"No one ever loved a home more ardently than did Mr. Moses his native city...and the noble Piscataqua. Especially did he delight in the river, and never wearied of extolling its beauties; he was a good boat-sailer, and...his favorite recreation was a trip up or down the river, and often far out to sea, with a good boat, a fresh breeze, and a select party of friends."
- New Hampshire Gazette, November 1881
As the sun rises off to the east above the cottages on Badger’s Island and the Kittery shore of Maine to the left, bathing the sky in soft pink hues, the three-masted schooner Charles Carroll out of Rockland, Maine, stands in the foreground on the Piscataqua, rendered in the artist’s favorite blue-green color. As the ship floats calmly, on her deck is a flurry of activity, with crew busily climbing the rigging as they prepare for departure. The delicate geometry created by the rigging of dozens of ships invites the viewer into the Portsmouth harbor. Painted in 1875, the Charles Carroll was the last work completed by the artist Thomas P. Moses (1808-1881) and is considered the masterpiece in his body of work that largely depicted his beloved Portsmouth and the maritime interests that built the city. In many ways, it depicts the sunset of the shipping industry that had built fortunes for many merchants and captains for over a century in Portsmouth, but would virtually disappear by the following century.
Based on the inscription of the revese reading On the Piscataqua from north end of Noble’s Bridge/ Original. Thos. P. Moses/ Portsmouth, N.H./ The Fall of 1875, it is possible to place the ship near the current New Hampshire State Pier with the wharves of Bow and Ceres Streets (fig. 1) beyond. Situated at the base of Spring Hill, the wharves were built in the late eighteenth century at the height of the region’s shipbuilding and maritime trade. First settled in the early 1620s, Portsmouth was surrounded by seemingly limitless forests of hardwoods such as maple, birch and black cherry, as well as eastern white pine, which produced superior masts and spars. By 1700, more than sixty sawmills had been established to process the lumber that would then travel to the wharves to be shipped up and down the East coast and exported abroad to the West Indies, southern Europe and Africa. The city was also blessed with one of the best natural harbors along the Atlantic coast, fed by the Piscataqua, a tidal river with a current so swift that the channel never froze, and with a nearby natural spring that provided fresh water for the anchored ships. As center of both manufacture and trade, Portsmouth soon developed a prosperous merchant class, supported by carpenters, boat builders and sailors (Brock Jobe, Portsmouth Furniture: Masterworks from the New Hampshire Seacoast (Hanover, 1993), pp.14-15). Most of the large brick buildings along Bow and Ceres Streets were stores and warehouses built after the fires of 1802 and 1806. To the right of the Charles Carroll in the distance stands St. John’s church, which was designed and built in 1807 by Alexander Parris and was the first brick church in New Hampshire (http://www.cityofportsmouth.com/community/markers/SpringHillWaterfront-locatedatCeres-BowWaterfrontPark.pdf).
The Charles Carroll could only have been painted by an artist intimately familiar with Portsmouth harbor and the ships crowding its wharves and piers. Thomas P. Moses proved to be singularly capable of the task. According to Zebina Moses, author of a history of the Moses family, the artist began his 1850 autobiography, A Sketch of the Life of Thomas P. Moses, teacher of Music; and also, Some remarks upon the doings of Pharisees hypocrites, and defamers of character Vol 1 with this visual account of his origins: "Near the margin of the renowned translucent river, Piscatauqua [sic], two miles off the sea girt shore, stands the humble dwelling within whose sheltering chambers on 17 Feb. between the years 1808 and 1816, glimmered forth my spark of life, to flicker, blaze, grow dim and expire… My father, still living, is a ship carpenter and boat builder" (Historical Sketches of John Moses, of Plymouth (Hartford, 1890), p. 259). Moses’ mother was Elizabeth (Trott) Grant (b. 1773), whose father John Trott was a British Navy steward who settled in Kittery, Maine in 1767. It was perhaps through this connection that Moses was apprenticed in 1819 as a waiter boy to Elijah Hall (1742-1830), a former Lieutenant in the Continental Navy who settled in Portsmouth in 1818. Moses later became a cook boy aboard the schooner Mary Ann and worked around the wharves as a laborer. His last voyage to sea was in 1827 aboard the Liverpool Trader during which he fell overboard and was nearly devoured by sharks (Richard M. Candee, Maritime Portsmouth: The Sawtelle Collection (Portsmouth, 2011), p. 44).
After returning to Portsmouth, Moses began to play and compose music, as well as write poetry, and by 1840 he had become the city’s leading organist, choir director and private music teacher. It was during this time that Moses began to publish his poetry and advertise his services in the periodicals of the day, a strategy he would employ throughout the various iterations of his artistic careers. Following a highly public and hotly contested dismissal as organist and choirmaster at North Church in 1849, Moses advertised in 1852 that “besides giving music lessons, he would begin ‘in a few months, to give lessons in sketching from nature, and in Crayon Drawing on Marble board, which is fast becoming the most fashionable and beautiful of all drawings’” (Richard M. Candee, The Artful Life of Thomas P. Moses 1808-1881 (Portsmouth, 2002), pp. 6-7). That same year he painted his first known view of Portsmouth harbor entitled Bride of the Billow. Not finding enough work, Moses spent the next ten years travelling between New York, Boston and South Carolina, both receiving and teaching art instruction. He returned to Portsmouth in 1866 when his painting career began in earnest. Less than two years later, whether by necessity or as an act of self-promotion, Moses advertised the sale by lottery of his entire stock of one hundred paintings (fig. 2). Numerous notices in the Portsmouth newspapers recount his series of exhibitions and auctions throughout his career.
At the end of 1875, Moses accepted a position as head of the music department of an academy in Marietta, South Carolina. His final two works, the unidentified Landscape and Cattle Scene and the present lot, proved to be his largest and most accomplished works of his career. The Charles Carroll was placed on exhibit at Foster’s bookstore in December of that year. The painting was moved in January, 1876 to J. B. Burleigh & Co., a framer on Congress Street, and remained on view through March, when the winning ticket was drawn. The Daily Evening Times described the scene as “’the finest specimen of art ever executed in Portsmouth…was to be disposed of for the benefit of the artist, in shares or otherwise…’” (Candee, The Artful Life of Thomas P. Moses 1808-1881, p. 29). Moses departed for South Carolina and remained there until 1880, when he returned to his beloved Portsmouth and passed away 22 November 1881.