “This Chair was made by/Frederick Slade in Nantucket/in 1799.” (1999.30.3)
High fan-back Windsor armchair
Frederick Slade (1777–1800), Nantucket, 1799
Maple, oak, white pine, yellow poplar, paint
H. 43, W. 24-1/2, SD. 16-1/2 (without extension for brace), SH. 15-1/2 inches
Handwritten inscription on label beneath seat reads:
“This Chair was made by/Frederick Slade in Nantucket/in 1799.”
(1999.30.3)

The Nantucket Windsor chair form evolved from familiar Philadelphia Windsor chair designs, examples of which were commonly imported to the island throughout the second half of the eighteenth century. Chairs made by two Nantucket chair makers in particular, Frederick Slade and Charles Chase (1731–1815), have come to be seen as the most impressive and representative specimens of the type. Some of the key features of the 1799 Frederick Slade chair include its pronounced height, its broad crest featuring projecting ears with carved scrolls, and the cylinder and baluster turnings of its posts. The Slade chair also retains much of its original paint layer beneath later additions. Frederick Slade was the oldest son of a successful chair maker, and was likely trained by his father. He achieved a high degree of mastery before his untimely death at the age of twenty-three, in the year after he had completed this outstanding Nantucket Windsor chair.


James Hathaway (fl. 1839–1850/52) Levi Starbuck Coffin and Eunice Coffin, 1847 Oil on canvas, 38 x 30 inches Inscription on reverse: “Levi Starbuck Coffin Aged 3 yrs 6 mo 1847/Eunice Coffin Aged 1 yr 1847.” (1999.30.1)
James Hathaway (fl. 1839–1850/52)
Levi Starbuck Coffin and Eunice Coffin, 1847
Oil on canvas, 38 x 30 inches
Inscription on reverse: “Levi Starbuck Coffin Aged 3 yrs 6 mo 1847/Eunice Coffin Aged 1 yr 1847.”
(1999.30.1)

Hathaway succeeded William Swain as the most desired portrait artist among the island’s leading citizenry in the mid-nineteenth century. He is first recorded as offering his services on the island in 1839, and over the next decade left a vital visual record of members of Nantucket’s leading families, including many portraits of children. Hathaway was engaged by whaling merchant Henry Coffin (1807–1900) to paint several portraits of his family members, apparently in exchange for sending Hathaway to study in Italy. The artist depicted the Coffin children on canvas, often endowing them with earnest, nearly adult expressions. Hathaway’s other stylistic hallmarks are evident in these portraits, such as the softly modeled chins, the somewhat stiff, nearly doll-like limbs and hands, and the studied gaze of the sitters. Levi Starbuck (b.1845) and Eunice Coffin (b. 1846) were the fifth and sixth children of Henry and Eliza Starbuck Coffin’s nine children.


Sperm whale tooth Edward Burdett (1805–1833), ca. mid-1820s Ivory, 5-1/8 x 2-5/8 inches. Inscription on reverse, added later, reads: “A Sperm Whales Tooth/Presented by Peter F. Ewer/ of Nantucket U.S.A./to/Richard Niven Esq./Chrome Hall./March 15, 1846.” (1989.126.4).
Sperm whale tooth
Edward Burdett (1805–1833), ca. mid-1820s
Ivory, 5-1/8 x 2-5/8 inches.
Inscription on reverse, added later, reads: “A Sperm Whales Tooth/Presented by Peter F. Ewer/
of Nantucket U.S.A./to/Richard Niven Esq./Chrome Hall./March 15, 1846.”
(1989.126.4).

Edward Burdett was a master of the quintessential Yankee and American folk art of scrimshaw—the sailor’s practice in their moments of leisure of carving on sperm-whale teeth, skeletal bone, and other parts of captured whales, memorializing in an art form peculiar to their profession the enormous creatures whose lives they had just taken. Edward Burdett and Frederick Myrick (1805–62), the two most celebrated and collectible scrimshaw artists, were both Nantucket youths who entered upon the great “island profession” of whaling at early ages. They would pursue typical careers, rising in the ranks, until, in Burdett’s case, achieving the rank of officer, and in Myrick’s case, an early retirement to land. For Edward Burdett, the ritual perils of the whale hunt cut short his life. He left behind a remarkable oeuvre of carved sperm-whale teeth and select panbone plaques, bearing his trademark “intaglio” style of deeply carved, darkly inked surfaces depicting whaling vessels, whaleboats, and sperm whales embroiled in the hunt, often set amidst charmingly decorative floral borders.


