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The Simple Art of Uncle Oscar

Fish by Uncle Oscar

He was just a simple working man with a famous sister. But Oscar Laighton did one thing better than everyone else in his family – he survived. He died just a few months shy of his 100th birthday and became the 20th century icon of Victorian life at the Isles of Shoals. Oscar was also, in a very small way, a poet and a painter.


VISIT: Celia Thaxter section

Two Poems
Two Sketches

Oscar Laighton /
On the tiny Isles of Shoals Oscar Laighton was a superstar. He arrived at White Island in 1839, just three months old, when his father Thomas Laighton, a sometime successful businessman and politician, became lighthouse keeper. Oscar died in 1939, just three months shy of his 100th birthday. He spent most of his century on the barren islands. According to his own account in "90 Years on the Isles of Shoals", Oscar was 16 years old before he first stepped foot on the New Hampshire mainland 10 miles away.

Although he was known to sketch and write poems, Oscar Laighton's local fame came largely from longevity and proximity. His father Thomas purchased four of the nine Isles of Shoals, intending first to rebuild the Gosport fishing industry, then to become a sheep herder and a store owner. In the end, Thomas and his sons Oscar and Cedric, established a hotel and tourist industry that survives today.

His sister Celia Laighton Thaxter gained notoriety in the second half of the 19th century as one of New England's few prominent female authors. After the death of their parents, Oscar, Celia and Cedric -- who called his brother Oscar "Bocky" from childhood --- owned both the large hotel on Appledore and the one that survives today on Star Island, hosting as many as 600 visitors at a time.

Oscar Laighton / Portsmouth AthenaeumSister Celia died at age 59 in 1892. The Appledore Hotel burned in 1914, but Oscar lived on and on. Star Island was purchased from the Laightons in 1905 by a religious-based group and became the summer conference center that it remains today. For thirty years thereafter, Oscar was a fixture of the island. He is even depicted in postcards of the ear -- writing his memoirs on the Oceanic porch, posing with female conferees, standing in his fishing boat in a characteristic dark suit with flowing white beard.

Though handsome in youth and eternally romantic, Oscar never married. His privately published book of verse "Songs and Sonnets" contains simple poems of the sea and of love, each similar to the next in tone and content. As an artist he sketched two things -- fish and sailboats -- again and again. Uncle Oscar's ultimate creation was Uncle Oscar, an uncomplicated island character, a touchstone to the Golden Era of the Appledore House, when famous Boston-area artist made Celia's salon their summer retreat. And through it all was Uncle Oscar, enjoying the attention, loving the women in summer, and savoring a century of island sunsets

Notes by J. Dennis Robinson. Copyright (c) 2002 All rights reserved. Images of Oscar Laighton courtesy Portsmouth Athenaeum. 

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