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The Making of Portsmouth's Greatest Maritime Art Exhibit



The largest collection of Portsmouth-built ship paintings and artifacts ever assembled in the city’s history has come and gone. Collected over decades by businessman Joseph Sawtelle, who is also gone from us, it was a rare opportunity to see what the Piscataqua region has produced. But luckily there is a book available called MARITIME PORTSMOUTH that depicts the collection. Buy one today.  (Continued below)



Joseph Sawtelle, who collected all these Piscataqua paintings and artifacts with his wife Jean, never saw them in one place, all beautifully lit and artfully arranged. The exhibit fills two floors of the old public library building, now Discover Portsmouth. Joe saw his treasures one-at-a-time, pulled from cardboard boxes and shipping crates stuffed with Bubble Wrap® and Styrofoam®.


I was with Joe once at Olde Port Bank on Islington Street in the 1990s when he unwrapped a few of his favorite ship paintings to admire them. He was planning to put half a dozen on display at a branch bank. He had plans to photograph them for a calendar. But mostly he wanted to hang them all together in the Port of Portsmouth Maritime Museum that he was planning to built next to the USS Albacore submarine.

Joe didn’t get the chance to build his museum. He died suddenly ten years ago at age 71. Now the rest of us have a rare chance to see this collection. The 200 paintings and artifacts in the “Maritime Portsmouth” exhibit were gathered at great distances and great expense over 25 years. They offer insights, not just into Portsmouth’s connection to the sea, but into the mind of the collector himself.


The Massachusetts landlubber

Joe Sawtelle was not a mariner. His first sailing lesson, according to family legend, ended in a capsized ketch and a long wet walk home. He owned only two boats in his life. One had an inboard motor and didn’t last long. The other was a beat up old dinghy named “Hen3ry”. (That’s not a typo. Joe always joked that the name of his rowboat was pronounced “Henry” – with a silent “3”.)

He came by his love of the sea through his love of Portsmouth. The more he discovered about the city, like many of us, the more he was drawn into the rich and peculiar history of New Hampshire’s only seaport. The more he learned, the more he could see the city’s maritime history slipping away, and he wanted to preserve it.

The future maritime collector was a landlubber at heart. Sawtelle was born in the Boston suburb of Lynn, Massachusetts in 1928 and raised in nearby Melrose. He married his high school sweetheart Jean E. Brown in 1949 and, after a stint as a paratrooper, he threw himself into business – selling insurance, selling baby strollers, renting apartments, and building strip malls. The family moved to Wakefield, MA where they raised four daughters and Sawtelle found success as a real estate developer.

The family got their first true taste of salt air in the 1960s when Joe built a cottage on Wingaersheek Beach in Gloucester, MA.  Here Joe and Jean bought their first maritime painting, a Gloucester seascape, that hung over their home fireplace in Wakefield.  Years later, while seeking a similar painting of Portsmouth for their New Castle home, their magnificent obsession began.

“A few summers we rented a boat for the day,” daughter Janis recalls. “The four of us kids would pack a picnic and go. I never figured out how the owners of these rental boats ever agreed to let my dad take them out. He had no experience at all. I guess he thought -- It’s the same as driving a car, isn’t it?”

This anecdote does not end well. The Sawtelles and friends were enjoying a nautical picnic when they found themselves stranded near their Gloucester cottage. The sea had mysteriously abandoned them. The future maritime historian forgot to account for the tide. They all waited hours for the water to rise and for an embarrassing nudge from the US Coast Guard. As crowds gathered to photograph the event Joe whistled and shrugged innocently as if he had no idea who had captained the stranded vessel.



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Thursday, December 14, 2017 
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