Journal of the whaleship Nauticon, September 13, 1848–March 24, 1853 Kept by Susan Austin Veeder (1816–97) (MS 220, Log 347)
Journal of the whaleship Nauticon, September 13, 1848–March 24, 1853
Kept by Susan Austin Veeder (1816–97)
(MS 220, Log 347)

In 1833, seventeen-year-old Susan Austin married Nantucketer Charles Veeder (1809–78), who would serve as master of several Nantucket whaling vessels. In 1848, thirty-two-year-old Susan, mother of three and four months pregnant, joined her husband on his four-and-a-half-year Pacific voyage together with two of her sons, George (fourteen) and David (six). The September 1848 to March 1853 voyage aboard the Nauticon took Susan and her family around Cape Horn to ports in Chile and thence to Oahu, Tahiti, and as far north as the Fox Islands in the Arctic. On board, she filled a journal with remarks and accomplished watercolors chronicling her experiences, making her the first of several Nantucket whaling women to keep a journal at sea. Hers is perhaps the most exquisite example of the genre in the entire whaling literature. Veeder’s illustrations combine the careful and detailed drawing of ship’s rigging, sails, hulls, and flags, with imposing island rock formations and foliage. Susan would never return to sea, but spent the remainder of her long life on island in the Veeder home at 91 Orange Street.


Porringer by Benjamin Bunker (1751–1842) Nantucket, ca. 1800 Diameter 5-1/2 inches (14 cm.) Inscription “ELC” on handle front and maker’s mark “BB” on reverse Silver (1995.26.1)
Porringer by Benjamin Bunker (1751–1842)
Nantucket, ca. 1800
Diameter 5-1/2 inches (14 cm.)
Inscription “ELC” on handle front and maker’s mark “BB” on reverse
Silver
(1995.26.1)

One of only ten porringers positively identified as the work of Benjamin Bunker, this lovely vessel is a testament to the elegantly simple, well-proportioned style favored by Nantucketers. Bunker’s life and work as a silversmith paralleled Nantucket’s rise as the whaling capital of the world. A native Nantucketer, he apprenticed with colonial “goldsmith” John Jackson in his home at the corner of Orange Street and Plumb Lane, and in 1772, at the age of twenty-one, began working on his own around the time of Jackson’s death. Bunker was also active in the Revolutionary War, serving as an armorer aboard the privateer brigantine Hazard, out of Boston from July to September 1779, and later in the privateer brig Gadsden, which was captured by the English ship Prince of Wales at New York. After 1815, he became primarily a clockmaker. The inscription ELC on the porringer stands for Edward (1738–1812) and Lydia (1746–1814) Cary.


George Inness (1825–94) Back of Nichols’ Barn, ’Sconset, 1883 Oil on board, 22 x 27 inches Inscription “G. Inness ’Sconset 1883” lower right corner (2011.16.1)
George Inness (1825–94)
Back of Nichols’ Barn, ’Sconset, 1883
Oil on board, 22 x 27 inches
Inscription “G. Inness ’Sconset 1883” lower right corner
(2011.16.1)

George Inness visited Nantucket first in 1879 and returned on several occasions, passing the summer of 1883 in the village of ’Sconset. In the 1870s and 1880s, Inness’s style had emerged from a more traditional practice, often associated with the Hudson River School, to his increasingly visionary and mystical experiments with art as a means to access the divine in the
natural world. Back of Nichols’ Barn, ’Sconset, does not fully embrace the mystical. Rather, it presents a vintage ’Sconset scene of sheep wandering through a broken fence in a ramshackle farmyard, past a group of whale-oil casks, relics of Nantucket’s bygone whaling days that have been converted for use as water barrels. There is a freshness and vivacity to the painting that is emblematic of the plein air style with which Inness was intensively experimenting during this period. Nichols’ barn was just off Morey Lane, south of Main Street. Mr. and Mrs. George W. Nichols, of Cincinnati, were the summer residents of ’Sconset who owned the property where Inness painted.


