Thursday, May 24, 2018

Happy Morse Code Day!



Do have any clue what we are looking at here? Why would this be featured on the history blog for the Conway New Hampshire Public Library? What possible connections could it have with our town? (Note: there is a hint in the blog title).

Let me start by explaining that this object is literally a combination of art, science, and history. This item lies at the center of a spiderweb of connections, involving threads of history that spread out in all directions, and include several old houses in Conway, a painting at the Conway Public Library, pioneering photographers, mad scientists and insane doctors.  

Let's frame the story by starting with the National Holiday we are celebrating today. Today is Morse Code Day. I am sure all of you will be celebrating appropriately. There are in fact, three Morse code related holidays including January 11 and April 27 in addition to May 24. A good way to learn more about Samuel F.B. Morse is from a book in the Conway Public Library collection, Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F.B. Morse by Kenneth Silverman. For more info on the book or to place a hold on it see this link.

As explained in one review, Silverman "presents Samuel Morse in all his complexity. There is the gifted and prolific painter (more than three hundred portraits and larger historical canvases) and pioneer photographer, who gave the first lectures on art in America, became the first Professor of Fine Arts at an American college (New York University), and founded the National Academy of Design. There is the republican idealist, prominent in antebellum politics, who ran for Congress and for mayor of New York. But most important, there is the inventor of the American electromagnetic telegraph, which earned Morse the name Lightning Man and brought him the fame he sought."

This blog was inspired by a program held recently at the library by Michael Callis. Michael has presented several programs at the library and often connects a wide variety of historical elements in unique and surprising ways. Following in his footsteps, building on his presentation, and using his approach here are some connections which I hope you will find curious and interesting.

Michael's program focused on a pair of images showing the same scenic view.




The image above is a well known print of Mount Washington from Frankenstein Cliff in Crawford Notch.

Below is a recent acquisition by Michael of a photographic version of the same scene of Mount Washington at Frankenstein Cliff in Crawford Notch.

Inscriptions on both prospects indicate that they were used to promote the railroad.





In his program he compared the two images, pointing out the similarities and differences and postulating about their implications.

For example, there is a subtle but significant variation in the titles of the two works. The difference between the prepositions "from" and "at" in the titles played a key part in Michael's analysis.

While both of the views above indicate they were done by Harrison Bird Brown, he suggested a possible connection with a painting by Godfrey Frankenstein of the same scene below with the images above.





Before we continue our journey here in cyberspace through both space and time, I should mention that Michael's imaginative pairings have also already inspired two other library patrons to go off in different directions of research. One, a well known author about rock climbing, will be studying the rock formations seen in the images and another, a meteorologist and art collector, will be heading down to Lowell Massachusetts to dig into the railroad archives to hopefully unearth more about the business behind the commission of the prints by the railroad.

Now let's move our focus from Crawford Notch to Conway. 


In a letter to the editor earlier this month (link to that) Michael outlined his program noting that he "began the presentation with a picture of the Sparhawk house across the street from Cafe Noche, and bounded by the street entering the former high school (now Kennett Middle School)." That building is estimated to have been built in 1810.



There is another Sparhawk family related house on West Side Road that is documented in the archives at the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room also dated to around 1810.


In his letter to the editor, Michael notes that Morse was related to the Sparhawks by marriage and through business. He explains that "When Samuel Morse died ... his obituary cited Samual Sparhawk for helping Morse with selling an innovative fire pump invented by Morse and his brother to the Concord Fire Department in 1818." He adds that "Samuel Sparhawk was the secretary of state for New Hampshire and the secretary of the N.H. Historical Society."

We will now follow this lead and take an arm chair traveler trip from Conway to Concord where the New Hampshire Historical Society has an 1816 portrait painting of one of the Sparhawks attributed to Samuel Morse. Consider this connection as a "brush with history."



While unsigned, an inscription written in ink on the back of the painting reads "Samuel Sparhawk / Painted 1816 at Concord, N.H. / by Samuel Finley Breese Morse."

As noted above, Morse is known to have painted over three hundred portraits. During the period, portrait painters were at the bottom of the artist hierarchy. Morse wanted fame and respect as an artist and the path to do that during the time was to be known as a history painter.

