Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on December 15, 2009 by permission of the Historical Society of Old Newbury. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Historical Society of Old Newbury directly through this phone number or Web address:


Vernacular Visions: Folk Art of Old Newbury

by John Hardy Wright


Situated along the Merrimack River in northeastern Essex County, picturesque Newburyport is geographically the smallest city in Massachusetts. The size of the city, however, had no bearing on the quality of architecture, art, and decorative arts produced there in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The achievements of thirty-seven known and unknown artists and artisans who were born, lived, or died in Newbury, Newburyport, and West Newbury, or who sought commissions in the area while working their way as artists through New England during this time, are highlighted in Vernacular Visions: Folk Art of Old Newbury. This special exhibition of one-of-a-kind, hand-painted artifacts is arranged in ten thematic sections: The Local Landscape, Momento Mori, Non-Academic Academy Art, Piety and Masonry, Federal Folk Faces, Fancy-Painted Furniture, Household Effects, Maritime Pursuits, Carved Icons, and Trade Signs and Weathervanes. Supplemented by photo-enlargements of items no longer in existence, the objects in the exhibition were selected for their "folk" quality, and unpublished pieces were especially sought.

The term "folk art" was defined in a 1930 painting exhibition pamphlet by three little-known art historians for the Harvard Society of Contemporary Art. Whether folk art is heatedly discussed or simply referred to today as amateur, country art, naive, nonacademic, popular, primitive, untutored, or vernacular is philosophical at best; the aesthetic pleasure a piece of work gives is tantamount to its being locked into any limiting category.

During the colonial period, wealthy Newbury residents relied upon Boston artists for their portraits much as they did on the capital area's stonecutters for their gravestones. Local self-taught artists lacked talent in the early to mid eighteenth century and, for the most part, their works were not recorded for posterity. Around the turn of the nineteenth century, itinerant artists or limners (an eighteenth century term still used by art historians) became visible, though transitory, features in large towns, where they sought portrait commissions.

The most famous to leave his mark in Newburyport was the deaf-mute artist John Brewster, Jr. (1766 - 1854), whose imposing portraits of four members of the affluent Prince family are veritable icons in the history of American folk art. In Portrait of James and William Henry Price, the interior details of the Georgian-style brick mansion of the Prince family are carefully rendered by Brewster and document the family's apparel, furniture, upholstery, window treatments, floor coverings, and accessories in vogue in Newburyport during the late eighteenth century.

The long life of the Connecticut-born itinerant artist has been well chronicled. Brewster's appearance locally is corroborated by the inscription and date on the letter Mr. Prince is writing, "Newbury Port Nov. 25, 1802," and by his advertisements in the town's newspaper. It appears that Brewster even lived for a while in the State Street mansion of James Prince (1755 - 1830) between November of 1801 when he painted the portraits and the following month when he advertised in the Newburyport Herald, and in January 1802 when he advertised again in the paper for potential customers to view a "specimen" of his work. By 1809 Brewster was back in Newburyport taking up residence in another home and probably completing more portraits.

Newbury has always remained rural, but the waterfront area in Newburyport, where Water and Merrimac Streets flow together, has been continuously developed as the downtown section. Here commercial interests of all sorts were located side by side with residential structures of both grand and humble proportions. During the Federal period, enlightened merchants who were accumulating wealth and prestige began to move away from this hustle and bustle. They chose the parallel but elevated two-mile road between Newbury and Newburyport, and on it, and adjacent side streets, they had built imposing structures and complementary gardens to rival those of stately Chestnut Street in Salem, Massachusetts.

A romantic luminist painting, View Near the Laurels, Newbury, c. 1847, attributed to Joshua Sheldon, Jr., (1809 - 1890) affords many interesting details of rural Newbury in the foreground contrasted to early industrial Newburyport with its departing train, tall steeples, and smokestacks in the right background. The famous Chain Bridge, built in 1792, and a covered bridge serve as focal points in the middle distance, around which sailboats and a steam-powered paddle-boat ply the Merrimack River. This painting was undoubtedly the prototype for the 1847 Bufford and Company print of the same name.

The symbol of the new republic, the American eagle, appeared in many forms in the decorative arts. Here it is emblazoned on a pieced, appliquéd, and embroidered quilt attributed to Phoebe Harrod of Newburyport, c. 1825 - 1845. Made of polychrome silk, velvet, and cotton, the patriotic eagle is the finely feathered creature in the center of this visually appealing quilt with cut foot post corners. The bird's body is made of brown chenille, and the velvet wing feathers resemble the colorful overlapping sections of Victorian penny rugs. Pieces of plain, striped, patterned, and floral Continental and Chinese brocade and damask silks in various star patterns were probably made from the remnants of expensive eighteenth century clothing.

The arrival of the Eastern Railroad in Newburyport in 1840 enabled businesses such as boot and shoe manufacturing, which had relied heavily on shipping for the transportation of goods, to greatly expand. The Boston and Maine Train in the Newburyport Deport, c. 1875 - 1885, a notable bas-relief panel, depicts the close proximity of dwellings in downtown Newburyport. Carved by an unknown woodcarver in high relief and framed much like a shadow box picture, this unique rectangular panel includes a steam locomotive with its coal, baggage express, and passenger car (with glass windows) at the train station formerly located near the corner of Washington and Winter Streets in downtown Newburyport. Architectural details of adjacent Federal period structures correspond to those in late nineteenth century photographs of the area.

