Isaac Sprague, Botanical Illustrator

The Old Ordinary, our 1688 house museum, opens on June 13, 2017 and, for a second season, you can come see our Old Ordinary Summer Exhibit, “Isaac Sprague and American Botany.” While the exhibit devotes significant attention to Isaac Sprague’s Hingham roots and continuing connections with our town, it also addresses his prolific career as a botanical illustrator which is the source of his lasting fame.

coffee plantIn the 1840s Sprague left Hingham and moved to Cambridge, where he worked with influential botanists, including John Torrey (1796-1873) and Torrey’s pupil, Harvard professor Asa Gray (1810-1888), who is often referred to as a “father of American botany.”  In the mid-19th century, American botany was undergoing a period of intense growth and development into an academic discipline seeking a unified understanding of North American plant life that would match the highest standards of then-current European scholarship and complexity.  An important part of this process was the publication of complete and authoritative works describing the plant life of this continent—with clear, detailed, and accurate illustrations.  Sprague’s talents were ideal for the task.

2011.0.271Sprague first produced the illustrations for Asa Gray’s 1845 Lowell lectures at Harvard and then assisted with several comprehensive botanical volumes over the course of the 1840s and 1850s. His illustrations were scientific tools first and aesthetic objects second:  Sprague considered himself to be a naturalist or delineator rather than describing himself as an artist. In the preface to his 1848 work Genera of the Plants of the United States, Professor Gray described “the scientific insight and careful investigations of Mr. Sprague, as well as . . . his skill and accuracy in delineation.”  In his private correspondence, he reported that Sprague was studying botany and the natural sciences, underscoring the technical knowledge the work required.

Sprague contributed plates and engravings to over 40 works of botanical, horticultural and naturalist interest over this part of his career. The writers with whom he worked included not only Torrey and Asa Gray but also William Oakes (1799-1848), George Emerson (1797-1881), George Goodale (1839-1923), and others.  (The illustrations in this blog post are plates from George Emerson’s 1838 Trees and Shrubs of New England.)

Signs of “nature’s god” at the Ebenezer Gay house

When a local developer purchased the Rev. Ebenezer Gay (1696-1787) house at 89 North Street, local historian John P. Richardson participated in some pre-construction historical investigations.  These painted panels from the Gay house, later installed in the 1690 Old Fort House which Mr. Richardson owned and occupied, are now part of the John P. Richardson Collection at the Hingham Historical Society.

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Wall Fragment from the Ebenezer Gay House.   John P. Richardson Collection, Hingham Historical Society.

The first wall fragment is made of a plaster and lath surface attached to heavy vertical boards, which are in turn attached to two more modern boards horizontally laid.  The decorative side is painted a dirty off-white base with a meandering vine ad flower motif that originates out of a basket or planter decorated in a cross hatch pattern with dots in each diamond of the crosshatch.  The basket rests on a hilly green stylized landscape. The vine bears large, stylized acanthus-type leaves and flowers of varying shapes in red and blue. Five hand-cut nails protrude from the wall—two at the far left, one at the top center, one at the upper right, one at mid-right.

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Wall Fragment from the Ebenezer Gay House. John P. Richardson Collection, Hingham Historical Society.

The second decoratively painted wall fragment consists of two layers of plaster and lath encasing two heavy vertical boards. The plaster side is painted with at least 2 layers of paint, the topmost having been added by a 20th century Gay family member seeking to restore the design.  The original background was green, while the background of the current surface layer is a dirty tan color.

A meandering vine motif climbs the panel, with the vine bearing red tulip-shaped blue lily-shaped flowers.  At right is a narrow border set off by a dark brown line.  Within the border the flower and vine motif repeats in a narrower scale. To the right of the border is an unfinished area of white plaster with two maroon colored squares of paint laid out in a windowpane pattern.

