PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Woodcarving, the art of shaping figures and ornaments out of wood by means of handheld cutting tools, has an extensive and honorable history dating back to archaic sculpture in ancient Greece and Egypt. Since then, carvers the world over have created widely varied objects that often reflect the history and cultural climate of their native country.
In America over the years, woodcarving has had its ups and downs, enjoying great popularity at times, at others falling out of favor. Machine-made objects diminished but did not extinguish the work of skilled carvers.
On the maritime front, independent scholar James A. Craig posits that “Ever since man first lashed together a few wooden planks, fashioned a sail and set off across uncharted waters, there has been a constant need to personify vessels as somehow being alive.” Seeking to reflect the sense of life and personality mariners felt dwelled within their timbered fames, ancient Egyptian, Greek, Phoenician, Viking and more modern British warships were adorned with a variety of menacing prows.
Craig dates the first American figurehead to 1689, a lion (symbol of British sovereignty) for the bow of a sloop built in Boston. The lion remained the most popular figure for American ship figureheads until the eve of the American Revolution when the impending conflict mandated dethronement of royal lions.
New figurehead motifs after the Revolution included animals, birds, symbols of Liberty and figures of statesmen, historical characters and fictional heroes. According to Craig, they signaled “the emergence of a truly unique American vision in the nautical arts, one where the new country’s mythologies and national identity were given voice and brought to life dramatically.”
Many fine carvers labored in anonymity. Not so John Haley Bellamy (1836–1914), a supremely talented wood craftsman who was prolific and famous in his day. Recently rediscovered and restudied, Bellamy is the subject of a splendid exhibition, “The Bold and Brash Art of John Haley Bellamy,” on view at Discover Portsmouth through October 3. Marking the centennial of his death, the show documents the magnitude of Bellamy’s mastery of symbolic, aesthetically pleasing carving. The exhibition is jointly organized by Craig and Sandra Rux, curator of the Portsmouth Historical Society.
A key to this informed exhibition is Craig, a Gloucester, Mass., specialist in American marine art. He devoted a tremendous amount of research to finding out more about Bellamy, his art and the world in which the artist lived. The resulting book, American Eagle: The Bold Art & Brash Life of John Haley Bellamy, is a first-rate examination of the colorful life of a significant artist and his rise to fame.
In his day and today, Bellamy eagles were readily recognizable and much sought-after by collectors. Often gilded, they were characterized by enormous, widespread wings, razor-sharp beaks parted in full cry and talons that clutched the American flag and shield with protective fervor. These attributes and more made for an iconic image in our art history.
Bellamy, hardly a poor lad, grew up in the landmark Sir William Pepperell mansion — then, as now, a large, elegant and prestigious structure in Kittery Point, Maine. His ambitious and industrious father worked at the heart of the area’s thriving shipbuilding community as a housewright, boat builder, timber inspector and politically connected leader. Portsmouth and Kittery Point were prime locales for building commercial vessels for New England’s expanding merchant class.
Growing up in this nautical atmosphere, young Bellamy “gained the drive, discipline and determination necessary to make his own phenomenal mark in the world,” says Craig. Acquiring a love of learning in school, he began a lifetime of studying history, literature and art. He grew into manhood a charming, striking figure, described by one contemporary as “courteous, quiet mannered and good natured in his dealings with others.” He never married.
After learning decorative woodcarving from his father, Bellamy apprenticed with Samuel Dockum, Portsmouth’s leading woodcarver. During six years with this master craftsman, Bellamy learned all aspects of the trade, especially ship carving, and, according to a friend, “acquired a reputation for originality in design, skill in workmanship and rapidity in execution.”
For a half century starting in 1859, Bellamy worked in small shops in Kittery Point and Portsmouth, outfitting ships with figureheads, cat heads, stern boards, gangway boards and minor decorative accents. For a time, long, slender clipper ships required streamlined figureheads, particularly eagles that suggested speed and flight. They became, Craig observes, “the most glamorous of American carvings.”
One startling object in the exhibition is an expressively carved pine likeness of a lion that is at once fearsome and charming. Figural carvings such as this were used to decorate the end of heavy timber booms, called cat heads, on the bows of merchant and naval ships throughout the Nineteenth Century.
During the Civil War, Bellamy worked at the Portsmouth and Charlestown Navy Yards building warships for the US Navy. He continued to work for the Navy intermittently thereafter.
