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A whole new Ceila has emerged 166 years after the birth of the "island poet" of Appledore. For the first time, a collection of her paintings is on public display.
"One Womanís Work: The Visual Art of Celia Laighton Thaxter" begins a three city-tour at the Portsmouth Athenaeum in New Hampshire this summer.
Even veteran Celia-watchers will be amazed at this never-before-seen collection of painted ceramics, watercolors and book illustrations. Many of the items come directly from the private collections of the Thaxter family, who funded much of this unique display. The exhibit and matching hardcover book is a serious and colorful look at this already amazing Seacoast woman.
Nineteenth century Boston artist Childe Hassem painted Celia and her famous island garden in spotted Impressionistic style, but she preferred Naturalism. Her flowers look like flowers, her berries like berries. Celia drew inspiration from the flora around her, from wild blooms to sea moss and blades of grass. She was fond of olives and painted them with photographic accuracy. Although Celia attended only a few months of formal schooling, her talent is as evident here in a delicately painted teacup as in one of her finely crafted sonnets.
"A man who does not write for money is a blockhead," Samuel Johnson reportedly said. Celia Thaxter was no blockhead. She wrote and painted for finances, not fame. In her time, though, she was a superstar. Her writing was widely published and she even endorsed products in magazine ads, including typewriters and cigars. The proof of Celiaís fame is evident in an ancient card game called "Authors" first printed around 1899. One of the few women writers in the deck, Celia was included, in her time, among the likes of Shakespeare, Milton, Tennyson, Dante, Whittier, Twain and Whittier.
But fame then , as now, did not always lead to fortune. Despite her writing success, Celia was in constant need of money to raise her three boys and nurse her ailing parents Eliza and Thomas Laighton. The tourist business at the Isles of Shoals ebbed and flowed. Her husband Levi was usually between jobs. Selling a book of poetry might bring in only a few cents in royalties, but a painting was another thing. Because of her literary fame, she could sell a single painted plate for dollar, or hand illustrate a book for a dollar a page.
Sharon Stephan , originator and curator of the new exhibit, has discovered evidence in Celia's letters that she was happiest when painting, not writing.
"China-painting was a way a woman could work and not be perceived as lowering herself," Sharon says. "She could work and still be a lady, work and stay at home."
Celia Thaxter signed and dated each piece of china, selling individual vases and pitchers or entire sets of dinnerware. Sharon has pulled together 35 pieces of Thaxter's china, seven paintings, a glas desk lamp, three sketchbooks and nine volumes of her poetry illustrated with watercolors of wildflowers.
Gathering and displaying a collection like this for the first time is an enormous effort. Sharon and a small, dedicated group worked at the details for two years. A well-illustrated companion book with a series of original essays, plus color photographs by Gary Sampson will be released this fall. It is the most important work about Celia since Jane Vallierís early study "Poet on Deman," the first serious study of Celia as a literary artist.
The fact that Celia could paint a flower or a butterfly or a blade of grass with both brush and pen makes her all that more fascinating and worth of artistic attention. The fact that she earned her living at both crafts makes her a resourceful Victorian woman worth greater study. Celia is much more than the Island Poet, much more indeed.
Among the treasures on display, visitors will Sharon's prized new acquisition at the exhibit. It seems out of place among the delicate china with the perfectly executed images. (In fact, it was SeacoastNH.com that first noticed this rare item for sale on eBay, and contacted the exhibit curator.) Celia Thaxter's paintbox is a crude metal thing, splashed with caked paint. But it makes a great symbol for the show. It represents the tools of her little known trade as a painter, the latest tool of a woman whose talents and gritty New England determination knew no bounds.
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