by Maura McCarthy, Trust Registrar
The fall symposium, “The Treasures of Historic Portsmouth” truly was an experience to be treasured. Our visit to the coastal New Hampshire town gave members privileged looks into many private historic homes and a grand tour of Historic New England’s house museums in the area.
Jane Nylander delivered the Jonathan Fairbanks Lecture at the welcome reception Thursday evening. Her lecture, Documenting Portsmouth Interiors, 1750–1850 introduced us to many of the houses and lectures to be seen and heard during the symposium. We also owe much gratitude to Jane and her husband, Richard for their tremendous hard work in helping to put this symposium together, including inviting us into their 1810 home.
Friday morning began with a set of lectures on Portsmouth paintings, history and furniture. Kimberly Alexander, chief curator of Strawbery Banke Museum delivered a lecture on the current exhibit Painting Portsmouth, to be visited by the Trust on Saturday, featuring paintings of the town by mid-19th to mid-20th century artists including land and riverscapes of the small town on the Piscataqua River to town views of daily life and the fishing and shipping industries in Portsmouth.
Following Dr. Alexander’s lecture, Dr. Jere Daniell, Professor Emeritus at Dartmouth College captivated us with the Social and Political History of Portsmouth, 1725–1825. Dr. Daniell’s entertaining and informative lecture gave some insights into the prominent merchants and political figures of the era including Benning Wentworth, governor of New Hampshire in 1741 and John Langdon, a merchant and part-time radical in the Resistance Movement in the late 1700s, who also established the Portsmouth Navy Yard.
The final lecturer of the day, Brock Jobe of Winterthur, who has spent many years studying Portsmouth furniture, spoke on the tradition of the craft in the area. In the early days of the settlement, furniture was brought from England and the prevalence of English furniture as well as the Boston styles had a major influence on the aesthetic and high style of Portsmouth furniture. Local craftsmen’s pieces, such as John Gains’ chairs and Joseph Davis’ high chest remain in town at the Warner House. Robert Harrold was the Portsmouth craftsman who introduced high style furniture making and influenced others. His furniture was seen at several of the house museums we visited.
The rainy Friday afternoon did not stop us from thoroughly enjoying tours of four house museums in town. The tours of Warner House (1716–1718), Moffatt-Ladd House and Garden (1763), Rundlet-May House (1807), and Governor John Langdon House (1784) showcased some of the furniture seen in Brock’s lecture, wallpaper, family-owned objects, portraits and impressive restorations. Friday concluded with a warm reception and cocktails hosted by Trust member Ron Bourgeault at his auction house in the 1818 Treadwell Mansion.
Saturday was another full day of lectures and tours. The morning greeted us with much cheerier weather which was perfect for the walking tours in the afternoon. Barbara Ward lectured on the fascinating connections between the Moffatts of Portsmouth and the shipping and trade industries to and from North Carolina, the coast of Africa, and especially the Caribbean. Eventually Samuel Moffatt, who fled from Portsmouth because of debts, bought a cotton plantation along the Demerara River in Guyana. Moffatt’s father, John Moffatt who made his fortune in shipping to the Caribbean constantly warned his son to keep good accounts and make no debts. After Samuel’s death on the plantation, his wife tried to hold the plantation together but due to floods eventually returned to the family in Portsmouth.
The lectures of this symposium covered a wide range of the history of both the land and its people and objects. Louise Richardson focused on archaeological finds in Portsmouth that have turned up Chinese export porcelain, dining room china, bedroom wash sets, earthenware and salt glaze ceramics. Many of these have been matched to existing inventories of Portsmouth homes. Louise’s lecture was a “show-and-tell” of sorts with examples of fine Dutch, Irish, and Scottish delftware, shipware, marbled ware, and decorated ceramics shown on the lecture screen and scattered on a table for all to touch. After seeing the kitchenware and serving dishes Louise has found in the area, the lecture that followed gave insight into what would have been served on those platters.
Betsy Garrett Widmer listed fabulous contemporary descriptions of the food found in the homes and detailed accounts of house gardens. Residents frequently visited one another’s homes and interesting customs developed from these visits. For instance, after giving birth, a new mother would receive guests to her chamber where she sat in bed with the child. Visitors gathered round in chairs and had refreshments. Also, in dining rooms, silver was polished and table linens were bleached so white that the whole room would shine brightly in the candle light. These frequent visits meant that neighbors and townspeople were familiar with the objects owned by other families and documents from the time frequently referred to items in others’ houses.
Following the morning of Caribbean connections and domestic customs, we lunched at the Blue Mermaid grill for a delicious tropical meal of sweet potato coconut soup and grilled shrimp with mango salsa. Afterwards we set out for our afternoon visits. First came Strawbery Banke, the early settlement that later became Portsmouth, with its rich collection of historic houses and shops from many periods. A special exhibit of the Wendell furniture was set up in the Chandler House for Trust members to see.
We could have stayed all day and still not have seen it all, but the afternoon moved us to several more private historic houses. We would like to thank our hosts, Hollis Brodrick, Joanna Brode and Donald Koleman, Jonathan and Paige Trace, Deb Richards, John and Marie Van der Sande, Dick Jackson and especially Jane and Richard Nylander. The 18th- and early 19th-century houses ranged from Hollis Brodrick’s restoration project on a 1740 house to Jonathan and Paige Trace’s incredible collection, housed in their newly restored 1770 home. All of our hosts were more than gracious in receiving our group and had a wealth of information about their houses and the objects.
On the final day, we had another round of richly informative lectures. Sandra Rux of the Portsmouth Historical Society spoke about Portsmouth Samplers and Female Academies and showed many examples of the beautiful needlework done by young girls in the early 19th century. A characteristic of Portsmouth samplers is having strawberries stitched into the designs, a reference to wild berries that grew along the Piscataqua River, from which Strawbery Banke got its name.
From these young artists, we moved on to another Portsmouth artist, painter John Blunt, 1798–1835. Deborah Child, an independent art historian has dedicated many years of research to learning about this little-recognized Portsmouth painter. She recently published his sketchbooks in the first book ever written about Blunt. Although extremely talented, John Blunt supported himself by selling lithographic views of Portsmouth, painting fire buckets, trade signs, and, in 1819, the Seal of New Hampshire on the new State House in Concord, but his real passion was landscapes. His large-scale A View of Portsmouth from Freeman’s Point is a beautiful landscape of the Piscataqua River and the town built on its banks. This spectacular work was on exhibit at Strawbery Banke, where its immense dimensions took up half a wall in the gallery. Child posed the question, if Blunt had had more patrons what would his legacy be today?
Finally, the symposium was concluded with another dynamic lecture from University of New Hampshire history professor Dr. Jeff Bolster. His remarks about the shipping industry in the Piscataqua River and Atlantic region began with the first settlements in the early 1600s. Timber and fish were the first shipments because vast forests of white pines, towering chestnuts, oaks and American elms seemed infinite and salmon and sturgeons were abundant in the waters. The seemingly plentiful resources caused merchants to ship 300 metric tons, a substantial volume then, out of the region every year for many years. These industries boomed for over 100 years, but unfortunately they proved unsustainable and by the end of the 1700s overfishing had totally depleted salmon and sturgeons from the river and deforestation meant firewood had to be brought down from Maine to Portsmouth and Boston. None of the ships from this period are left today, but the decorative arts and architecture have remained. They, along with the excellent scholars in the area, make Portsmouth one of the most interesting and enchanting historic towns in America.