Let's go a few years down the road from a "brush with history" to "history from a brush" and move our geographical focus to Washington D.C.




In 1822 Morse completed a large painting depicting the House of Representatives. He was hoping that this painting would receive the same critical, popular and financial success that other large history paintings (such as Trumbell's Declaration of Independence, Copely's Death of Lord Chatham, and West's Death of Wolfe) had when they toured the country and admission was charged to view them (usually two bits or 25 cents).

Unfortunately, the painting was a financial failure.  

After displaying the painting in New Haven, Connecticut Morse sent it to Boston for exhibit. After a dismal financial return there, the painting was sent back to New Haven, where one of Morse's art students, Henry Cheever Pratt took over the management of the exhibitions for the painting. He coordinated its display in Salem Massachusetts and New York City.

This art agent, Henry Cheever Pratt was born in Orford, NH in 1803. Now we follow Pratt forward a few years later and physically back to New Hampshire into the White Mountains to a trip Pratt took there in 1828. 

Along the way, let's surf the web to Boston and the Museum of Fine Arts there where we can find a sketch done on that 1828 trip by Pratt of the artist Thomas Cole. This trip is detailed in an article by Catherine Campbell. A copy is available from the library.

Note: click on images to enlarge them.




So this is an example of one artist's sketch of another artist sketching the scenery. See this link for details.

Now let's take a quick digital detour to Detroit where we can see that Cole returned the favor and did a sketch of Pratt sketching. See this link. We have now reconnected two sketches done in 1828 in the White Mountains that are now over 700 miles apart.






The thread continues in that the Pratt sketch of Cole was used as a concept in a painting now in Connecticut. For details see this link.


Before the advent of photography, the introduction of more convenient commercial paints in tubes and cakes, and the popularity of outdoor or "plein air" painting, it was common practice for landscape artists to go out in the field and make numerous sketches. They would then use these sketches to formulate their finished paintings in a studio setting.

On another tangent, this Autumn there will be an exhibit which explores the 19th century process of "sketch to canvas" at the Museum of White Mountain Art in Jackson New Hampshire.

We now return to our prime character Morse and a scene in Paris, and we continue the theme of an artist showing other artists working in this case surrounded by art, even the Mona Lisa. From 1831-1833 Morse worked on this painting, Gallery of the Louvre.




With this large painting, Morse was still trying to find his fortune and his niche as an artist. At the same time he was multitasking and focusing more on science and technology.

While unlucky for him, it is lucky for us, that Morse was challenged in court for his invention of the telegraph and as a result we have detailed documentation of the timeline of his process. In the proceedings, he traced his path to the telegraph back to October 1832, when he had his eureka moment on a boat from France to America.

He also recalled talking with a fellow passenger on the ship about his idea. We will reveal this character a little later, but suffice to say now, that this person later claimed that he, instead of Morse had invented the telegraph system.







From 1832 until 1844 Morse worked out the bugs for his telegraph system. We can now connect our introductory image to the story. It is a prototype of the telegraph receiver from around 1836. Being the artist and Yankee that he was he used parts and pieces he had around. The large rectangle you see here is in fact one of his stretchers he used to prep the canvasses on which he painted. 

In 1839 while still working out the details for the telegraph, Morse returned to France.

In his letter to the editor, Callis makes the connection that "Samuel Morse is considered the first American photographer after he revisited Paris in 1839 and met Daguerre, the inventor, and took photos." Here is an example of a photo by Morse.




Again one must be careful of one's grammar. While Morse can claim the title of the first American photographer, the credit for the first photographer of America actually goes to Samuel A. Bemis (more on this below). While Morse continued with the traditional portrait format he was familiar with and the new technology he learned in France, Bemis did his photography in America and focused on American landscapes which Thomas Cole was helping make the more cutting edge style and fashionable form of artistic expression in painting.

So in 1839 while Morse was in Europe, back across the pond Thomas Cole was on his third trip to the White Mountains, this time with another artist Asher B. Durand. They continued to work in the time proven method of making sketches and then returning to their studios to use the sketches to construct their oil paintings.