In his book, The Benevolent Deity: Ebenezer Gay and the Rise of Rational Religion in New England, author Robert J. Wilson III described the Gay house at it looked during the years that Ebenezer lived there with his wife, Jerusha (Bradford) Gay and their ten children:

The house was a 2-1/2 story, rectangular, pitched-roof affair, somewhat large for the period, but not ostentatiously so.  Though it was painted a rather austere blue-gray on the outside, the interior was lively and colorful.  Someone (Jerusha?) adorned the cream colored walls of the family sitting room with a free hand vine design, very like eighteenth-century crewelwork.  The woodwork, fireplace wall, and the wainscott (added later) were all painted a light green.  The whole effect suggested that nature’s god in all his vibrancy was very much alive in the Gay house.

 

My Sally Hess Internship

How has the 2016 Sally Hess internship affected me? Truthfully, it’s hard to describe all the minute ways in which I have grown while working with the Hingham Historical Society this summer. The opportunity to serve as the 2016 Sally Hess Intern has aided me in a good deal of self-discovery and helped launch my development as a museum professional.

Here’s a little background about myself— I went to college with an inkling of an idea for what I might have wanted to study as a major: a high school teacher had assigned an art history paper in which we had to describe work of a Renaissance painter. This sparked curiosity for a subject that I had never before encountered. My high school didn’t offer any art history courses so I gave it a shot my freshman year of college. It just so happened that I had stumbled across the subject that kindled an intense yearning to know more—a craving which I hope everyone feels at some point in their lives.

So, after four determined years of study I graduated college in May 2016 with my Bachelor’s degree. Coming back to one’s hometown after such a momentous occasion doesn’t always feel so glorious; however, I took this anticlimactic feeling to propel my next steps, which included reaching out to the Hingham Historical Society in hopes that they might have some niche for me to work with them. While I waited for them to respond to my inquiry, my mind kept returning to the typical questions a newly graduated individual deliberates: what do I want to do with my degree? Where should I look for work? What work is there for someone with my focus? Needless to say, I was feeling restless, nervous, and a little dire.

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Eve Fairbanks working with a wool winder at the Old Ordinary, our 1688 house museum

Then, in a rather timely fashion, the Historical Society responded, interviewed me, and decided to award me their Sally Hess Internship for the summer of 2016. Thus I found myself with a paid internship with a great organization. Over the months I’ve been working with them, I have been exposed to many facets of the museum world that had never even seemed an option for me. For example, I consider myself a “public-speaking-aphobe.” The Sally Hess Internship required me to act as a docent at the Historical Society’s 1688 house museum, known as the Old Ordinary. This opportunity took me out of my comfort zone but I soon overcame some of that initial nervousness I have with presenting myself. I learned the rooms inside and out by watching other tour guides and reading the material the Hingham Historical Society provided for me. By the fifth tour I gave on my own, visitors to the Old Ordinary were not only commenting on the extraordinariness of the building but also on the quality of my tours. I also experienced the collections work done at a museum: cataloguing 17th– 20th century artifacts, entering new files into our collections database, and researching the history and significance of objects in our collection. I have fallen even more deeply in love with the museum world and have confronted many of those haunting post-graduation thoughts I previously mentioned.

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Sally Hess intern Eve Fairbanks catalogued the numerous  architectural elements from local buildings in the John P. Richardson Collection at the Hingham Historical Society. 

I now feel as though I have a direction I want to head in. I’ve confirmed with myself that I might enjoy museum work as a career. I plan to seek out other opportunities working with documentation of artifacts, helping organize behind the scenes at a museum, or (who knows) maybe even giving more tours. The notion of going back to school for a Master’s degree doesn’t seem so far-fetched; now, that I feel a new verve for this business. I am so grateful that the Hingham Historical Society gave me a chance to work with them. I will never forget this experience and can’t wait to see where it leads me.

