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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.



The Making of the Sawtelle Collection (Continued)

A city of ships

In 1964 Joe spotted an ad in the Boston Globe seeking bids for a ramshackle pre-World War II federal housing development in Portsmouth. He won the sealed bid, then convinced the government to loan him the $1.6 million to purchase it. Three-quarters of the 800 apartments in the 129 buildings at Sea Crest Village had been abandoned, vandalized, and boarded up. For a decade Sawtelle commuted from Wakefield, restoring the former “ghost town” to a thriving neighborhood with 3,000 residents. The more he explored Portsmouth, the more fascinated he became. He renamed the development Mariner’s Village.


In 1975, the year Joe and Jean moved to New Castle, Portsmouth was still in transition from a gritty economically-depressed seaport with empty storefronts and topless bars to the renowned heritage and cultural destination it is today. Joe threw himself into developing local real estate and into collecting maritime art related to the Port of Portsmouth. The more he succeeded in business, the more paintings he purchased. The larger his collection grew, the more he wanted to know about the history behind the private shipyards that once flourished here. One fateful day, Joe bumped into photographer Peter Randall, a ninth generation  seacoast resident. Peter was then editor of New Hampshire Profiles magazine and publishing local history books.

“In 1983 my wife Judy talked me into going to an antiques show at the junior high in Portsmouth,” Peter Randall recalls. “It was a nice day. I didn’t want to go, but she insisted. Joe was there, and somehow we got talking.”

“We got talking and I said I didn’t have an office,” Peter continues. “Then Joe bought that building at Nobles Island, and he said -- I’ll give you a room in there. I think he felt we produced something of importance. He liked what I did and he supported it. He was my patron for 17 years.”

The result of the meeting was the Portsmouth Marine Society, a nonprofit publishing group guided by Joe, run by Peter, and including historians Ray Brighton and Joe Copley. The Marine Society published 31 hardcover books primarily on our seafaring heritage – clippers, gundalows, ships of war, submarines, whalers, privateers, and more. The books inspired Joe’s expanding collection, and many of his paintings appeared in the books. The series of books, now an indispensible resource, proved Portsmouth was once one of the nation’s earliest and most important centers for building wooden ships.

Portsmouth around the world

Maritime PortsmouthOur first homegrown tall ship HMS Falkland was launched into the Piscataqua River in 1690. But the evidence of our seafaring days is fading. The old wharves have been replaced by gardens, parks, condos, and restaurant decks. With the exception of one – and soon two -- replica gundalows, Portsmouth has no tall ships of its own. A few grand mansions of wealthy sea captains, shipwrights, and maritime merchants survive, but the vessels are gone forever. Many Port of Portsmouth-built ships sailed into the sunset, never to return.

The growth of the Sawtelle Collection coincides with the departure of the four daughters to college and the move to New Hampshire, a touch of “empty nest syndrome” it has been suggested. As inveterate travelers, the Sawtelles carried their passion for Portsmouth across the country and around the world. Wherever they went, they searched for signs of home, purchasing paintings and artifacts connected to maritime Portsmouth.

“It really became an obsession that we needed to bring things back,” Jean Sawtelle says.

The couple made a point to visit cities with important maritime museums. They became known among art dealers. Jean handled most of the correspondence and record keeping for what became a substantial catalog of items. There were auctions, surprise offers, close calls, and disappointments. There was the thrill of the chase and the satisfaction of the catch. “Communications,” Jean adds with a smile, “were often more hysterical than historical.”

As a finale to years of buying art, the Sawtelle’s created art. They commissioned America’s premier maritime artists John Stobart to paint an original image of Ceres Street in the Age of Sail. Stobart spoke recently at Discover Portsmouth in honor of Joe Sawtelle, a man he says, with whom he had an “instant rapport.” Their collaboration is among the images on display.




Bound to the sea

Joe Sawtelle’s philanthropic work is now well known – preserving old Seacoast mills, launching the Greater Piscataqua Community Foundation, reviving the Portsmouth Athenaeum, hauling out the USS Albacore, kick-starting Crossroads homeless shelter, and more. His enormous contribution to maritime art history, however, almost passed us by.


After Joe’s death roughly 200 paintings and artifacts remained in storage for a decade. Prof. Richard Candee, a prominent Portsmouth historian, hoped to bring this large and unique collection into public view. After years of discussion, Jean Sawtelle and her family agreed.  Early this year, in a few short months, Candee and a group of volunteers prepared a detailed catalog and arranged to display the full range of Sawtelle’s treasures at Discover Portsmouth. Floors were sanded and polished. New gallery lighting was installed. Paintings were carefully unwrapped, labeled, and hung for a three-month exhibit.

The resulting display is a rare window into Portsmouth’s past in the Age of Sail. It is the era we celebrate every day with historic tours, lectures, and maritime festivals. But we rarely see the vessels for which Portsmouth was known. The construction of the new wooden gundalow at Strawbery Banke Museum echoes a time when sailmakers, blockmakers, riggers, carpenters, blacksmiths and a host of maritime artisans plied their trade on the river’s edge. It was an age when Portsmouth and Kittery were connected by ferries, not bridges, and hundreds of ships with white sails cruised in and out of this important American port each week. But the window that is “Maritime Portsmouth” closes soon.

What may appear at first glance as the gathering of painted ships is, below the surface, much more than meets the eye. In their collecting, the Sawtelles were rebuilding a family that had gone astray. They found these ships and brought them home. If you think you know Portsmouth, or if you don’t – see this show.

Adapted from Maritime Portsmouth:The Sawtelle Collection (2011) edited by Richard Candee, Portsmouth Marime Society

Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson is editor of the popular history Web site where this article appears exclusively online. His latest book is Maritime Portsmouth: The Sawtelle Collection (2011) edited by Richard M. Candee, available in local stores and on

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