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The Resurrection of Thomas P. Moses

He was a big impoverished fish
in a small but inspiring town

Thomas P.Moses

Raising the dead is hard work. Local historian Richard Candee knows. He spent much of the last year breathing hot life into the dusty memory of Thomas P. Moses (1808-1881), a 19th century Portsmouth artist. Two years ago Moses was a minor maritime artist in a sea of painters, another name in a catalog of men who scratched out a living depicting grand sailing ships against blue water and sky. Moses was also a forgotten poet with one obscure book of verse to his credit. He had been a musician too, the composer of tunes and lyrics long unsung in an era little understood.

Today Thomas Moses is back -- his paintings displayed, his music played, his life portrayed -- perhaps more appreciated in Portsmouth, and certainly better understood than in his own time. Using every medium at hand -- from print and radio to video and live performance -- Candee has fleshed out a fascinating man who had all but gone to dust in the boneyard of Seacoast history.

It began as a traditional gallery exhibit called "The Artful Life of Thomas P. Moses." Candee, the curator and an American studies professor at Boston University, originally planned to memorialize, not reanimate, the artist. He gathered a rare collection of maritime paintings by Moses largely depicting tall ships in the Piscataqua. Candee’s research unearthed references to nearly 250 paintings, of which a couple dozen survive. Pulling from private collections, the Salem Peabody Museum and other sites, the display filled the Randall Room at the Portsmouth Athenaeum and packed in visitors for months. Although the exhibit has ended, a complete color catalog of Moses' work and the story of his life remains. Candee's portrayal of Moses appeared recently in the prestigious pages of the American Art Review.

Portsmouth Harbor

You know me," Candee says. "I can’t leave well enough alone and just hang twelve paintings. I kept going and going."

Thomas Moses provided Candee much to go on. A sometimes sulking, often sickly, frequently explosive and deeply sensitive character, Moses carried on a lifelong love affair with Portsmouth. Indeed, by re-inventing himself as an artist time and again, Moses appears to have been trying every means possible to stay solvent and stay creative without leaving his native town. As a boy, he served shortly as a seaman’s apprentice, but jumped ship and walked hundreds of miles home. As an adult, he left once to teach in South Carolina and was trapped there throughout the Civil War. Many of Portsmouth’s shape-shifting artists today know this story well. It’s a town too attractive to leave, but too small to provide a living wage. Like so many creative souls since, Moses chose to remain a big, but impoverished fish in a small, but lovely pond.

His territoriality sometimes led to conflict. A largely self-taught musician, Moses worked his way from reed flutes, through most instruments of his day, to the coveted position as organist and choirmaster at North Church in Market Square. In 1849, after a bitter battle with church officials, Moses was fired. Moses complained that the choir loft was messy amd that an adversary had thrown filth on his business sign. He was accused of passing notes to women during choir practice, and of firing a gun – a toy pistol, he explained – at an inattentive member of his chorus. Moses compared the voices of his competitor’s choir to no better than the croaking of frogs in a nearby pond.

The dismissal deeply wounded his already fragile self-image. Moses took his battle public, reporting his version in the newspapers and writing his autobiography, assailing his enemies and bemoaning his subsistence income. Every snub, for Moses, was a personal attack and further evidence that the upper classes were determined to block him from rising above his station as the son of a local carpenter. Conspirators, in his mind, lay around every corner.

Mid-1800s Parade Float

A master of public relations, but a miserable entrepreneur, Moses poetry and large advertisements appear in all five of the local newspapers of his day. He left his paintings in shop windows and wrote glowing anonymous reviews about them in the press. In one grand scheme, he advertised 100 of his paintings for sale, worth from five to $100 each, he noted. Unwilling to endure a lengthy sales process, Moses sold lottery tickets for $5 each, awarding a painting, chosen at random, to all 100 contestants. Every entrant would be a winner, he explained, and some would win a prize worth 20 times the value of a ticket. Sales were sluggish and most of the costly paintings were removed from the final drawing and auctioned time and again.

His greatest achievement was a series of Juvenile Floral Concerts performed whenever Moses was most in need of cash, by up to 100 of his young female singing students. Horticulture was then on the rise among Americans. Moses drummed up attention by wheeling his students through the streets on a flower bedecked cart in an era long before the Rose Bowl parade. He placed gigantic ads In newspapers, trading space for submissions of poetry, promising stunning floral arrangements, heavenly music and decorated arches. Flocks of caged birds, in more than one case, were paraded into the hall to accompany the young choir.

