-Award-Winning Author / Curator-
James A. Craig
NEWS & EVENTS
Below is a sampling of the many articles that have been written about James A. Craig's writings and exhibitions, appearing in such august publications as Maine Antiques Digest, the Association of Historians of American Art, Antiques and The Arts Weekly, The Boston Phoenix, and The New York Times.
The Colorful Man Behind the Carved Eagles
MARCH 27, 2014
By Eve M. Khan, New York Times
The 19th-century New England woodcarver John Haley Bellamy, best known for creating aggressive eagles out of pine blocks, has always been subject to conflicting tales. He has been “depicted alternately as a disciplined laborer and a helpless drunkard, a manic inventor and an aloof poet, an irresponsible pleasure-seeker and a devoted kinsman,” the historian James A. Craig writes in a new book, “American Eagle: The Bold Art & Brash Life of John Haley Bellamy” (Portsmouth Marine Society Press).
Mr. Craig, who is also the curator of “Bold & Brash: The Art of John Haley Bellamy,” an exhibition opening next Friday at the Discover Portsmouth museum in New Hampshire, pored through police records and family papers and ferreted out objects misattributed to Bellamy.
Documents and major sculptures are scattered in private collections and at institutions including the Dyer Library in Saco, Me., and the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va. Given the contradictory anecdotes, Mr. Craig said in an interview, “It’s almost as if Bellamy didn’t want his story to be told.”
Bellamy was born in 1836. His mother, Frances Keene Bellamy, married his father, Charles Bellamy, right after her first husband, Charles’s brother, died. Charles, a woodworker and politician, taught his son some carving tricks, but John Bellamy eventually developed his own distinctive designs for decorative, folksy eagles carrying flags and pennants with religious and patriotic sayings.
At times supporting his extended family, he set up workshops around Boston and Portsmouth and in Kittery, Me. To speed production, he created standard sizes for eagle wings, poles, flags, heads and necks.
“He was using nascent industrial assembly-line methods,” Mr. Craig said. “He’s filling orders for 500, 700, 1,200 at a time.” Bellamy was nonetheless considered a quaint Maine loner. Artists and writers, including Mark Twain and Winslow Homer, visited his shop. “He generally stood removed from the witty repartee that swirled through his small studio,” Mr. Craig writes.
When Bellamy was in his 20s, unrequited love supposedly drove him into lifelong bachelorhood, but assorted published accounts actually disagree about what happened between him and rivals for the affections of an unnamed “young beauty from Kittery,” Mr. Craig writes.
Bellamy is also said to have degenerated into “an old rummy” around 1900. He was arrested twice for public drunkenness, in 1891 and 1902, but in that era, incorrigible drinkers routinely ended up in police custody every few days.
For the exhibition, Mr. Craig borrowed eagles from collectors as prominent as Jamie Wyeth and the Americana dealer Allan Katz. He also gathered Bellamy’s carving tools, childhood sketches of mythical creatures, plaques, paneling, cupboards, clocks, frames, knickknack shelves, animal heads and miniature books.
Imitation carvings by 20th-century artisans and Bellamy’s eccentric close friend, the yachtsman and author George Savary Wasson, are on view as well. Bellamy published poems, too, musing on happy and unhappy marriages, old age and death.
Mr. Craig has seen innumerable carved eagles that owners had hoped were Bellamy creations but were not. Telling them that, Mr. Craig said, “is never easy, nor is it fun.” The book illustrates some telltale signs of Bellamy’s tools on talons and feathers, but Mr. Craig said he left out other details to keep forgers in the dark.
Authentic works can bring six-figure prices. One gilded eagle in the exhibition, clutching a wooden strip that reads “God Is Our Refuge and Strength,” sold for about $660,000 in 2005 at Northeast Auctions in Portsmouth.
What’s in a name? - Why it’s Fitz Henry, not Fitz Hugh, Lane — and why it matters
August 31, 2007
By Greg Cook, Boston Phoenix
In 2004, Jane Walsh of Gloucester’s official archives committee did a quick Web genealogy search on 19th-century Gloucester marine painter Fitz Hugh Lane. Her inquiry was prompted by a lecture in which eminent art historian John Wilmerding had discussed one of the persistent Lane mysteries: why, when he was a young boy, did the artist change his name from Nathaniel Rogers Lane.
Up popped Lane’s request to change his name to Fitz Henry Lane. Walsh and her committee comrades figured “Henry” must be a mistake, a typo maybe. Still, it was an error they came across with some frequency in Lane records. And so they visited the state archives in Boston to look at Lane’s actual petition.