It was in 1839 from Cole's sketch (now in Princeton, New Jersey) that he painted his masterpiece now in Washington D.C. I have frequently railed about the mistakes many prominent art historians have made about those famous images and in a previous blog, I suggest a solution to this over fifty year mystery in a painting at the Conway Public Library.

I believe my points are further proven by a series of photographs that Samuel A. Bemis took in the same area in 1840, one year after Cole's visit. This Bemis photo shows many of the key elements in the Cole painting, including the Notch House on the left, the gate of the notch in the middle, the barn on the right and the tree stumps in the foreground.




Another view of the barn on the right was featured recently in a post by the New England Historical Society on their website.


In yet another amazing coincidence, many of Samuel A. Bemis's papers can now be found in the Conway Public Library' Henney History Room. (see links here and here for more details and to see our finding guide for this collection).

We recently had a researcher from Michigan study the papers for clock making records. These papers could easily yield any number of Ph.D dissertations on dozens of different topics.

So now we hop ahead a few years to 1844 and finally come to the reason we celebrate Morse Code Day today.  May 24 is the anniversary in that year, after so many years of experimentation, of the first public transmission of the first telegraphic message over an experimental line from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore.


Coincidentally 1844 was also the same year New Hampshire's State Geologist, Charles T. Jackson published his report on geology and mineralogy. See this previous blog which introduced his work. You will note that Jackson also recorded the view of the notch that Thomas Cole did in 1839 and Samuel A. Bemis did in 1840.

Now remember that eureka moment Morse had about the telegraph idea on the ship from France and that discussion with another passenger back in 1832? ... the passenger that later accused Morse of stealing the idea of the telegraph from him? That passenger was none other than our first official NH State Geologist, Charles T. Jackson. You can see from his photo that he is mad, and I don't mean angry.



Jackson also claimed he had discovered the use of ether for surgery and challenged others for that honor. He later ended up in an asylum. The story however, it not yet tied up into a nice neat bow (like Jackson's cravat).

We now return to the earlier paired images of Frankenstein Cliffs by Harrison Bird Brown that Michael Callis used in his presentation. Artists often pick and choose what to include in an image, and what to leave out.

In one version of the scene there is a train billowing smoke. It is missing from the other. In any case, the railroad tracks were critical to the development of Conway, through Crawford Notch and beyond. Our early railroad maps show an ever growing spiderweb like set of connections throughout New England during the period. These rail lines proved to be excellent key conduits for the telegraph lines needed to communicate with Morse code. Each supported the other.  

These rail lines connect many stories of our local history which will be explored in future blogs including the story of Payson Tucker's statues, the history of Redstone Quarry, Artist's Falls, and so on. Last night I enjoyed a fundraising event for the MWV rec path. (see this link).

The current focus of the rec path group is on building a 2.8 mile paved multiple use path with access to schools, businesses and community services in part using the old rail line through Conway. During the event we used trivia questions about the area's history to play a game connecting the dots on a map of the proposed path and followed the dotted line to the finish.

Following the train line further north we can connect another famous view of the rail line through Crawford Notch with a more modern and personal connection.

We do in fact go back to the earlier pair of images depicting the rail line through Crawford Notch. In fact, Harrison Bird Brown is known for two views of the railroad line.

The second is the famous view entitled "The Heart of the Notch."




We have a post card showing the same view in the Henney History Room.


Historian Brian Wiggin is both a Library Trustee and a Vice President of the nearby Conway Historical Society. In a recent newsletter for the CHS, Brian reflected on his personal family connection with this scene. (see this link for that article here.  pp 3-4).

From Crawford Notch there are a number of trails to the summit of nearby Mount Washington, including the oldest known hiking path in America which will celebrate its 200th anniversary next year.

We will conclude our lesson at that summit at 6288 feet above sea level. Realize that the earlier railroad views were in fact landscapes featuring Mount Washington.


Michael Callis ended his letter to the editor with "The history of the main street in Conway is reflected in the greatness of its library and those that work there" (Thanks Michael we appreciate that) and he added enigmatically that "Mount Washington overlooking Conway, N.H. is America’s Parnassus."

In a future episode we will explore this idea of Parnassus and again follow Michael's rocky path and peer through his "windows into the past." I guarantee that the prospect with be tip top!

Here is a hint of things to come....






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