Thanks infinitely,
Eve

“Gentleman Farmers” of the 19th Century

Brewer BarnThe “gentleman farmers” of the 19th century were men who typically had made their fortunes in that century’s industrial and commercial expansion and, only afterwards and as an avocation, applied the scientific and economic values and principles that had fueled their successes in those arenas to agricultural pursuits.  For instance, in 1856, wealthy Boston businessman John Brewer built a mansion along Martin’s Lane in Hingham, which later grew to encompass the twin drumlins of World’s End and the Hingham Harbor islands, and his son, Francis W. Brewer, built “Great Hill,” an estate off Hobart Street, now More-Brewer Park. (Shown here: a print from a glass plate negative of the barn at Great Hill, the foundations of which can still be seen in the park.)

Portrait of Samuel Downer

One prominent father-son duo of “gentleman farmers” with a strong connection to Hingham were both named Samuel Downer. The father, Samuel Downer, Sr. (1773-1854), was a Dorchester merchant with ties to shipping and the Massachusetts maritime economy.  He was a founder of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and devoted horticultural experimentalist, known for having developed several new varieties of pears.  We have in our collection a portrait of the elder Mr. Downer, painted by Henry Cheever Pratt in 1840.  Mr. Downer chose to pose with fruit and flowers and a popular naturalistic work of the era called The Romance of Nature—all reflecting his desire to be remembered for his agricultural interests and not the trade and commerce that had led to his wealth and position.

Portrait of Samuel Downer, Jr.His son, Samuel Downer, Jr. (1807-1881), was a pioneer in the development of kerosene and a participant in early petroleum exploration in Pennsylvania.  (Locally, he is known for having bought up most of Crow Point in Hingham and developed the mid-19th century resort Melville Garden.)  This Samuel Downer (photo at right) also cultivated fruit for a hobby.  One of his inventions was “Downer’s Late Cherry,” a useful application of scientific principles to farming: it bore fruit later than other varieties of cherry, effectively extending the local cherry season.

PH503The Hingham Agricultural and Horticultural Society, founded in 1869, was also comprised of local men and women, many of whom were involved in industry, trade, and commerce.  (Here, they pose for a formal portrait in front of Hingham’s Agricultural Hall in the late 1880s or early 1890s.) As a society, they were earnestly dedicated to scientific farming, that is, using the progressive values of the 19th century and the power of new knowledge and industrial technology to “improve” agriculture along “modern” lines. At the agricultural fair each fall, prizes offered in different categories attracted many entrants. One could win a medal or ribbon—and an accompanying cash prize–for anything from crops and livestock to flowers and preserves.

The prizes offered for “Agricultural Experiments” demonstrate this interest in scientific farming.  A poster advertising the 1863 Agricultural Fair (detail reproduced below) offered prizes for the “best conducted experiment” in several areas, including for instance, “ascertaining the most economical manner of apply Manures for a crop of Indian corn, not less than ½ acre . . . .”

Africultural Fair Poster 1863 #2

Isaac Sprague and American Botany

isaac sprague poster '16-100dpiA new exhibit opened today at our 1688 Old Ordinary house museum, 21 Lincoln Street, Hingham. Isaac Sprague and American Botany: Art, Science, and Agriculture in the 19th Century examines the life and work of America’s best-known botanical illustrator–and son of Hingham–and places his art in the context of several currents of 19th century social history.  Plus, we have mounted some absolutely lovely botanical prints and and a series of beautifully detailed pencil drawings of the many types of orchard fruits that were once grown in this area. The exhibit can be seen Tuesdays through Saturdays, between 1 pm and 5 pm, for the rest of the summer.  We hope you come and take a look and learn a little more about this Hingham artist.

Main Street, Top of Pear Tree HillIsaac Sprague was born in Hingham in 1811. His family lived in Hingham Centre, in a house that still stands today. The Spragues of Hingham were primarily coopers, part of the woodenware industry that gave early Hingham the nickname “Bucket Town.”  Sprague was mostly self-taught as an artist, recalling that he “always had a fondness for making pictures” as a child. He was “constantly discouraged from doing so by [his] father, who said artists were invariably poor,” but his family did have some creative roots–his Uncle Hosea was a printer and engraver, and another uncle, Blossom, ran a carriage-painting business (visible in the center of this early photo of Hingham Centre) where Sprague was apprenticed as a young man.

