Capt. Robert H. Coombs hired the carpenter of the Downeaster sailing ship Cora in 1881 to build a 16-foot gig out of exotic camphorwood and teak — a gift for the captain’s young son, Charles. After adding his own carvings to “Little Elva,” the captain presented the gift to his son that spring in Belfast.
The pleasure craft was kept in the family, passed down through generations until Horice H. Coombs gave the gig to the Penobscot Marine Museum. Forever a gift, the boat has been chosen by museum curator Ben Fuller as one of the 75 artifacts to commemorate the museum’s 75 years of collecting and exhibiting Penobscot maritime history.
“Thousands of items are kept in storage that the public doesn’t usually see,” said Bob Holtzman, the museum’s communications director. “This is an opportunity for the public to see several items that have not been on display before.”
The museum will open its doors for “Diamond Year” Friday, May 27, with two new exhibits: “75 for 75” and “The Art of the Boat,” for which 50 contemporary artists and artisans explored the boat as a work of art and the boat builder as an artist.
Maine’s oldest maritime museum began in Searsport’s original town hall and first brick building built in 1845. Today, only a small percentage of the museum’s archive of about 7,000 artifacts are on display at any given time, despite the fact that the museum campus has expanded to 13 historic buildings.
The majority of the “75 for 75” exhibit is in the second story of the Capt. Jeremiah Merithew House, one of the first buildings constructed in the area. Merithew, a shipbuilder and a banker, had bricks hauled from Swanville to erect the house on the highest point in Searsport.
At the top of the staircase leading to the second story, Dutch whaling ships roam the icy seas of Greenland under a pale blue sky. The scene, painted by Joghem de Vries in oil 240 years ago, spans the wall top to bottom and was purchased by one of the museum’s founders. Surrounding it are maritime paintings from around the world, all part of the “75 for 75” exhibit.
Hanging over a long unused fireplace is one of Fuller’s favorite paintings, “Slaver Being Chased by a British Brig” by an unknown artist in 1840. The painting depicts a slave ship being chased down by a British antislavery patrol ship, and all of the slaves are standing against the windward rail to balance the ship.
“The foretopsail has been split, which doesn’t bode well for the slave ship,” said Holtzman. “The curator says it’s a very unusual painting and he’s not aware of any painting, other than contemporary paintings, with this action of a slave ship being captured.”
Artwork from the museum’s internationally famous collection of paintings by the Buttersworth family also have been chosen for the exhibit. All three Buttersworth painters – Thomas Sr., his son, Thomas Jr. and his grandson, James – are represented.
Though the majority of the museum’s 75 “jewels” are from the museum’s extensive painting collection, sculptures and antique items also made the list. A half-hull model of the clipper ship “Spitfire” was chosen because of its importance in Maine’s ship building business.
“Not many clipper ships were built in Maine,” Holtzman said. “This was a design tool. The shape of a ship was defined by carving it, not blueprinting it.”
The “Spitfire” half hull, carved by boat builder Samuel Harte Pook in 1854, was made in layers that were disassembled and measured to calculate the dimensions of the actual ship. While clipper ships didn’t carry as much cargo as Downeasters, they were ideal for transporting tea for Britain’s East India Co.
On the first story of the Merithew House is a room of 300 Searsport sea captains, with their bushy beards and fierce stares in rows along the walls.
Near the front door, in a room that perhaps used to be a parlor, two bronze palace Fu dogs (labeled as jewels), cast in 1750 China, stand guard over the many souvenirs mariners brought back to Maine from their travels in the Orient.
Other artworks and antiques crowned as one of the 75 jewels of the museum are labeled and scattered throughout the 13 museum buildings. In the Fowler-True-Ross House is hung a painted portrait on silk by a Japanese artist of Captain Frank I. Pendleton, his Yankee muttonchops contrasting with his samurai outfit, has been labeled. And another jewel, the oldest known gasoline marine engine in the world, is on display in the Old Town Hall.
“There are other things like a full-size lobster boat that we can’t exactly bring into the museum,” said Holtzman.
The “Buddy and Sylvia,” a lobster boat designed and built on Beals Island, is on display in one of the museum’s three boathouses.
The exhibits move from antique to contemporary in the Admissions Center on Main Street, where “The Art of the Boat” exhibit, featuring many Maine artists, is on display. Out of more than 300 submissions from about 100 artists, 50 pieces were chosen for the exhibit.
A beautiful Venetian forcola (a piece of a boat that is used as an oarlock) sculpted by boat builder Brian McCarthy of Rockport Marine made the cut. In fact, a wall of boat-building artwork — photographs, paintings and compositions — revolves around his mounted sculpture of black walnut.
Gordon Bok, a famous folk singer from Camden, also has a woodcarving in the show. The carving depicts the stages of boat building, from left to right, and the final picture is a launch of the completed vessel.
A reception for “The Art of the Boat” will be held 5:30 p.m. on Friday, May 27, at the Admissions Center at 40 East Main Street in Searsport.
Admission is $8 for adults, $3 for children 7-15 years, free for children 6 years and younger, free for members and $18 for a family of two parents and children under 18 years old in the same household. The museum is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, and noon-5 p.m. Sunday. For information, visit www.penobscotmarinemuseum.org.