This was then: Captain Ivory

Photos of long-ago Martha’s Vineyard.

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Captain Ivory – Photo courtesy Chris Baer

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.Captain Ivory

Capt. John J. Ivory, artist, sits at his home, the permanently beached vessel Dry Tortugas, on Vineyard Haven Harbor, near the location of the present Black Dog Tavern.

The original inhabitant of this little boat was Canadian sailor Charles Hamilton, a long-term patient at the U.S. Marine Hospital. Stan Lair (1902–87) of Vineyard Haven recalled Mr. Hamilton: “He was very badly crippled. He was bent over, almost at a right angle from his waist, and he walked with two canes. He did quite a bit of work, though. He had a little shipyard. He built small boats down on the beach. At one time he lived in a boat — I guess a fire went out there in the stove or something; anyway, he froze to death, I believe, in that boat. And then later it was occupied by John Ivory, who did paintings, Grandma Moses–type paintings, mostly of ships, boats as he remembered them, and I guess they’re quite valuable now.”

Many colorful stories have been told about Captain Ivory — many by John Ivory himself — and it is difficult now to separate fact from fancy. Jane Slater of Over South Antiques in Chilmark is the last surviving member of the John Ivory Society, founded by Ted Hewitt, Stewart Bangs, and Bill Honey after Captain Ivory’s death to identify and catalog Ivory’s paintings. Of Captain Ivory’s life, Ms. Slater says, “There’s a lot of folklore.”

What’s fairly certain is that he spent his youth aboard clipper ships plying international waters, and spent time living in China and Japan. He settled in Oak Bluffs in the early 1900s, starting a family and working odd jobs as a mechanic and hotel cook before embarking on a second far-flung career as a merchant mariner. Returning to the Vineyard in the 1930s, he turned to painting, and to drink. A kindly man who welcomed visitors to his little vessel-home on the beach, his good nature was sometimes taken advantage of by tourists and collectors, who would buy his paintings for next to nothing. Some of his paintings show nail holes, it’s remembered, from affixing his work to the underside of a table to deter burglars while he was away from his unlocked boat home. He painted on anything and everything — cardboard, linoleum, plywood, canvas, and scraps that people would bring him. He used house paint discarded by the neighboring lumberyard, and it’s said he would sometimes make brushes from his own hair. He would sometimes draw on quahog shells and leave them on the beach for kids to find.

Ms. Slater donated the John Ivory Society’s catalog and notes to the Vineyard Haven Public Library, together with a dozen of his paintings on long-term loan. One of the paintings still on display in the rear of the library is of the Governor Robie, a favorite subject which he painted many times over. The Governor Robie was among the last of the merchant sailing ships in the China trade, and the one on which Ivory spent his boyhood under the command of Captain Nickels of Maine. In the corner of his painting he signed “1894 / Painting by a member of crew / Capt. J.J. Ivory / Master Mariner / Memories.”