Formal art training received by young American men has been termed "academic" by art historians, in contrast to the creative output of girls and young ladies of privilege, which falls into the category of "nonacademic." Amusingly, these females learned their various decorative and some social skills at so-called academies and seminaries.

In Newburyport, at least twenty-four teachers taught their students how to paint free-hand landscapes on paper and furniture, how to stencil fruit and flowers on velvet and paper, and how to memorialize departed family members on silk. Of particular importance to her future role as a wife and mother, a young lady was taught how to sew and learned the alphabet by embroidering a verse of wisdom on her own sampler.

Twin daughter of Zebedee and Sarah Cook, Mary Caswell (born 1788), created a "pond with ducks" sampler with the unusual feature of a brick wall with oversized ball-and-urn gateposts. It is one of approximately fifteen identifiable examples of the "shady bower" group of embroidered samplers worked in Newburyport. Included in the composition is Mary's favorite black and white cat perched on the garden wall not too far from the unobservant ducks swimming in the lily-encircled pond.

The earliest and most detailed "pond with ducks" was made in 1799 by twelve-year-old Sarah Johnson, and two closely related samplers, by Sally Frost Blunt (1800) and Mary Coffin (1801), have the same ellipse and sawtooth border but include a fisherman and other people. Mary Emerson has been identified as the preceptress of this particular school, where she taught until 1812. In her newspaper advertisements Emerson confidently stated that she taught every kind of needlework including the uncommon grotto and tambour varieties.

An unknown local woman made a polychrome wool on linen pocketbook in the eighteenth century. Oversized, bright flowers on a dark-green background, bearing a strong resemblance to those in early tree-of-life textiles, cover this two-section pocketbook with a flap. It was inherited, along with generations of heirlooms, by the five Misses Emery of West Newbury.

An accompanying piece of wool material is one hundred inches in length and has trailing vines with vibrant exotic flowers. Along with a matching section, the cloth was probably made for a bedstead valance, but evidently was never used as such.

Newburyport blossomed during the Federal period, and many imposing mansions, with gardens of equal splendor, were built on High Street. The most famous house on "the street" was that owned by self-styled "Lord" Timothy Dexter (1747 - 1806), an eccentric entrepreneur who was obsessed with history. Around 1799, Dexter hired local ship's figurehead carver Joseph Wilson (1779 - 1857) to make forty-five larger-than-life-size figures of important European and American personages to adorn the magnificent fence in front of his "museum." The only remaining statue from the fence, William Pit "The Elder" (1708 - 1778), is displayed, on loan from the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Joseph Wilson also carved and painted the pine statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. Diminutive in scale (twenty-one inches) when compared with the Pitt statue (seventy-nine inches), Ceres retains what folk art scholars, collectors, and dealers love -- the original painted surface. She was also the focal point in the center of the molded and carved broken scroll pediment of a local house.

Research documents that furniture made in such seaport cities as Salem and Newburyport was shipped as venture cargo to other ports. Two pieces of furniture made in Newburyport, c. 1830, in the restored Market Square area are the country Sheraton fancy-painted dressing table and wash stand in yellow ochre paint with stenciled and hand-painted fruit and leaves. The unknown painter "bronzed" the ring turnings on the front and rear legs of the chamber table. While the stenciled design on the furniture is predictable, that on the child's toy cradle is more unrestrained and colorful. Made of pine, the chromatic cradle was grained locally in the early nineteenth century.

An embroidered wool coat-of-arms of the Beck family, 1768, was worked about the same time as a circular carved and embellished painter's trade sign, which represents British arms of the painters and stainers guild. Both pre-revolutionary artifacts reveal the strong association colonials had with the mother country.

Vibrant wool or crewel yarns of flowers and leaves flank a unique hereditary or pseudo-armorial shield of the Beck family, still in its original lozenge-shaped ebonized frame. According to the somewhat involved and confusing history written by a descendant on the accompanying label, "This coat-of-arms was worked by my great grandmother Hannah Beck (wife of Deacon Jonathan Beck of Newburyport) whose maiden name was Hannah Daniel, in her 68th year as outlined upon it.... " More than likely, the silver metallic thread numerals pertain to the year in which the piece was worked. Sarah Anna Emery wrote, "Coats of arms were also embroidered in white satin with colored silk.... "

Intriguing may be a good word to describe the one-of-a-kind, colorful artifacts in Vernacular Visions: Folk Art of Old Newbury, which reflects the life and lives of the their owners in early coastal Massachusetts.

About the author

John Hardy Wright is the author of several titles in the Aracadia Pulbications "Images of America" series, including one focused on the history of Newburyport. He is the former curator of the Historical Society of Old Newbury and was assistant curator at the Essex (Massachusetts) Institute, where he prepared exhibition and wrote catalogues dealing with the unknown artists of Essex County.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on December 15, 2009, with permission of the Historical Society of Old Newbury, which was granted to TFAO on October 27, 2009.

This article appeared in the October - November 1994 issue of American Art Review. It pertains to an exhibition, Vernacular Visions: Folk Art of Old Newbury, which was on view May 7 - October 31, 1994, at the Historical Society of Old Newbury, Cushing House Museum. This article is adapted from the accompanying 120-page exhibition catalogue, which is available through the Cushing House Museum bookstore.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to the author; Jay Williamson, curator of the Historical Society of Old Newbury; and Shana Herb Johannessen for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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