The Niantic

A ship’s life is illuminated through the restoration of its painting.

The fully restored painting is no longer buckled and discolored from years of hanging – pretty much ignored – at Cleaveland House in West Tisbury.

For as long as I can remember, a painting of my great-great-grandfather’s ship, the Niantic, hung unnoticed on the parlor wall of our West Tisbury family home. Over the hundred and fifty years that the painting was there, it gathered dust, the canvas buckled, and underneath the grime, the ship itself was barely distinguishable. To guests, I’d point it out in the painting and tell the snippet of history I knew: The picture was painted in China sometime in the mid-1800s, and my great-great-grandfather, Captain Henry Cleaveland, transported forty-niners, miners in the Gold Rush of 1849, to San Francisco, where the ship was sold as a storeship. Eventually she burned to the waterline in the 1851 San Francisco fire, and the Hotel Niantic was built where she’d been beached.

A year ago, Lynn Christoffers, a photographer friend, told me about a painting conservator and restorer who was visiting the Vineyard, and suggested that he might take a look at this nondescript painting that hung above the old desk in the parlor.

The conservator, Ian Primrose, who lives in the wilds of Falmouth, took the painting off the wall, handling it more gently than it had ever been handled before. Dead flies dropped out of the back of the frame. There were jagged L-shaped rips in the back that had been mended sometime in the distant past with canvas strips.

“Is it worth restoring?” I asked. And when he nodded, I said, “Can you bring it back to life?”

“Certainly. I’ve seen worse.” Ian said this with a smile I was to see quite a lot of.

We struck a deal, and Ian returned to the Island after Labor Day with a large flat box lined with foam and special archival plastic, a gentle bed for a painting that, presumably, had been painted a century and three-quarters earlier, had been knocked around, and had been pretty much ignored ever since.

Lynn decided to document the restoration of the ship’s portrait, and Ian promised to let us know each time he reached some interesting part of the restoration.

During the repair process, I remembered something else about the ship. In 1978, workers excavating next to the TransAmerica Pyramid in San Francisco came across the timbers of a ship identified as the Niantic. When my mother, Dionis Coffin Riggs, learned that the San Francisco Maritime Museum planned to recover and display what they could of the Niantic, she donated the logbook of the ship’s last voyage to the museum.

I contacted the museum and asked if I could obtain a photocopy of the logbook. Not only did they send me a copy, but they also sent other information, including an article written by my mother, in which she described the setting of the painting in Whampoa, China, a port city known today as the Huangpu district near Hong Kong.

The faded writing of the logbook was almost impossible to read. I contacted the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, which referred me to Catherine “Kay” Mayhew. “She can decode anything,” I was told, and a short time later, Kay e-mailed me the text of the entire log, along with a list of the 250 passengers headed for the gold fields of California.

A few days after that, Ian called to say we might like to see the painting before he started work. Lynn and I caught the next ferry. Ian met us in Woods Hole and drove us to his studio, which to my way of thinking was an immaculate laboratory with shelves of chemicals and pigments in jars. The painting was clamped safely onto an easel.

I covered my eyes. “Pretty bad,” I said.

“Not at all,” said Ian, handing me a magnifying glass.

Lynn snapped photos.

“It’s known as a China Trade Painting.” He explained that the painting, probably done by a Chinese artist, was an interesting combination of Western and Oriental techniques, painted to satisfy Western tastes.

“If you can do anything with this, you’re a magician,” I said, peering through the magnifying glass at the cracks, dirt, tears, and more cracks.

“This will be really quite simple.” Ian hails from Great Britain, where he is well-regarded in the fiercely competitive and critical London art trade for his skills and exacting standards. Nine years ago, he and his American wife moved to Falmouth, where he is building a reputation in this country.

“How do you even begin the work?” I asked.

“First, I’ll remove the frame.” He took the painting down from the easel and turned it over so I could see the parts he described. “Then I’ll protect the front of the painting by gluing on special tissue paper, and turn the painting over so I can work on the back.” He touched the ancient canvas gently. “I’ll flatten the edges and remove the old patches.”

Back home, I Googled “China Trade Paintings.”

During the period of the China Trade, I learned, Chinese artists would pre-paint a canvas depicting a port, such as Whampoa. They’d row out to an arriving vessel, show off the ready-made harbor-scape, offer to paint a portrait of the ship, and have it ready in a day or two. The paintings were often rolled up, the paint not really dry, and stuffed into a ship’s locker. Hence, the China Trade canvases often have a characteristic cracking of the paint, called “craqueleur.”

