Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Fitz Hugh Lane and the Legacy of the Codfish Aristocracy

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Fitz Hugh Lane and the Legacy of the Codfish Aristocracy

Article excerpt

To gather together and keep these bonds, these links in the continuing story of man upon our particular part of the earth....is the sole reason for the existence of the Cape Ann Historical Association and its collection.1

The New England coast is dotted with historical societies which house collections of artifacts and antiques marking the passage of time and documenting the achievements of their host town residents. These living time capsules came into vogue in the late nineteenth century as the foreign trade which formerly provided the primary source of livelihood for harbor towns diminished and the accoutrements of sail-powered shipping became outmoded. The ports which once provided entry for overseas manufactured goods previously unavailable domestically became symbols of a bygone romantic era in which ancestors sailed to exotic destinations. This economic fact together with a sense of national history, which had been created over the brief duration of a century, encouraged the creation of these social repositories. The historical society not only provided a popular means for defining community identity, but also enabled local families to participate in the national historical process by contributing relics from their own economic and genealogical past. Few, of these towns, however, were fortunate enough to count among their residents an artist of Fitz Hugh Lane's talent and stature who recorded with such precision both the idealistic spirit and the actual structure of the town's pre-industrial state.

Gloucester's sense of historical identity was first articulated by Lane's contemporary John James Babson, who published his comprehensive history of Cape Ann in 1860. The meticulous detail of Lane's Gloucester paintings was matched in Babson's voluminous work which traced the region's history from its earliest seventeenth century English settlers to their present day descendents. Like many of Cape Ann's residents, both Lane and Babson could trace their ancestry back to early settlers. Babson was descended from a Salem widow and midwife Isabel Babson who came to Gloucester after 1637. Lane was descended from a blacksmith Samuel Lane whose family had left Falmouth, Maine and were given grants of land on Cape Ann by 1708. Both Babson's History and Lane's paintings represent significant historical markers. Created in the period preceding the eve of the Civil War, they served to document the growth and expansion of Cape Ann from its inception as part of an English colony to a prosperous town in an independent union. Lane presented Gloucester as an idyllic microcosm of the United States.

Between the years 1925 and 1971 the Cape Ann Historical Association assembled the largest and finest collection of work by the Gloucester marine artist Fitz Hugh Lane (1804-1865). This was accomplished primarily under the leadership of Alfred Mansfield Brooks (1870-1963), a retired art history professor who served as the Museum's president from 1940 to 1951 and curator from 1951 to 1963. Brooks was descended from a prominent class of seafaring families known as the "Codfish Aristocracy." Many of these families traced their ancestry to the earliest English settlers of this country's oldest fishing port. Following the Revolution they amassed their wealth through foreign trade and fishing. Lane captured the prosperity of these seafaring families in paintings of Gloucester Harbor which included merchant ships and fishing schooners like those they owned and sailed. These families purchased paintings by Lane which were passed on to their descendents together with family portraits, ship portraits, souvenirs from overseas voyages and other historical artifacts. Brooks knew many of their descendents and encouraged them to donate their Lane paintings to the Museum. Like Brooks, they also donated family heirlooms which served to illustrate every aspect of the rich culture Lane represented in his art.

The early members of the Association passed on an oral history together with their heirlooms from an era which changed dramatically from the time they were children. …

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