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The Unexpected Portsmouth Art Gallery

library ceramic dragonHISTORY MATTERS


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.


library Celia



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. 






library gilded eagle


An eclectic collection


The Portsmouth Public Library art collection is eclectic to say the least. It includes ceramics, prints, postcards, bookplates, sculptures, sketches, paintings, plaques, a few tools, and even a Chelsea tide clock. Many items found their way there before the opening of the Portsmouth Historical Society in 1920. 



Robert E. Rich was the first librarian from 1896 to 1908. Hannah Fernald followed from 1908 to 1945. But the biggest collector of all was certainly Dorothy Vaughan, who worked at the library for 53 years, taking the helm from 1945 to 1974.



You will find most of your displayed items at the top of the circular stairway. Look for pallid white busts of George Washington and New Hampshire's Civil War governor Ichabod Goodwin (whose house was moved from Islington Street to Strawbery Banke Museum). Inside the Special Collections Room are sculptures of Napoleon Bonaparte, Portsmouth lawyer and judge Jeremiah Mason, and Daniel Webster. A ferocious Chinese or Korean guardian lion, donor unknown, protects the desk of the reference librarian on duty. A photo of NH artist Lotti Jacobi hangs on the opposite wall.



Above a bank of well-attended computers, you'll find four framed portraits of 19th century figures. Significant among them is Rev. Nathan Parker, who brought Unitarianism to Portsmouth, and whose great brick mansion still stands near South Mill pond.



Most prominent is James T. Fields (1817-1881), who hangs just opposite the microfilm machines. Raised in the South End, this entrepreneurial genius moved to Boston at age 14. There he became a partner at Ticknor & Fields. There he published books by Whittier, Emerson, Thoreau, Stowe, Holmes, Hawthorne, Dickens, Thackery, Longfellow, and more. This painting is our best image of the young writer and editor who would later own and operate the Atlantic Monthly.  After Fields' death in 1881, his wife Annie, author Sarah Orne Jewett, and Celia Thaxter employed mediums, without success, to talk to him beyond the grave.


library scultures






library reference desk


Digitizing Portsmouth


The best work, but not everything in your collection, is on display. A few items are in offices or remain in storage because they are too expansive, too valuable, or too fragile.  A portrait by Russell Cheney, for example, hangs in the Special Collections storage area, because there is not a large enough public wall in a secure location. Certain prints, manuscripts, and photographs are susceptible to fading in the light and remain in the vault.  


But despite the sometimes withering cost of conserving aging artwork, the library is a "community information center," according to its mission.  Special Collections librarian Nicole Luongo Cloutier says that, when it comes to Portsmouth history, the staff is dedicated to "making what we care for more accessible." Their goal, she says, is simple -- to preserve and share.

Easy to say, but not easy to do. Conserving artwork means finding outside funds and grant money, like that from the Rosamond Thaxter Foundation. Students and volunteers too are  essential, Nicole says, for scanning and data entry.


Already large portions of the archived collection can be seen online. For example, Sarah Haven Foster  (1827-1900) produced the city's first walking tour guidebook in 1876. An adventurous traveler, Sarah was also a prolific painter. Currently 174 of her miniature watercolors of Portsmouth and Seacoast towns can be seen online. Another 75 of her detailed and colorful wildflower paintings have been digitized.


Sarah Haven Foster's life ended abruptly, violently, ironically on the corner of Richards Ave. and Middle Street. On August 19, 1900 the 74 year old "grandmother of Portsmouth tourism" was crossing the street in front of her home when one of the new-fangled trolley cars clanged past. Hard of hearing and with weak vision, Sarah stepped across the track, unaware that a second trolley had been added to the line. She was struck and thrown a great distance, and later died of her injuries.


Current digital collections include 178 photos of the city's North End ethnic neighborhood around 1967, before it was destroyed by urban renewal. An enormous collection of 433 images of the South End and Puddle Dock neighborhoods are included in the Haven School Project online.

And that's just the beginning. Nicole points to a number of collections that are "in the pipeline" to be digitized. They include the Adams photo collection, over 400 postcards of the area, and Portsmouth tax records dating from 1821 to 1905. Through online crowd-sourcing software, readers can add their own comments, images, and data.



Also on tap is the enormous collection of a once-famous Portsmouth-born comedic actor. Many years ago, 12 boxes of scrapbooks, photographs, albums, books, souvenirs, opera music scores, watercolors, and artifacts appeared on the library doorstep. They belonged to Henry Clay Barnabee (1833-1917).  Someday, his incredible life will be online for all to see.



These online collections benefit, not only art lovers and historians, but individuals seeking their family histories. Will digitizing collections prevent people from visiting Portsmouth Public Library? Surprisingly, the opposite is true.



"People still need a guide," Nicole says. "Someone to talk to and help them find their way. And that's what we're here for."



To see the Portsmouth Special Collections online exhibits visit

Copyright © 2015 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the print version of the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday. He is the author of 12 books including history books on Strawbery Banke Museum, Privateer Lynx, and Wentworth by the Sea Hotel.  His latest, Mystery on the Isles of Shoals, closes the controversial Smuttynose ax murder case of 1873. (See It is available in local stores and in narrated form by 

library James T Fields


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