The Niantic Sails Again

For as long as I can remember, a faded painting of my great great grandfather’s ship, the Niantic, hung in the parlor of our West Tisbury home. It had hung in our island house for 150 years. Every once in a while, we’d dust it or wipe off spider droppings.

In 2009, Woods Hole photographer Mark Chester suggested that Ian Primrose, a Cape Cod restorer of museum-quality paintings, might like to take a look at the painting.

Ian came for a visit to our Martha’s Vineyard home, built in 1750 by my ancestor, James Athearn. He looked at the painting, said he could clean it up, patch the rips, and bring the painting back to life. We struck a deal. Off went the painting to Ian’s laboratory in Falmouth, or, as he would say, “la-BOR-a-tory.” Ian agreed that my island friend Lynn Christoffers could photograph every step of the restoration.

Researching the history of the painting, I learned about the Niantic, a slow, beamy vessel built in 1835 for the China Trade. Much of the cargo carried to China in those days was opium.  She reached Whampoa Harbor in China in 1836, probably when the painting was made. Chinese artists would paint a harbor scene, and when a vessel arrived in port, they would row out with the pre-painted scene. If the captain agreed, the artist would paint the ship into the scene and return the painting a day or two later.  We can imagine the souvenir portrait being rolled up and stowed in a locker. I also discovered that a China Trade painting had sold recently—for $250,000.

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