“And sure enough, there it was: Nathaniel Rogers Lane writing in to ask if he could have his name changed to Fitz Henry Lane,” says co-chair Sarah Dunlap. They realized that Lane had always been Fitz Henry. Fitz Hugh was the error.
The report of the discovery by Dunlap and Cape Ann Historical Museum librarian/archivist Stephanie Buck in the February 2005 issue of the Essex Genealogist heralded a new body of Lane research. Last year, Gloucester historian James Craig published Fitz H. Lane: An Artist’s Voyage Through Nineteenth-Century America (History Press), a biography that provides new insight into Lane’s involvement with the Transcendentalist, Spiritualist, and Temperance movements. Craig even turns up a brief mention that could be proof that Lane taught New Bedford marine painter William Bradford. Also last year, the staff at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston made the case that Lane used a lens known as a camera lucida to help him trace the contours of landscapes onto his sketches and paintings. This fall, Dunlap and Buck are planning to publish a book on Lane’s years in Gloucester. Wilmerding, meanwhile, has assembled 50 artworks for the Cape Ann Historical Museum’s current exhibit “Fitz Henry Lane & Mary Blood Mellen: Old Mysteries and New Discoveries,” which looks at Lane’s artistic relationship with one of his chief students.
And yet, the discovery that we’ve had Lane’s name wrong since at least 1913 has prompted questions about what else scholars have gotten wrong about him. Notably what Wilmerding has gotten wrong. He is part of a handful of scholars (others include Barbara Novak and Theodore Stebbins Jr.) who’ve been credited with pioneering scholarship of 19th-century American art. Wilmerding’s “find” was Lane, one of several artists who had fallen into obscurity with the rise of French Impressionism and Modern art. Lane’s work now commands top prices — Skinner Auctioneers in Boston got $5.5 million for Manchester Harbor back in November 2004.
Wilmerding, a descendant of major art collectors, began the research that would lead to his first book on Lane, which he published in 1964, while studying at Harvard. He was fortunate to be among the first scholars to examine the collection that Maxim Karolik, a pioneering collector of 18th- and 19th-century American art, had begun donating to the Museum of Fine Arts in 1938. And at the nearby Cape Ann Historical Museum, he had access to the largest collection of Lane works anywhere.
Wilmerding went on to teach at Dartmouth and Princeton. He was a curator and deputy director at Washington’s National Gallery of Art. His 1971 Fitz Hugh Lane (Praeger) has been the standard monograph on the artist; he also organized the catalogue for the 1988 Lane survey exhibit at the National Gallery and the Museum of Fine Arts. He contributed books on Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, and numerous other American artists. He’s now a leading adviser to Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, who’s been buying up 19th-century American masterpieces for a planned museum in Arkansas.
“Fitz Henry Lane & Mary Blood Mellen” is an intriguing scholarly exhibit that hangs Lane’s seascapes and Mellen’s copies side by side. It opens with Clipper Ship “Sweepstakes”(1853), one of two known Lane paintings signed “Fitz Henry Lane.” Wilmerding may have inherited the “Hugh” mistake, but he didn’t question it when he was asked to examine this canvas and its signature in 1993. He said he believed the painting was by Lane with “no additional hands at work,” and that Lane’s close friend (and executor of his estate) Joseph Stevens or someone else might have signed it “Fitz Henry.” It’s not a convincing explanation: we were asked to believe that, first, that a close friend “signed” the painting, and, second, that this friend couldn’t even get the artist’s name right.
Wilmerding declined to speak to me on this matter, but he did answer some questions via letter. He response: “When I first looked at the signature on the Sweepstakes, I said it was unmistakably in Lane’s hand, but being such an anomaly, I had no explanation for it (not thinking of the obvious!).”
Lane (1804–1865) was an uneven artist, but at his best he painted bustling harbors, rocky shores, and great open skies suffused with a curious stillness, like frozen memories. What stands out is his attention to the way light breaks through clouds and falls on sails and waves. The Western Shore with Norman’s Woe (circa 1862) is an arrestingly calm depiction of a glassy smooth low tide lapping against a curve of rocky Gloucester beach under pink fluffy clouds. Mary Blood Mellen (1819–1886) struggles to keep up. Their differences are palpable in the Cape Ann show. Lane is generally crisper, more specific. Mellen is mushier and softer; her paint tends to be a bit thicker. His rigging is precise; hers is suggested. His boats float convincingly in the water; hers sit unnaturally high. Some of the pairings — like a rough Lane oil sketch of a Gloucester island next to Mellen’s finished painting — exaggerate Lane’s weaknesses and Mellen’s strengths.
