The Unexpected Portsmouth Art Gallery
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
Page 1 of 3
Hidden in plain sight, a fascinating collection of paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and photographs are on display at the Portsmouth Public Library. (click title ro read more)
If you live in Portsmouth, you own some pretty cool art. Except on holidays, your prized collection is on display for free 350 days of the year.
Two of your biggest treasures are located just inside the sliding front doors of the Portsmouth Public Library. To your left is a life-sized portrait of Celia Laighton Thaxter, (1835-1894) the poet, painter, and hostess of Appledore Island at the Isles of Shoals. Celia was born on Daniel Street. We've seen dozens of black and white photographs of her, but this large (60 x 38 inch) oil painting is a rare color view.
It is attributed to a German painter named Emil Otto Grundman, who was the first head of the school at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. No longer the teenaged island nymph that Nathaniel Hawthorne met decades earlier, this is the mature American writer with a "vigorous physique" striking a noble pose. Celia had piercing blue eyes, a noble profile, and always held her head high, according to her biographer and granddaughter Rosamond Thaxter. For this portrait, Rosamond wrote, Celia wore "a most imperial gown, of black cashmere and silk and satin, with a sweeping train."
Grundmann, along with painters Childe Hassam and William Morris Hunt, was a summer visitor to the Appledore Hotel. It isn't clear exactly when Grundman completed the work. Celia's son Karl Thaxter donated it in 1896, the year the library opened in the old Portsmouth Academy Building, now Discover Portsmouth.
A new display case surrounds the portrait of Celia. It currently holds some of the decorative art items donated to the library by Theodora Lyman in 1919. Look for an ancient Chinese Cloisonne vase dating from the Ch'ien-lung period (1450-56 AD). Two other plates were created before the American Revolution. A clay pot on display may be Native American.
The second most striking item in your collection is the gilded eagle perched above the circular granite "Stairway to Enlightenment" that leads to the second floor of the library. It stood for 250 years in all weather atop the 110-foot Liberty Pole in what is now Prescott Park. Legend tells us the eagle was carved by a 19-year old Bostonian named Laban Beecher, who was then working at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. It is 43 inches high with a wingspan of nearly three feet. It has been gilded at least a dozen times and is suspended on an elegant iron hanger created by blacksmith Peter Hapney.
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