Historic Painting Bound For Museum

Moving after 150 years, the painting of the 120-foot tradeship Niantic pictured in Whampoa Harbor, China is now on its way to the San Franciso Maritime Museum.
File photo by Lynn Christoffers

Moving after 150 years, the painting of the 120-foot tradeship Niantic pictured in Whampoa Harbor, China is now on its way to the San Franciso Maritime Museum.

Every so often, living on the Vineyard provides an opportunity to press your nose against history and breathe in the connection between now and then. This past Sunday was just such an occasion.

It had to do with the painting that hung in the captain’s quarters of the whaleship Niantic until 1849, when the ship, captained by Henry Warren Cleaveland, reached San Francisco and was converted to a storeship. Ultimately the painting of the Niantic wound up in author Cynthia Riggs’s historic 1750 Cleaveland House in West Tisbury.

The modestly sized oil painting of the Connecticut-built ship remained undisturbed for approximately 150 years until this past Sunday when it was wrapped for its journey to long-term exhibit at the San Francisco Maritime Museum in California.

Ms. Riggs, Captain Cleaveland’s great-great granddaughter, hosted a gathering on Sunday attended by friends and some of Captain Cleaveland’s Island decendants to celebrate what is probably the final journey of the painting .

Still in its original narrow dark wood frame, the 120-foot Niantic is depicted in a full starboard view against the setting of Whampoa Harbor, China. A rather dark and straightforward image, it was made by one of the Chinese artists who, in the 1830s regularly made paintings of the ships that frequented the harbors and sold them to the vessels.

Painting conservator and restorer Ian Primrose, trained in London and now based in West Falmouth, restored the painting, and at Sunday’s party explained that the painting on delicate canvas was fragile to begin with and became more brittle with age. “We’re not trying to reverse time,” he said. “We respect the passage of time. Our job is to arrest decay and preserve what’s left.”

Mr. Primrose noted that one reason the painting survived as well as it did is because it remain untouched and stationary on the wall of the Cleaveland House.

David Hull, principle librarian at the San Francisco Maritime Museum, was there to transport the painting to the museum. He recalled coming to the Vineyard to meet Ms. Riggs’s late mother, poet Dionis Coffin Riggs, who provided the museum with the ship’s log.

Built as a silk and tea trade ship, the Niantic was later converted to a whaleship that took Captain Cleaveland to Peru, and in response to the California gold rush of 1849, to Panama and San Francisco, where it was converted and used for storage and offices, finally becoming a landmark hotel.

“The painting coalesces the exhibit,” Mr. Hull said, adding that it will be a focal point in a presentation that includes the ship’s artifacts and the stern, rudder and an eight-foot cross section of the hull that was excavated in 1978.

Ms. Riggs, who has a reproduction of the Niantic painting to fill the vacant space on the wall, was beaming as she moved among the gathering that filled her home. “I’m thrilled. The painting belongs someplace where people can see it.”