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Volume 38 Issue 19 • Sept. 4-10, 2008
now in our 37th season

Important Paintings Return to Nantucket

A pair of remarkable oil-on-canvas paintings—Ship Spermo Trying with Boats among Whales on California, 1821 and Spermo Cutting in Whales on Japan, 1822 painted by Nantucket whaler-artist John Fisher—were purchased by the Friends of the Nantucket Historical Association on Saturday, August 16, at the Northeast Auctions sale.

Both paintings are oversized 18 ½” x 24 ½” canvases and depict the Nantucket whaler Spermo cutting in whales on the Japan grounds and whaling off the California coast. Ben Simons, NHA Robyn and John Davis Chief Curator, was present at the auction and bid on behalf of the Friends.   “These unique depictions of active whaling scenes by a self-taught Nantucket artist, who was also a whaling master, are not only island treasures, but important American marine paintings,” said Simons. “The paintings are first-class whaling portraits by a known and rare Nantucket artist and are surely among the earliest and liveliest of their genre. We are thrilled that they have returned to Nantucket after all these years.”

The Spermo sailed out of Nantucket on its sole whaling voyage from 1820 to 1823, in consort with the John Jackson and the Pacific. Nantucket whaling captain John Fisher, who was at the helm of the John Jackson, created six known whaling canvases, of which two small paintings of the Pacific are already in the NHA’s collection; a large canvas showing the Spermo in a storm is in the Nantucket Atheneum’s collection. For twenty-some years the two paintings recently purchased have been in the well-known J. Welles Henderson collection, one of the most illustrious American private collections of marine art and artifacts. The paintings are said to have been owned originally by Alexander Starbuck.


Spermo 1, Images courtesy of  Nantucket Historical  Association

Simons believes that these works are in a league of their own for early depictions of American whaling, and Nantucket whaling in particular, by a known Nantucket artist, with an excellent, highly dramatic style (whaling scenes from the 1820s are rare). The Friends also hired Lydia Vagts, a paintings conservator formerly of the MFA in Boston, to provide a condition report prior to the auction. The gifts are currently being cataloged.


Spermo 2

Established in 1986, the Friends of the Nantucket Historical Association seeks significant acquisitions for the collections of the NHA and provides funds necessary to make such acquisitions. The organization has also supported such projects as the construction of the NHA’s Gosnold Center, the collection-storage facility; the conservation of paintings and other artifacts; and restoration of the parlor in the Hadwen House. The gracious assistance of the Friends has greatly strengthened the preservation and acquisition efforts of the NHA.

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