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Painting the First Picture of Portsmouth


Mapping the Piscataqua

"Maps had long included illustrations," says Sandra Rux, curator of the Portsmouth Historical Society. "But the Des Barres atlas takes the views of Portsmouth to a new level as they are drawn with great accuracy."

JW-Des BarresRux created the new exhibit entitled "Mapping the Piscataqua" now on display at the JohnPaulJonesHouseMuseum.  The exhibit traces the evolution of mapping our region from the John Smith 1614 map of New England to the modern digital satellite imagery used online by Google Maps. The exhibit includes prints from American Neptune.

"There are at least three versions of these Portsmouth images," Rux says. "The one we have on loan from antiquarian Hollis Brodrick shows the artist sitting on Badger's Island painting the view of Portsmouth. Some say this is Des Barres, but he was probably not here at the time. Samuel Holland, who was in charge of the northern New England survey, did live in Portsmouth for several years."

"What we value now as art had a more practical purpose in the 1770's." Rux says. "Artists drew significant locations like Portsmouth and New Castle in order to provide views used for identification by mariners."

F.W. Des Barres detailed surveying work was so accurate that his charts were still in use for decades and remain a valuable reference today. Two decades after the publication of Atlantic Neptune Des Barres was still struggling to get paid for his work. He reportedly celebrated his 100th birthday by dancing on a tabletop in Halifax and died at age 103.  

KEY SOURCES: Surveyors of Empire (2011) by  Stephen J. Hornsby and Maritime Portsmouth (2011) by Richard Candee and J. Dennis Robinson.

Copyright © 2014 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS.  



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Saturday, February 24, 2018 
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