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The Making of Portsmouth's Greatest Maritime Art Exhibit

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.


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Thursday, January 18, 2018 
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