9.4.11

FIGUREHEADS

Growing up on the coast of Maine, the romance of the sea, and our amazing maritime history were never far from my thoughts.  The old seaport of Wiscasset, at the mouth of the Sheepscot River in the mid-coast region of Maine is a town of  many architectural wonders that bear witness to that past, when sailing ships built in the region were tied up at the docks between journeys from our small towns to ports around the world.

Photograph by Cervan Robinson, Historic American Buildings Survey
On a side street amongst several larger and grander neighbors, sits this small brick house was built for one Samuel Page in 1837.  For the first 109 years of its existence, it was a typical tidy brick house, symmetrical, well proportioned, and plain, the sort of house that was done so well all over New England in the early 19th century.  That changed in 1946 when the enchanting porch 19th century entry porch was added by the then owner, Mrs. Cunningham.

Cervan Robinson, HABS
At first glance, this porch appears to be classic cast iron, with a grapevine motif---but look again---it is carved wood.  It came from the home of Edbury Hatch, the last of a distinguished tradition of men who carved figureheads and ornaments for the hundreds of ships built in the region in the 19th century.  Born in Newcastle, a few miles up the coast from Wiscasset, in 1849, Hatch apprenticed in the carving shop of William Southworth, and later worked for Col. Sampson of Bath.  By the 1880s, wooden ship building was drawing to a close, and Hatch, a lifelong bachelor, moved for a time to Charlestown, Massachusetts, where he worked as a night watchman.  By 1890, he had returned to the family home in Newcastle, where he spent the rest of his life carving fantastical items to ornament the exterior of the house.  The Wiscasset porch was from Hatch's front door.  Unseen in the photo (and unfortunately no photo is available to me at this moment) are the side panels, described by Jean Lipman as 'a hunting dog stalking unseen prey with a bird, bee and butterfly buzzing overhead' and 'the other a bear foraging for nuts, accompanied by an enormous dragonfly'.  The porch was but one of a veritable cornucopia of carved ornament on Hatch's house, including this bas relief of the State of Maine seal. 

From American Folk Art in Wood, Metal and Stone, by Jean Lipman

 The two side porches from the Hatch house, equally fantastical, with serpents and tassels carved in high relief, were purchased by authors Henry Beston and his wife Elisabeth Coatsworth, who took them to 'Chimney Farm', their house in neighboring Nobleboro.  

Another of the porticos from the Hatch house can be seen at Chimney Farm (henrybeston.org)
Hatch died in 1935.  Bits of his work still survive on houses around Newcastle, but many are dispersed to private collections, or have been lost to time and the elements.

The following about Hatch appeared in Time magazine for Dec. 13, 1948, and tantalizes the imagination:

'This is to certify that Edbury Hatch has served a regular apprenticeship of more than four years with me in the carving business, that he is honest, temperate and industrious . . . A lack of business is the only reason that I do not employ him.'

Young Edbury Hatch had just picked the wrong trade. When he was a boy in Newcastle, Me., the town had supported ten busy shipyards and every new vessel needed a carved figurehead. But by 1870, when William Southworth discharged Hatch, business was starting to fall off.

Hatch, armed with his letter of recommendation, stuck with it to the last, then got a job as a night watchman in a hotel. For old times' sake, he whittled while he worked. In the 1890s, he got a notion to carve decorations for his own house and barn. He did them for fun until he died in 1935, lavishing on the job all his training and skill, and using his hundred woodworking tools.

Because his house stayed put and never suffered the hazards of the sea, its ebulliently baroque decorations are among the handful of surviving monuments to maritime woodcarving in the U.S.

According to Art Expert Samuel M. Green (who describes them in the current Magazine of Art), they are also some of the best. A Hatch cannon surmounted by two eagles, a near-life-size horse, and a tree full of carved cats have all disappeared, but a wooden treasure remains. Among the highlights: a gutter spout representing a sea monster and reminiscent of medieval gargoyles (though Hatch never saw any); a side entrance adorned with lion heads, snakes and stars.


Chimney Farm, home of two of New England's most revered writers, has been preserved and is now a National Literary Landmark.  For an interview with the Beston's daughter Kate, click HERE

Sometimes, when I venture off on these posts, I am stunned anew by what I know so well---that Maine is a rich, strange, and wonderful place.

9 comments:

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello:
We were at first completely deceived in the porch believing it to be, as you remark, of cast iron. That it is of carved wood makes it all the more interesting, rather like the swagged carvings of Grinling Gibbons which are, as we are sure you are aware, to be found in many English country houses.
We have discovered your blog through Art and Architecture mainly and are, hopefully, signing ourselves to follow future posts.

Reggie Darling said...

Marvelous and quirky, this is what makes (made) regional architecture so charming in its variations. A delightful contrast to the mind-numbing advance of "homes" covered with beige vinyl siding and where the entry is the cheapest pressed metal door one can find at Home Depot.

Toby Worthington said...

My jaw dropped while reading that the porch was of
carved wood~up to that point my teeth were clenched
at the idea of cast iron being inflicted upon that charming facade. So within the space of ten seconds,
there was suspicion, disapproval, bewilderment, relief
and finally astonishment. In other words, yet another
DED mind fuck, but of the nicest sort.

The Devoted Classicist said...

Viewing this on my iPhone, I first thought the porch was cast iron, added like so many I have seen Down South after the popularity of A Streetcar Named Desire and a revival of interest in romantic New Orleans. But this house is a remarkable example of how a historic house develops over time, and how alterations can (sometimes) be improvements that add to the appreciation of the original structure.

The Ancient said...

Were these carvings always painted white?

The Down East Dilettante said...

good question. It would make sense that a ship carver would paint them many colors in theory, but I seem to remember seeing a 1930's photograph of them in situ, and white.

The Ancient said...

Regarding that State of Maine seal, I see this in Jean Lipman's book:

In this piece, as in all of Hatch's carvings, a varied relief allows the play of sunlight over the surface to animate the design with strong tonal contrasts.

But Lipman also refers to "a carved and painted emblem for the Taniscot Fire Company" which was, at least back then, "still preserved in Newcastle." So he seems to have done a bit both.

(What a pity that someone like Lockwood de Forest didn't make Hatch, and others like him, the basis for a business.)

Turner Pack Rats said...

so when are you going to do a post on bernard langlais or the humble farmer.
thanx for this one as i've seen that porch a thousand times and wondered what the heck.

security word def - "sterna" - party with two fondue pots

Donna said...

Three comments: I thank you for your efforts, and your "eye"; I'm really learning a lot as you notice so much and work so hard. Regarding the carved wood, I'm wondering about maintenance: we have a veritable cottage industry of fine woodworkers down here to preserve and restore McIntire's work. And third, your last line about blogging rings really true for me: it keeps you constantly aware and ever appreciative.