The next time Ian called and we visited, the painting was face-down, its brittle edges flattened on his laboratory table.

“How did you do that?” I asked, as Lynn snapped more pictures, standing on a table to get just the right angle.

Ian gave that smile that I was beginning to recognize as, “Really, it’s nothing to get excited about. It’s simply everyday meticulous work.”

He showed me how he dabbed a crystal-clear, jelly-like substance on the canvas, waited a timed period, and gently worked the ancient canvas edges flat.

“What is that stuff?” I asked, taking reams of notes.

“Water, in a gel form,” said Ian. “The gel gives me finer control over placing and timing the water application.” He moved a chair over to the table, slipped a pair of magnifying glasses over his eyes, and showed me how he removed the canvas patches with a scalpel. He looked up through his glasses, eyes magnified. “I tested the glue on the patches, and since it’s water-soluble, I’ll be working with the gel I showed you.” Back to the painting, his arms resting on wooden blocks to keep them from putting pressure on the painting, he dabbed a bit of gel onto the first, largest patch. He looked at his watch, then selected a scalpel and delicately scraped away the shreds and fibers of the patch that probably dated back a hundred and fifty years. “You see how brittle the canvas is?” He lifted a fiber on the end of his scalpel and bent it. The canvas snapped like a splinter of wood.

“Wow!” I said, and Ian smiled.

I e-mailed a copy of the log and passenger list that Kay Mayhew had transcribed to William Kooiman at the San Francisco Maritime Museum. By now, Bill and I were on a first-name basis. He sent me an article called “The California Gold-Rush Storeship Niantic” by James Delgado that appeared in Maritime Life and Traditions in 2001. The Niantic, according to Delgado, was completed in October 1835, and was “a typically bluff-bowed, full-bodied cargo carrier of her time,” built “for capacity, not speed.” She made regular voyages from New York to Whampoa from early 1836 to 1840, carrying cargos of “ginseng, spelter [smelted zinc], lead, iron, etc.,” and returning with tea, china ware, silks, cassia, and other goods.

Opium was a major cargo of both British and American ships, and the drug trade ultimately led to the Opium War. In March 1839, Robert Bennett Forbes, an American merchant and ship captain, reported that merchants were busy loading the Niantic “before the trade is stopped.” Four months later, an incident in July triggered the war, which broke out in earnest that November. Once the war began, the Niantic did not return to the China Trade. This narrowed the date of when our painting was done to the three-year period between 1836 and 1839.

Returning to New York, the Niantic was converted into a whaler. Under the command of Captain Shamyois H. Slate, the vessel left Sag Harbor, New York, in June 1844, bound for the Pacific whaling grounds and a three-year voyage.

The ship was sold again, and in 1848, under the command of my great-great-grandfather, left Warren, Rhode Island, bound for the Northwest Pacific whaling grounds. James Freeman Cleaveland, my great-grandfather, was first mate. When the ship arrived in Paita, Peru, in March 1849, Captain Cleaveland learned that thousands of gold seekers, stranded in Panama, were waiting for ships to carry them to California. Captain Cleaveland wrote to the owners, “in consideration of the great demand for ships...and a great prospect for doing first rate for all concerned, I think it my duty to prepare the ship with the utmost speed and lose one Northwest season.”

On our next visit to Ian’s, he’d placed new patches on the back and had turned the painting over so we could see its dirty face, with two-thirds of the tissue removed. Lynn photographed, I made enthusiastic noises, and Ian smiled. He had made cleaning test spots along the right edge of the painting and one spot on what turned out to be a red-painted chain that hung from the Niantic’s bowsprit.

“In restoring a painting, I use a combination of special solvents that have no effect on the paint, but soften the old varnish. Then I roll – I don’t wipe – the cotton swab to remove the softened varnish.” He held up a plastic bag of used cotton swabs. “I keep these as forensic evidence to show that only the varnish has been removed, not the paint.”

“You must know chemistry,” I said.

He smiled. “Restorers occupy the border between art and science.”

Ian attended the University of Birmingham in England, where he studied studio painting, art history, and related subjects. While at the university, he often went across the street to the Birmingham Museum’s conservation department, and later worked there. At the museum, he discovered a passion for restoring and preserving old art.