No. 11Sprague developed an early love of nature and much of his juvenile work is drawn from the woods and fields around Hingham.  In particular, young Isaac drew and painted numerous pictures of birds.  When Sprague was about thirty, he met the wildlife artist J. J. Audubon, who examined a number of Sprague’s bird drawings and, impressed with his talent, hired him as an assistant. In this capacity, Sprague accompanied Audubon out west to the Missouri Territory and Fort Union on a trip to produce sketches for Audubon’s Quadrupeds of North America. This connection with Audubon launched Sprague’s career as a botanical artist.

2011.0.271After his trip west Sprague returned briefly to the South Shore, working as a clerk in a Nantasket Beach hotel until, the following year, he started to work as an illustrator for prominent American botanist Asa Gray, first producing illustrations for his 1845 Lowell lectures at Harvard.  Before long he moved to Cambridge, continuing to work for Gray and other Harvard professors, illustrating several comprehensive botanical volumes in the 1840s and 1850s.  (The illustration to the left, of Aesculus Parviflora, is from an 1848 work, Trees and Shrubs of New England.)

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Ervin Horton in his Stanley Steamer (1911)
This 1911 shot from our photo archives depicts Ervin Horton (1876-1959), at the time a Hingham mail carrier, in his Stanley Steamer automobile. When we reproduced the photo in Michael Shilhan’s 1976 local history, When I Think of Hingham, the caption read, “Ervin S. Horton and his red Stanley Steamer on South Street in front of the Post Office, July 31, 1911.”

Ervin’s son, Howard Leavitt Horton (1904-1983), memorialized the Hingham of his youth in letters, stories, water color paintings, and sound recordings, many of which are in our archives. Here, in a 1975 letter written to Historical Society President James W. Wheaton, an elderly Howard Horton remembers his father, the delivery route, and the car:

I remember driving around the Hingham R.F.D. mail route with my father in that old Stanley Steamer . . . . We started up Fearing Road and turned right past the old Cadet Field (now Derby) and then left at the foot of the hill by the harbor and over Otis Street then turned right on Downer Avenue passing the Crow Point Inn and to the Steamboat Landing. Then we took a very sharp left turn and up a very steep hill, Steamboat Lane. This was before 1915 and there were few automobiles in Hingham then and I doubt if any of them except my father’s Stanley Steamer could go up that hill after a sharp turn. The old Stanley Steamer just went up that hill puffing steam with no trouble at all. The Crow Point Golf Club was at the top of the hill and then we turned right and there was a beautiful view of Boston Harbour. . . .

In those days there was an old blacksmith shop as we turned right leaving Downer Avenue on Lincoln Street . . . Mr. Wing’s blacksmith shop and then Jerry Breen’s farm house and barn with a windmill which pumped water from a well for use on his truck garden. There were several of these farms in Hingham and they all drove over Lincoln Street early in the dawn to get to the market district on Hanover and Blackstone streets at Boston by daylight, these huge wagons requiring two horses and sometimes four. . . .

Crow Point Golf Club
This postcard dates from 1915, around the time young Howard Horton accompanied his father on summertime mail delivery trips up the hill to the Crow Point Golf Club, a 9-hole golf course located at the top of Paige Hill, off Howe Street.
Steamboat Hill

Steamboat Hill ran up from the former steamboat landing–where the Hingham  Yacht Club now has its pier:  the sharp left up the hill remains in place today.  The painting above, showing Steamboat Hill from the far side, was made somewhat earlier, in 1895–the year before Melville Garden was closed and development of Crow Point accelerated.

Hingham Artists to Know: Franklin Whiting Rogers (Part II)

(Part II of a blog post on Hingham artist Franklin Whiting Rogers. Part I can be found here.)

Rogers was born in 1854 in Cambridge, the middle son of three boys born to Edward Coit Rogers, a widower, and his second wife, Elizabeth Lothrop Seymour, daughter of Joel and Polly (Whiton) Seymour of Hingham. Edward and Elizabeth were both educated, intellectual, active in social reform and the abolitionist movement, authors and members of the Universalist Society.