In the wake of the Civil War, Bellamy began to create a wide variety of small (2 feet long) eagle forms as a symbol of the reunited country. Many relatively plain eagle figures are on view in the exhibition, most with patriotic phrases in overhead banners — “Don’t Give Up the Ship!” — or holiday greetings — “Merry Christmas.” Selling for one dollar apiece, these “Bellamy Eagles” were popular with Americans eager to flaunt their patriotism and their contentment with the Union’s victory. Thousands were carved and assembled by Bellamy with the help of family and friends. Frank Jones, Portsmouth’s leading bar owner, ordered 500 eagles to distribute to barroom customers.
Among Bellamy’s larger works, stretching to 12 or more feet, were sternboards intended for the Navy, for decorating entrances or for spreading across the facades of buildings in New Hampshire and Maine. Full-scale eagles were carved to sit atop new tourist hotels.
Bellamy eagles were also commissioned by local governments to decorate city halls, firehouses and other municipal sites. Specialized eagles standing atop round balls became the focal point of gardens.
In the late 1860s, Bellamy helped restore portions of Sparhawk Hall, built in 1742 as a gift from Sir William Pepperell to his daughter and son-in-law. Going beyond his usual carvings, Bellamy recreated the left half of the paneling from its parlor, including the intricate shell-topped corner cupboard. Former college professor and president of the Portsmouth Historical Society Richard M. Candee singles out the superior craftsmanship of Bellamy’s portion of this massive object. Craig and Candee speculate that the rebuilt parlor paneling is “perhaps the first example of private restoration of a historic home in the United States.”
Surviving from Sparhawk Hall is the only known bird other than an eagle that Bellamy created, “Hawk-on-a-Spar,” circa 1868. Made of black walnut and named in a play on words of the house in which it hung, it is now in the collection of the Portsmouth Athenaeum.
In the early 1880s, Bellamy was paid $2.32 a day for a year and a half to design and carve his most famous object, a massive figurehead for the USS Lancaster. With an 18-foot wingspan, weighing 3,200 pounds, the fierce pine eagle, sheathed in bright gold leaf, represented American power and global reach while at sea. Craig observes that this awesome piece “was destined to be regarded as one of the all-time greatest creations in the American woodcarving tradition ... it would make … [Bellamy’s] name truly immortal.” It now shines in golden glory in the lobby of the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va.
Over the years, numerous artists, writers, actors and politicians frequented Bellamy’s workshop. Edwin Booth, Hannibal Hamlin, Winslow Homer, William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, George Savary Wasson and numerous old-time sea captains, fishermen and Navy veterans were among those who gathered for gossiping, swapping stories and earnest debate with the well-read and intelligent master carver. In declining health, Bellamy died of a stroke at age 77 and is buried in the family plot behind the local Baptist church.
Bellamy eagles still adorn businesses in the Kittery Point-Portsmouth area and, in a fitting tribute to his genius, Bellamy’s art continues to inspire local woodcarvers. In an impressive display on the exhibition’s second floor are museum-quality copies by contemporary woodcarvers of Bellamy sculptures. They range from large outdoor eagles to smaller indoor banner-toting raptors. Among the contemporary carvers in the Bellamy mold is Arthur Swanson, whose copies are “virtually indistinguishable” from the originals, says Craig. They sell in the museum store for around $3,000.
Architectural woodcarver Michael Dow not only repairs and reproduces Bellamy eagles, but also creates men’s jewelry faithful to Bellamy’s designs. Kittery Point lobsterman and woodcarver David Kaselauskas produces Bellamy-inspired objects for modern use.
British-born Vinnie Harrild is “today’s premier choice among private collectors for the restoration of damaged Bellamy carvings,” says Craig. He also works with Chelsea Clock to transform brightly painted Bellamy eagles into handmade clock cases.
In addition to these talented imitators, Bellamy’s legacy lives on in his beautiful carvings, works that continue to captivate viewers and collectors. Thanks to the commendable leadership of Discover Portsmouth in organizing this revelatory exhibition, accompanied by Craig’s comprehensive biography, it seems certain this carver extraordinaire will be admired in perpetuity for his unique oeuvre.
A few Bellamy works come on the market from time to time. Craig writes that the early Bellamy eagles that originally sold for a dollar were bringing upwards of a hundred dollars within 50 years of his death. “Today those same works can easily fetch as much as $160,000, while larger and more exquisite pieces have sold for more than $660,000,” says Craig.
Craig’s American Eagle monograph, remarkably thorough and highly informative, is must reading for aficionados of Bellamy and woodcarving. Published by the Portsmouth Marine Society, it sells for $45 hardcover.
Discover Portsmouth is at 10 Middle Street next to the John Paul Jones House. Both are well worth a visit. For information: www.portsmouthhistory.org or 603-436-8433.
Stephen May is an independent historian, writer and lecturer who divides his time between Washington, D.C., and midcoast Maine.