“A conservator must never do anything that can’t be safely and easily undone in the future,” he said. “Reversibility is very important.”

“The next time the painting is restored, a hundred fifty years from now–?” I left my sentence unfinished.

“There’ll be advances in techniques that we know nothing about today.” He turned back to the Niantic.

“Why the test cleaning spot under the bowsprit?” I asked.

“The chain is painted red, often a fugitive color,” he said. “I wanted to be sure the color could withstand a cleaning. This can.”

I thought of the red socks I’d laundered with white underwear, resulting in pink garments.

Back home, I’d learned that the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem has one of the top experts in the world on China Trade Paintings. I called Daniel Finamore, the museum’s curator of maritime art and history and clearly one very busy man. But he warmed to my tale of the painting and told me, “Most of the paintings were not signed, but if your restorer should find a signature, in Chinese characters, of course, let me know. A specialist in signatures on China Trade Paintings may be able to give you more information.”

Lynn and I returned once more and watched Ian dip a cotton swab into a container of solvent and roll the swab over a centimeter square area. He examined the swab and area he’d just cleaned.

“One square centimeter,” I said. Square centimeter by square centimeter I watched the bright sky and delicate clouds emerge.

“Yes, it’s time consuming,” said Ian. “My wife calls me an obsessive compulsive. I suppose one has to be to do this kind of work.” He checked his watch. “It’s really quite routine.”

I was delighted, thrilled to see the ship’s rigging and the stars in the flag at her stern emerge from under their coat of dirt.

The latest packet from Bill Kooiman at the San Francisco Maritime Museum contained two articles by my mother. In one, she mentioned a champagne bottle that had been sent to her from the excavated hulk of the Niantic.

Bill wrote, “You may be interested in a little sequel to the champagne bottles found at the Niantic dig. A few years ago, at a ‘Wine Tasting’ here at Fort Mason, we had on exhibit some of this champagne. A representative of the firm that produced the wine (still active in France) asked that it be shown for advertising purposes. Needless to say, the champagne was not sampled.”

Just after Thanksgiving, Ian called with new information. “I’ve found a signature. In Chinese, of course.”

After his call, I sent a photograph of the Chinese characters to Dan at the Peabody Essex Museum, who, in turn, sent it to his China Trade Painting artists’ signatures expert. We haven’t yet learned the identity of the Chinese artist who painted the Niantic in Whampoa harbor sometime between 1836 and 1839.

Before Christmas, Ian brought the painting back to the Vineyard. I met him at the ferry in Vineyard Haven. The wind was blowing a blast from the northeast and the long, wide, flat box that contained the Niantic’s portrait acted like a sail. We drove back to West Tisbury.

“It seems homely to put the picture back on an ordinary wall with just a couple of picture hooks,” I said.

Ian’s response: “That’s where it belongs.”

And that’s where it stayed – for the next five months anyway. In May, the painting traveled to the San Francisco Maritime Museum to join an exhibition of portions of the ship’s hull and rudder that were recovered in 1978, and the ship’s log of its last voyage, donated by my mother.

Vineyarders Aboard the Niantic

In the fall 1986 issue of Martha’s Vineyard Magazine, an article by my mother, Dionis Coffin Riggs, “Last Voyage of the Ship Niantic” begins by quoting her great-grandfather, Captain Henry Cleaveland: “I navigate my own ship, gentlemen.” The gentlemen in question were 250 passengers headed for the gold fields of California. They were among thousands who had taken a short cut across the Isthmus of Panama to avoid the long trip around Cape Horn. In Panama, Captain Cleaveland had the ship converted to carry passengers and mules to San Francisco. As the ship headed southwest, which seemed to the passengers to be the wrong direction, they challenged the captain. He informed them, “I have spent my life in this ocean, and I know what I am about, while very few of you have ever before been out of sight of land,” after which he dismissed them.

The Niantic continued to sail southwest until she picked up the trade winds. Captain Cleaveland changed course and the Niantic – a notoriously slow vessel – was one of the first of 700 ships to reach San Francisco. Two of the captain’s three sons, James F. and Daniel A. Cleaveland, were first and second mates aboard the Niantic on her last voyage. The third mate was the great-grandfather of Vineyarder Everett Poole. “Officers and crews on whaling ships in those days were often made up of Vineyard men,” according to the article. “‘It was our High School then,’ one seafarer said.”