Tall-case clock by Walter Folger Jr. (1765–1849),ca. 1785–90 Cherry case, brass movement and dial, H. 84-5/8, W. 19, D. 9-3/4 inches Inscription “Walter Folger Jur/NANTUCKET” engraved on disk (1993.38.1)
Tall-case clock by Walter Folger Jr. (1765–1849),ca. 1785–90 Cherry case, brass movement and dial, H. 84-5/8, W. 19, D. 9-3/4 inches Inscription “Walter Folger Jur/NANTUCKET” engraved on disk (1993.38.1)
Tall-case clock by Walter Folger Jr. (1765–1849),ca. 1785–90
Cherry case, brass movement and dial,
H. 84-5/8, W. 19, D. 9-3/4 inches
Inscription “Walter Folger Jur/NANTUCKET” engraved on disk
(1993.38.1)

One of the great Nantucket characters, Walter Folger Jr. was a peculiar emanation of the Folger family tree, which also included Benjamin Franklin (via his mother Abiah Folger Franklin) and Folger Coffee Company founder James A. Folger. Self-taught in the disciplines of navigation, mathematics, astronomy, surveying, and French, he pursued his studies while working as a maker and repairer of clocks, watches, and chronometers. This clock, owned by Walter Folger Jr., dates to ca. 1785–90. Powered by a standard eight-day brass movement typical of the period, it is difficult to ascertain if the works were made by Folger himself or purchased in London or in Boston. The brass dial also points to a design most usually imported. The cherry case, however, relates to some of the earliest clock cases made in the southeastern Massachusetts region, in particular to a group of cases made in the Hingham/Hanover area to house works made by Hanover clockmakers John and Calvin Bailey.


John Fisher (b. 1789) Ship Spermo Trying With Boats Among Whales On California, 1821 Oil on canvas, 18-3/4 x 24-3/4 inches Inscription “J. Fisher” lower right corner (2008.31.1)
John Fisher (b. 1789)
Ship Spermo Trying With Boats Among Whales On California, 1821
Oil on canvas, 18-3/4 x 24-3/4 inches
Inscription “J. Fisher” lower right corner (2008.31.1)

The Nantucket whaleship Spermo sailed on its sole whaling voyage from 1820 to 1823, in consort with the whaleships General Jackson and Pacific. John Fisher, an English-born, Nantucket-naturalized whaling master, about whom little is known, captained the General Jackson, creating six known canvases depicting scenes from the voyage. Fisher’s works are among the earliest oil paintings illustrating American whaling, and rank as masterpieces of whaling art. The voyage occurred at a propitious time for the whaling industry. Nantucket was recovering from the damage to her business resulting from the War of 1812, and in the early 1820s had reinvigorated her quest for exploration and profit. The Pacific Ocean was virgin soil for the whalers—ships were fitting out in droves and capturing record numbers of sperm whales from the vast Pacific waters. Ship Spermo Trying With Boats Among Whales On California depicts in vivid and gory detail the blazing fires of the process of rendering the whale’s blubber. Fisher masterfully portrays the rolling swell of the ocean, and includes details such as a lookout with a spyglass at the foretop.


Eastman Johnson (1824–1906) In the Fields (Study for The Cranberry Harvest, Island of Nantucket), ca. 1878–1879 Oil on panel, 19-3/4 x 27 inches (1998.23.1)
Eastman Johnson (1824–1906)
In the Fields (Study for The Cranberry Harvest, Island of Nantucket), ca. 1878–1879
Oil on panel, 19-3/4 x 27 inches
(1998.23.1)

Genre painter, portraitist, and chronicler of American life, Eastman Johnson first visited Nantucket in 1869, and shortly thereafter took up regular seasonal residence on island. His island sojourns would inspire a number of his most important and enduring works, including his masterpiece, The Cranberry Harvest, Island of Nantucket (1880), at the Timken Art Gallery, San Diego, California. Widely regarded as one of the most important American paintings composed on Nantucket, it forms the culmination of a remarkable series of twenty-two studies, In the Fields among them, which experiment with composition, arrangements of figures, and varying moods of light and color. Not long after his arrival on island, Johnson had developed an interest in the annual cranberry harvest, a fall ritual that gathered a broad spectrum of the community together to undertake the seasonal culling of berries. Johnson was attracted to such scenes as tableaus of community life in airy, sun-washed outdoor settings, where the elements of work and idleness could commingle in a lushly picturesque landscape.


Ben Simons is the Robyn and John Davis Chief Curator, Nantucket Historical Association, Nantucket, Massachusetts.


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