For Breakfast an 1812-er in the Camera
By C.H.J. Snider
Schooner Days no. CCXXC
Some of the pictures in the Parsons' store at Oswego are photographs- Oswego harbor in storm and calm, freshet and frost, bristling with masts or filled with funnels; yachts, schooners, captains, crews, coal trestles, canal boats,"The" Bridge, dividing line in Oswego's life, and so on.
Some of the pictures are oils. Some are lithographs - original Currier and Ives prints of the original yacht America and the Madeleine and of the Countess of Dufferin.
One photograph may be a unique treasure, a camera picture of a "eighteen-twelver" on the stocks.
This does not seem anymore possible than a moving picture of a dinosaur pasturing, for Skipper Daguerre hadn't launched his craft when the War of 1812 was flourishing. Photography dates from 1839 as a going concern. Nor is the photograph one of the "eighteen-twelvers" restored to life, like the Niagara, or Constitution, or dragged from the tomb like the Nancy or Tigress.
This picture was taken in 1881 by F. E. Dick, probably by the old silver-plate process, and it shows the mammoth man-of-war New Orleans, 120 gun ship of the line, which was built at Sackett's Harbor in the winter of 1814-1815, to match the might of the British ship St. Lawrence, of 112 guns built at Kingston, which had swept the lake of the foe. The New Orleans was never launched, for the war ws over before she could be got into the water. A huge "hangar" was built over her, giving the name to Shiphouse Point at Sackett's Harbor to this day. In sixty years the house decayed and fell to ruin, and the great ship herself hogged and twisted with dry-rot and her own weight, so that she had to be broken up. This photograph was made of her while she was still intact, and is so clear that you can see row after row of the gunports and every plank in her, the projecting ends of unfurnished deck-beams and the stanchions for the bulwarks of the spar-deck, which were never completed. Many lake captains had walking sticks made from her timbers, Capt, Palmateer among them.
The photograph of the New Orleans really goes back farthest in the ship chandler's collection- a hundred and twenty-two years-although it is not the oldest picture. There are steamboats advertisements back to 1839. There is a good wood-cut of the steamer United States, Capt. Whitney, in that year. She called at every American port between Lewiston and Ogdensburgh. The Great Britain, a sister vessel, covered the North Shore, She was also commanded at one time by Capt. Whitney.
The bulk of the sailing vessels are in the favorite medium of schooner days- lead pencil and colored crayon or pastel on heavy drawing paper, yellowed and deepened in hue by time; preserving with painstaking accuracy, the exact number of hanks in the jibtopsail and the correct coloring of the beading and topgallant rails, and how the hawserbox was painted and how many reef-points there were in the third band in the mainsail.
Marine artists had to be accurate to suit their customers. The captains and mates and sailors who paid from $1 to $10 for these colored drawings fifty years ago demanded 100 cents worth of accuracy with each dollar's worth of art. Pity the painter who tried to palm off some of the "broad " impressionistic masterpieces of the degenerate days on those men who had themselves painted each stripe on the real ship's hull, knotted each reef point, and bent each bulging sail to its spar! They knew what was what, and they couldn't be short-changed, either in detail or dollars.
That was why oil painting was less popular with them than the other kinds; the artist in oil could not say with the same confidence:"Sure, I put in the right number of foot-stops on the foresail; count 'em yourself." Crayon artists like Charlie Gibbons, the fireman, and his partner, Hunt, were equally sure of their sails and sales, because they put in the detail and their medium showed it clearly. They and other contemporary artists" draughted by eye" and some of these were wide of their mark in proportions. Some of the rigs fastened on unoffending canallers would capsize the heaviest ballasted clipper ship that ever went around the Horn: some of the ratlines spaced would rupture the sailor starting to climb them.
Gibbons was a Toronto man, in the tug Frank Jackman, but samples of his art are to be found all over Lake Ontario, and many are in Parson's store. He improved as he went along, and did some very good pictures. Another artist there represented is John G. Tyler, of Oswego, who did a lot of work in the 1880's and went to New York and established a reputation as an illustrator. Mahoney was another popular marine artist in Oswego.
Mrs. Dixon, an Oswego lady, also painted vessel pictures. She was one of the few artists in oil whom the captain would trust. Capt. Chisholm, of Oakville, commissioned her to do one of the Coquette for him. Mr. Parsons has another oil painting of this Canadian schooner, in a different pose, evidently by the same fair hand. In this picture the Coquette is shown with a furled squaresail on the foremast. She is setting or lowering her main gafftopsail, like a lady giving a touch to her permanent. The Coquette herself, Capt. Chisholm's daughter or sweetheart is shown in the figurehead under the bowsprit, with flowing brown curls and red ribbons flying from her white dress.