Creative spark

Fire burned famous painter's New Castle estate but legacy endures

NH Weekend Editor
February 24. 2016 1:17PM
Once the home of American Impressionist painter Edmund C. Tarbell, this New Castle historic house was destroyed by a fire this past January. 

Alastair Dacey didn’t see this coming — not the way he came to live at the stately New Castle mansion at 152 Portsmouth Ave., and not the way he would watch the house and nearly all of his belongings reduced to ash.

“It’s been an interesting — and tough — several weeks, as the fire destroyed everything I had, and yet the show must go on,” said Dacey, who is curator of the “Legacy in Action” companion show for the “Illuminating Tarbell: Life and Art on the Piscataqua” exhibit opening Friday, March 4, at Discover Portsmouth, 10 Middle St., Portsmouth.

A fire Jan. 23 destroyed the historic house that played such a pivotal role in many of American Impressionist painter Edmund C. Tarbell’s inviting scenes of Seacoast life. Tarbell (1862-1938) purchased the property in 1905, and it became as much a focal point of his work as his family and friends. It was also the place Dacey, an artist himself, called home in the past year and a half.

“There were three rental units, one for each gable of the house, and everyone pretty much lost everything,” Dacey said of the fire, the cause of which hasn’t been determined. “My housemate got lucky and retrieved many things, but the way the fire burned my quarters were hit hard.”

Beginning Again

Still, Dacey is trying not to focus on endings. Instead, he described the serendipitous way he came to live in Tarbell’s house, and how it sparked a project to explore the famous painter’s legacy and enduring influence on contemporary artists.

“What began as an idea to rent some exhibition space with a cadre of painters morphed into something much more ambitious,” Dacey recounted in an exhibit note for “Legacy in Action,” a showcase that will accompany an impressive exhibit of about 60 pieces by Tarbell in “Life and Art on the Piscataqua,” curated by Jeremy Fogg of South Berwick, Maine.

It all started on a spring day in 2014 when Dacey, whose training extends from the Rhode Island School of Design and Ingbretson Studios in Manchester to Florence, Italy’s Cecil Studios, went to inquire about available studio and living space at a Newcastle property.

“At the top of the steps stood the gentleman I had arranged to meet about renting a wing of this charming Greek Revival home,” Dacey wrote. “The gentleman offered his hand, introducing himself as ‘Ed Tarbell’ — and I did a doubletake. I knew Ed Tarbell, except not this Ed Tarbell. I knew of the Edmund Tarbell born in 1862: Tarbell, the Boston School painter, teacher and galvanizer whose work I had studied as a young student.

“Instantly I realized I was speaking to the grandson of the great artist, the spitting image of his grandfather,” Dacey wrote. “As a child, Ed was the subject of many paintings I could remember clearly from the books and museum collections that helped guide my own Boston School training. The experience deepened as I learned the home I was standing in and considering was that of Edmund the artist.”

It was a memorable moment for Dacey, who fondly recalled sketching trips he and a fellow art student took to the area from 2001 to 2004.

“These excursions were our version of playing hooky,” Dacey said. “We’d drive to the coast from Manchester with our paint sets and sketchpads to try our hand at painting plein air. The days would often end in a search around Portsmouth for a warm pub with cheap fare and a hospitable bartender.

“If the painting was good, and the weather agreeable, sometimes we’d camp out in the car to get an early sketch in before heading back to Manchester the next morning,” he added.

A Painter’s Home

But before 2014, Dacey had never set foot on the New Castle property, which Tarbell meticulously rendered in detailed and engagingly warm scenes of life there.

“Tarbell had loved this property, making it home for his family life, sport and recreation,” Dacey said in exhibit literature. “He also adopted this place as his artistic inspiration, immortalizing in paint the scenes, people and light that filled his days at New Castle.

“Needless to say, I took the place, or should I say, Ed (Tarbell’s grandson and owner of the house) made the bold decision of letting an artist rent his old family home,” Dacey wrote in exhibit notes. “There on the grounds of my new home, I began the eerie experience of reconciling paintings I knew with scenes I saw all around me.”

For example, Tarbell’s “Mercie Cutting Flowers” (a portrait of one of his daughters, and a familiar sight at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester) was painted on the front steps looking toward the white fence and road, while “Hollyhocks and Sunshine” was painted steps away from the back porch.

The main exhibit at the Discover Portsmouth center will represent the 30 years the painter lived along the Piscataqua River. Dacey’s companion show will focus on Tarbell’s lasting influence.

“(It was) amazingly serendipitous to have been living at the Tarbell House while working on the exhibit,” Dacey told NH Weekend. “We actually had our second meeting on the back porch of the house. It’s been a privilege to help craft and curate the exhibit, especially now that the material place is lost.”

Tarbell said he retrieved just two things when the fire ignited — two of his own paintings: “One is of the house from the riverbank and the other was a portrait of my father.”

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