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The Making of Portsmouth's Greatest Maritime Art Exhibit


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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