• Maine Coast Workshop

Bellamy Eagle - Part 4

So far in prior blog posts we have carved the body and head. Today we will attach the head and finish the carving. Then we'll make the banner and get ready for finishing, which will include gold leaf gilding and painting. Sorry for the long pause in getting to this next blog post. I've had a bunch of commissions that have taken most of my time.

First, by way of preliminary diversion, we'll look a little more into the life of John Halley Bellamy.

By James A. Craig The simple, austere lines and curves that convey the unmistakable sense of steadfast swiftness and strength of a Bellamy eagle—with wings outstretched, often clutching a shield or flags, and brandishing banners—evoke the character and ideals of the American nation in a way no artist prior to its creator, John Haley Bellamy (1836–1914), had envisioned. The son of a housewright, boat builder, and inspector of timber, Bellamy was born in the seaside community of Kittery, Maine. Bellamy was trained by Samuel Dockum in neighboring Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Dockum was a house and ship carver, who made everything from coffins to rocking chairs to the finish work on many Piscataqua River-built clipper ships. Bellamy’s apprenticeship likely lasted six years; beginning sometime after 1851, when he began working for Dockum at the age of fifteen, to 1857.

Bellamy launched his woodcarving career in 1859 by establishing a studio at 17 Daniel Street in Portsmouth, in rooms he likely rented from Dockum. His business card advertises a master woodcarver capable of executing the full array of jobs incumbent upon American woodcarvers at that time.

An 1859 newspaper informs us that he was making ship’s figureheads for the shipbuilders of Portsmouth. After brief stints spent in the shipyards of East Boston and Medford, Massachusetts, the epicenter of mid-nineteenth-century shipbuilding in New England, by 1860, Bellamy had left his commercial clientele behind to work as a decorative shipcarver for the United States Navy. Working first at the Portsmouth Navy Yard, then at the Charlestown, Massachusetts, Navy Yard, Bellamy began an association with the navy that lasted as late as circa 1898–1900. Previously unknown creations recently discovered reveal that from catheads and billetheads to stern boards and figureheads, no facet of a warship’s exterior that could accommodate decorative woodcarving was beyond the reach of Bellamy’s hand. A particular specialty appears to have been gangway boards: large decorative plaques that lined the sides of a ship’s gangway.

His most celebrated creation was the USS Lancaster eagle figurehead. Conceived and carved between December 1879 and August 1881, the majestic eagle is Bellamy’s magnum opus. It is as much a feat of engineering as a work of art, given the challenges of holding intact this three-thousand-pound gilded pine carving with an eighteen-foot wingspan atop the bow of a warship subjected to the unforgiving oceanic environment for over twenty years.

John Haley Bellamy (1836–1914), USS Lancaster eagle figurehead, 1879–1881. Painted and gilded pine, H. 120, W. 232, D. 152 in. Courtesy, The Mariner’s Museum, Newport News, VA. Due to long bouts of unemployment between projects in the post-Civil War navy yard, Bellamy partnered with a fellow navy-yard worker in July of 1866 to form Titcomb & Bellamy, “Makers of Emblematic Frames and Brackets.” Located at 11 City Square, Charlestown, Massachusetts, on the first floor of a Masonic lodge, the firm sought to cash in on a post-Civil War resurgence of membership in fraternal organizations (particularly Freemasonry). Bellamy designed and produced a wide array of frames, clock cases, and what-not shelves replete with the symbols of Freemasonry . His partner, David A. Titcomb, sold them to a dozen states stretching from Vermont to Florida, and as far west as Mississippi.