Richard Candee could do no less. With the aid of local musicians like Rich Spicer, the Portsmouth Garden Club, and the Sandpiper juvenile chorus, the scholar transformed words into action. In an age of computer animated film stars, hundreds of Portsmouth citizens packed the South Church to experience a Thomas P. Moses floral concert. It was, for those who attended, a genteel and hauntingly authentic event, held in the very vestibule where Moses himself had once performed. Accompanied by piano, organ and flute, the children marched to the stage carrying banners and singing "Huzzah! Huzzah! Sons of the free!" The stirring anthems Moses had promised, stirred again. Captured on videotape, the mood of this sublime Spring concert survives.

Detail of Nepture

Portsmouth actor Greg Gathers, portraying Moses, read from the artist’s one published volume of poems and recounted his hardscrabble life as an artist struggling to stay financially afloat in a seaside town with a rocky economy.

"Portsmouth!"Moses scolded the capacity crowd from the pulpit of the old stone church, again festooned with greenery and flowers. "Portsmouth – diminished by artlessness and cupidity!"

Moses railed again "Poverty! That corroding and soul-freezing trial to intelligent and soaring minds."

It was the howl of a poor and frustrated man, full, as one of his creditors once wrote, "with poetry, music, painting – anything but money". Most of his life, although Moses had no family, he was forced to support his ill and aging parents, and a niece abandoned him by a sibling.

Moses’ writing projected the theory that artists, like clergymen, because of their higher calling, should be supported by the community. At the very least, when the artist sells his work, the community – for its own spiritual good – should buy. He wanted the money, but then railed against the pursuit or riches above the holier pursuit of Beauty, the appreciation of Nature and the love of Art.

"We shall waste our existence," the reincarnated Moses preached, "Idly hoping for a permanent prosperity, until we wheel about and become a more liberal and brotherly people. Never, while we show a disposition to crush or underrate native talents and virtues, can we be respected abroad."

Detail of Charles Carroll

Poor Thomas Moses – a big league ego in a minor league town. In 1875 Moses created his largest most stirring painting of a wooden ship on the North Pond docks looking toward Portsmouth at sunrise. After auctioning off shares in his remaining paintings at $1 per ticket, Moses held a final lottery for his finest work. In 1876 he left Portsmouth forever to serve as a music teacher in a South Carolina high school. Former patrons contributed toward a purse, perhaps to help the aging artist afford his train fare.

Never conventional, before leaving town the 69-year old bachelor announced his marriage to Nettie Lawrence, a woman half his age. The marriage, it appears, lasted only months. Just before his death in 1881, Moses made the long trek home to Portsmouth intent to sail one final time on his beloved Piscataqua River. Even then his music, his poetry and his painting were passing out of fashion, and Moses was all but lost until this year.

"I always knew that, no matter how many paintings I found, the story itself was going to be fascinating," Richard Candee says in retrospect. There was so much about Moses, Candee says, "that was never going to hang on the wall."

The painter, it turns out, is more interesting than the painting, the singer, more amazing than the song. The fleshed out Thomas P. Moses, courtesy of Candee and his talented friends, still works. He’s the household saint of small time artists, the hero in the fable of The Big Fish in the Small Pond. Moses reminds us why so many creative souls choose to live in a scenic city that, even today, cannot feed its starving over-sized community of artists.

Small fame, it turns out, is better than no fame. No matter what it pays. The local artist clings to it like to a log in the middle of the swirling Piscataqua – fearing to let go, but loving the ride and the crowds that gather along the banks to watch.

By J. Dennis Robinson


Tor purchase a copy of the Thomas P. Moses catalog or a videotape of the Thomas P. Moses Juvenile Floral Concert (featuring a speech bu Thomas Moses himself) contact the Portsmouth Athenaum at 603-431-2538.

Photo credits: All images courtesy "The Artful Life of Thomas P. Moses" by Richard Candee, published by the Portsmouth Athenaeum, 2002. Top image of (1) Moses, Portsmouth Public Library, (2) float drawing by James Head from Portsmouth Athenaeum, (3) detail of 1855 painting courtesy of Strawbery Banke Museum, (4) detail of Neptune from the Portsmouth Athenaeum, (5) detail of Charles Carroll from the collection of William Gilmore. Images may not be re-used or duplicated.

Copyright © 2002 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved..

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