Mellen’s mysterious Moonlight, Gloucester Harbor (1870s), which seems to be an original composition, is better than Lane’s nearby paintings on the same theme. A schooner, in silhouetted profile, glides into the night harbor. A beached boat sits in the foreground, near a cross sticking out of seaweedy rocks. A full moon peeks from behind swooping clouds, which are rendered flatly, like stage props. Here Mellen’s technique is distinguished by a folksiness that feels charming, vulnerable, human. But mostly she comes off as a copyist, with little evidence here that she did much original. It’s unclear whether this is a full picture.
Because Wilmerding has long been the authoritative source on Lane, it’s his work that much of the new information is correcting. James Craig began studying Lane in 2004 — he was preparing to give lectures that July at the Cape Ann Historical Museum, where he was then a curator. “And when I was reading up on him, things weren’t clicking.”
Craig checked Wilmerding’s source for the statement that Lane’s ancestors “were among the first settlers of Gloucester in 1623”; what the book actually said, he discovered, was that the first Lane to come to Gloucester wasn’t born till a generation later. Then there was Wilmerding’s statement about the boy Lane that, “disliking his name, he had it changed to Fitz Hugh as soon as he was able.” Craig says this never made sense to him, and indeed, Gloucester’s archives committee learned that Lane didn’t change his name to Fitz Henry till he was in his late 20s. Fitz H. Lane also argues that there’s no record to support Wilmerding’s report of the grammar school Lane attended, and no reason to believe Wilmerding’s assertion that the design for Lane’s Gloucester home was inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables, a book that wasn’t published until a year after Lane moved in. The Salem house that inspired Hawthorne had, Craig adds, just three gables during Lane’s lifetime.
There are also questions of attribution. A painting of a steamship, “Unicorn” in Salem Harbor, is described by Wilmerding as one of Lane’s earliest known oils. Craig detects stylistic discrepancies, and he notes that between the 1970s, when it was advertised for sale, and 2000, when it was also offered, conservation appears to have taken place: smoke has disappeared from the boat’s stack and a suspiciously Dutch (and thus un-Lane) leeboard has appeared on the side of a second boat.
Craig isn’t the only one finding mistakes. Drawing on the diaries of Lane’s patron Samuel Sawyer, Wilmerding wrote that French artist Rosa Bonheur visited Sawyer in Gloucester in 1861, and that, Sawyer noted, she “presented me with a large and beautiful Bull Calf.” Mary Rhinelander McCarl, a volunteer at the Cape Ann Historical Museum who has been transcribing the diaries, tells me that Sawyer was actually writing about his Jersey cow, which he’d named after Bonheur.
In 2003, the Cape Ann Historical Museum acquired a pair of portraits that were attributed to Lane and said to depict Joseph Stevens and his wife. Wilmerding had written to a previous owner: “Short of a firsthand look the portrait does indeed seem to be from Lane’s hand. While it is cruder than his familiar marine scenes, it is very much like the few known portraits that he did do.” But a photo of Stevens has turned up that doesn’t resemble the man in the painting. And infrared scans by Cleveland Museum of Art conservator Marcia Steele find “very minimal, if any underdrawing.” Lane usually made “extensive underdrawing in his paintings. He was meticulous.” This doesn’t prove that the portraits aren’t by Lane — perhaps he used a different technique for his rare portraits — but it raises doubts.
Wilmerding chalks up many of his errors to information “which was not available or accessible when I started my work some 40 years ago.” He declined to comment on Craig’s findings, instead referring me to Lisa Peters of New York’s Spanierman Gallery, who was his research assistant for the Lane/Mellen catalogue. (“Fitz Henry Lane & Mary Blood Mellen” moves to the Spanierman starting October 7.) Peters says that Fitz H. Lane “must be read and used with extreme caution due to problems in scholarship, methodology, and issues of accuracy (and innuendo).” Her complaints turned out to be primarily about Craig’s style, clarity, emphasis, and extent of documentation. She offered little actual evidence of his getting his facts wrong, and in at least one case where she questioned his accuracy — the report that Lane himself designed his Gloucester house — it turned out that Craig and Wilmerding were in agreement.
This is not to say that Craig is error-free. Fitz H. Lane states that Mellen lived in Gloucester; Buck’s research into her life for the Lane/Mellen catalogue found that she didn’t. But Wilmerding had that wrong as well.
We all make mistakes. Wilmerding’s strength remains his æsthetic connoisseurship, and, taken one by one, his apparent errors are mostly small and forgivable. But when do they add up to more than just the natural collection of little mistakes that seep into any big research project? When does a scholar become an unreliable source?