Franklin Whiting Rogers

Photograph of Franklin Whiting Rogers. Courtesy of David and Shirley Rogers of Hingham, Mass.

In 1856, Edward suffered failing health so Elizabeth brought her young sons and their half-brothers back to Hingham to live with her family. Edward died in 1860 and young Franklin was raised in Hingham until age 16, when he moved to Boston to attend art school.
He later entered the studio of J. Foxcroft Cole, a fine painter in the French Barbizon style then fashionable: nostalgic rural landscapes often in misty light. A talented student, Rogers advanced rapidly with his master. European training was considered essential to further a painter’s career so Cole turned his promising student over to artist Thomas Robinson of Boston who studied in Paris and excelled in painting of animals and landscapes, which later became Rogers’ specialties.

Robinson made frequent buying trips to Europe for prominent New England art dealers, as did fellow Boston artist William Morris Hunt, who helped introduce the Barbizon painters to the avid Boston art market. Robinson also promoted local artists and it was through his studio that young Rogers met Hunt, then at the height of his career. Hunt, a respected teacher, became a lasting influence on Rogers’ career as an inspiration and mentor: his guide-book for artists taught “a way of seeing that stressed emotional carrying power and individual feeling expressed in a painterly style.” Hunt’s work was influenced by the technical bravura of French artist Thomas Couture and the spiritual fervor of Jean-Francois Millet.

Rogers exhibited often and widely and in 1884 returned to Hingham with an established reputation and following for both his animal and landscape subjects. Working from a studio on High Street, he expanded his circle of artist mentors and friends and became acquainted with Winckworth Allan Gay and Alexander Pope, noted local artists. In 1886, Rogers moved his studio to 33 Free Street where he bought a home; he worked there until the end of his life in 1917. The studio no longer exists but his house has remained in the family where his grandson, David, and wife, Shirley, live today.

Rogers painted “alla prima,” a more straightforward broad application of paint compared to the classical technique of building a painting with a series of transparent glazes over a monochrome underpainting. Strictly defined, an “alla prima” painting would be started and finished in one session but the term is also more loosely applied to any painting done in a direct and expressive style that promotes painterly freshness of response to the subject.

But Sisters, or Four Hounds (reproduced below) was not painted in one afternoon! Capturing the poetic informality of the pile of sleeping dogs on a dusty blanket, required a great deal of preparation—followed by revisions, over-painting and even some glazes for the finishing touch.

Sisters, or Four Hounds

Sisters, or Four Hounds by Franklin Whiting Rogers

Rogers would begin by creating charcoal or pencil studies of group-ings as well as studies of each animal to get acquainted with their personality and body. A series of small “thumbnails” would be created next as he experimented with the group composition – finally settling on a classic pyramid grouping that leads your eye in a circle of nodding heads. Next, value studies would help establish his patterns of light and dark born known as “chiascuro,” that serves to model the dogs’ bodies and organize the interior space.
When ready to paint, the artist likely prepared the stretched canvas by toning it with a middle-value wash, perhaps of an umber. (This enables a painter to better assess his colors when not seen against a white canvas.)
His next step would be to create “a map,” lightly drawn marks to indicate the shapes in his composition—or he may have massed in shadow shapes with thin paint and used a rag to pull out paint for areas of light. When satisfied with this preparation, Rogers mixed oil colors on his palette and applied them according to the rule of thumb “lean over fat,” which means initial paint strokes would be executed with paint thinned a bit with turpentine with the thickest application of paint, “impasto,” saved for areas in light painted last.
There might have been multiple sittings with the animals throughout the process of painting to ensure he expressed each dog’s individual character. “Eye candy” would be those last accents that enliven the work and lend an individual truth and charm: the highlights on a dog’s brow and paws, the texture of fur, the fuzz on the blanket. The painting process probably took several weeks before Rogers was satisfied that he had captured the spirit of his sitters and resolved the formal painterly issues that helped create a masterpiece