The Eagle Has Landed
Born the son of a boat builder and timber inspector, it is no surprise that John Haley Bellamy [1836-1914] grew up to become one of the New England’s most imitated wood carvers. Bellamy, known for his carved bald eagles clutching shields or banners, was a master carver of figurative work, furniture, maritime objects, decorative clocks, and hand-made picture frames. In a new retrospective mounted at the Academy Gallery at Discover Portsmouth—home of the Portsmouth Historical Society in New Hampshire—the work of Bellamy is explored along with a school of his imitators.
Beginning April 4th and continuing to October 3rd, the exhibit and accompanying book entitled “AMERICAN EAGLE: The Bold Art and Brash Life of John Haley Bellamy” [Portsmouth Marine Society Press, hardcover, 224 pages, $45] was curated by the book’s author James A. Craig, an independent curator and lecturer specializing in American marine art. Craig, who worked at the House of the Seven Gables Museum in Salem, Massachusetts and the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester wrote two previous award-winning biographies of American marine painters Fitz Henry Lane and Frank Vining Smith.
The exhibit contains early figurative carving, intricate Masonic mirror frames, decorative clocks, maritime carvings, a large stern board and gangway boards from American warships, two carved cupboards and paneling salvaged from the lost 18th century Sparhawk Mansion, and an original carved cupboard circa 1742, with a duplicate made by John Haley Bellamy soon after the Civil War.
The second floor “balcony gallery” offers a companion exhibition called “Inspired Imitators and Modern Masters” which examines woodcrafters, past and present, who adopted the Bellamy style. It is a must-see for woodcarvers and for collectors who want to know if they own an authentic Bellamy eagle. “The variety of carvings by this local artist will astound you,” says society president Richard Candee.
Bellamy’s work became popular during Victorian sea-side tourism in the 1870s where he and a small group of craftsman would produce thousands of wooden eagles without sacrificing his distinctive and personal attention to detail. His two-foot long souvenir eagles which sported banners with slogans like “In God We Trust” and “Don’t Give Up the Ship” typically would sell for two-dollars and today are worth hundreds, even thousands of dollars.
Bellamy’s life is explored in detail, even his “lost years” as a hard-drinking bachelor. The artist’s sea-side studio acted as an exclusive men’s club with luminaries of the day stopping by to drink rum and talk with Bellamy including: Painter Winslow Homer,writers William Dean Howells and Mark Twain, Admiral George Dewey, former Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, Harvard President Charles Eliot, and actor Edwin Booth (unhappily the brother of John Wilkes Booth).
“Bold and Brash: The Art of John Haley Bellamy” is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through October 3 at 10 Middle Street in downtown Portsmouth, NH. Admission to the exhibit is $8 and includes a tour of the John Paul Jones House Museum next door.