Whitewashing a Bald Eagle in Kittery
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Written by SeacoastNH Archive

Bellamy eagleSeacoastNH.com Presents 
Historic Portsmouth #442

All three people I asked about this photo said I must talk to James A. Craig from Gloucester, MA. They were right. Jim and I talked for over two hours on the phone. Other experts said this wooden eagle might not be the work of famed carver John Haley Bellamy (1836-1914) of Kittery Point. (Continued below)

 

Amazingly, Jim not only confirmed that it was indeed a Bellamy eagle, but he had been to the home of its owner in Vermont to study this rare work. Most carved Bellamy eagles are flat, but this one is “in the round.” The sweep of the eagle’s tail, the puffed-out chest, and shark tooth wings identify it as likely an early Bellamy, Jim says. And it bears Bellamy’s signature. Carved from pine and stained mahogany, the patriotic bird image was designed to be seen from below and so the upper back is not entirely finished. In fact, Jim wonders, could this have been one of the two carved Bellamy eagles commissioned by the Appledore Hotel at the Isles of Shoals in 1872? He offers a couple of fuzzy photos of the hotel as evidence. Too hard to tell, but fun to conjecture. Jim only knows of four similar eagles by Bellamy whose work has sold for as much as $600,000 in recent years. More likely this was carved as a garden ornament for John Prentiss Benson, seen here proudly whitewashing a post that stood on the water behind his Kittery Point home. Benson was an esteemed American architect and painter who summered at the home he called “Willow Bank” not far from where Bellamy worked. Bellamy produced many hundreds of carvings that are now highly prized and imitated. Jim Craig is writing a book tentatively titled “Brother to the Eagles: The Brash Life and Magnificent Art of John Haley Bellamy.” The book is scheduled for release in 2014 on the centennial of Bellamy’s death and may accompany an extensive exhibit of Bellamy’s work in Portsmouth.  (Courtesy Portsmouth Athenaeum)

John Haley Bellamy Eagle (c) Portsmouth Athenaeum

BONUS CLOSE-UP

Detail of wood carving on Bellamy Eagle

John Haley Bellamy Eagle (c) Portsmouth Athenaeum

(c) Portsmouth Athenaeum photo, SeacoastNH.com text

READER REPLY

Hello -- A friend gave me your article, dated Dec. 20, 2012, titled "Whitewashing a bald eagle in Kittery, Maine", which I read with great interest. I am John Benson's biographer.  My late cousin, Joan Benson Baker, was one of John Benson's 11 granddaughters.  (No grandsons).  Joan died in 2000, and soon afterward, her husband, Nick Baker, and I embarked on a project to publish a book about this wonderful man and superb artist.  That book, The Artistic Legacy of John Prentiss Benson, turned into a series of three -- a catalogue raisonne.  And in 2008 we published a fine art book, John Prentiss Benson, American Marine Artist.  Since then, most of our Benson family material has been donated to the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

I was delighted to see your article illustrated by the photograph of him painting the post of his beloved Bellamy eagle.  Family told stories about how it was a yearly ritual, to whitewash the post.  Perhaps you saw other photographs at the Athenaeum of one occasion when some of his children and their spouses were gathered on the lawn of Willowbank while "Poppity" painted his post.  I do not know when he acquired the eagle, or from whom.

I was fascinated to read that this particular eagle is now in Vermont.  We knew it had disappeared from Willowbank but had no idea when, or even if it still existed. May I correct a couple of bits of information in your article?  "Willowbank" was always spelled as one word as far as John Benson was concerned; he bought the home in 1925 after retiring from his career as an architect in New York City.  And Willowbank was his permanent home, not a summer home.  He lived there until he died -- at Willowbank -- in 1947.  You probably know the house, and have driven past it many times.  It has not changed since he lived there.
Cordially, Margaret M. Betts