New London whaling treasures are scattered

'Lawrence Wharf, New London, Connecticut' by Thomas Petersen, 1939.1549.
"Lawrence Wharf, New London, Connecticut" by Thomas Petersen, 1939.1549.

The summer of 2014 will go down as the summer of whaling nostalgia in eastern Connecticut, thanks to Mystic Seaport's remarkable victory lap for its restored whaling ship Charles W. Morgan.

New London's own deep cultural and historical roots in whaling came into sharp focus over the summer - a cause for celebration - as the Seaport's come-back-to-life 19th century whaler made its first 21st century port call here in Connecticut's own whaling city.

I took the opportunity of the Morgan's whaling visit to New London to look a little more closely at New London's whaling history and over the summer visited the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, which was established in 1926 with generous donations derived from one of the city's great whaling fortunes.

On display at the time was not only a special temporary exhibit on whaling but two enormous oil paintings, depicting whaling ships at sea - one with the homeport New London written on its transom - that normally hang in the museum's large front stairwell.

I joined a group of schoolchildren in the stairwell that day, looking up at the big oil paintings, as their teacher explained what was happening in the scenes, a whaleboat chasing a broaching whale in one scene, and, in the other, a big whale carcass tied up alongside the ship, as the valuable oil was harvested.

The paintings are not only beautiful but excellent teaching tools, as I discovered that day, joining the children looking up in wonder at the whale hunt unfolding in front of the icebergs of the paintings.

The paintings, two of a set of three, have an interesting history of their own. They are the only ones of the three now on view to the public. Some people would like to see the third on public display, too.

The paintings were commissioned in 1923 by the Mariner Savings Bank of State Street, another city institution, founded in 1867, that grew on the strength of city whaling fortunes. They were completed a year later by Noank artist Thomas F. Petersen, a native of Norway. He died two years after they were done.

The paintings, which once appeared on the cover of Yachting magazine, were part of an extensive collection of whaling-related artifacts and memorabilia assembled by P. LeRoy Harwood, treasurer and vice president of Mariner, and kept on display in the lobby of the bank's State Street building. Harwood, obsessed by stories of the sea, also had the bank's board room made to look like a ship's cabin, with teak paneling and binnacle lights.

Harwood, accused in an embezzling scandal, apparently covering stock market losses, committed suicide in 1939, leaving a sealed letter to the banking commissioner on his desk. The letter suggested the bank's whaling collection remain on display to the public.

The bank and its assets, including the whaling collection and paintings, more than $8 million in all, soon after became part of the Savings Bank of New London.

In 1983, The Day began writing about Harwood and the paintings again because they had eventually, through mergers and acquisitions of banks, become the property of the now-defunct New England Savings Bank. And New England Savings was thinking of giving them away.

The Mariner Bank collection by then had been on loan to Mystic Seaport for some 40 years, but word got out that New England Savings had the collection appraised and was considering a permanent gift to the Seaport.

Lucille Showalter of New London, then president of the nascent New London Maritime Society, which was trying to acquire the Custom House on Bank Street from the federal government, suggested the society be given the collection.

Showalter pleaded at the time with the bank to give the collection and the Petersen paintings to her new organization for display in the Custom House. She argued that they belonged in New London. And, of course, the society did eventually acquire the Custom House.

In the end, the bank gave the collection to the Seaport, although a Seaport official, in the height of the tug of war, noted that Showalter's society might eventually be eligible for a loan of some of the collection.

"If they acquire a building where they could properly care for it, store it and display it, I'm sure we would be open to hanging some of the material on loan," the Seaport administrator said then. "It's not an us-versus-them situation."

Chatting this summer on the deck of the restored Morgan with Chester W. Kitchings Jr., a trustee of the Seaport, I mentioned my visit with the schoolchildren to the impressive whaling paintings at the Lyman Allyn.

Kitchings then told me the story of how they had been at one time rolled up in the basement of one of the banks, neglected, until a bank president discovered them. They were in bad shape, coated with tobacco after years of hanging in the bank lobby where people smoked.

He told me he was concerned that one of the three ended up hanging in the lobby of the new Pfizer office complex in New London, now Electric Boat, on loan, and that he thinks it would be best displayed somewhere the public could see it.

I subsequently have learned that the Kitchings Family Foundation had generously donated the funds, some 14 years ago, to restore and clean and reframe the paintings, a project carried out at the Lyman Allyn by acclaimed art conservators Lance Mayer and Gay Myers.

One of the paintings, which depicts Lawrence Wharf at the foot of Golden Street in New London, a wharf named for the same Lawrence family that endowed the city hospital with its whaling money, now hangs in a prominent EB lobby corridor.

Electric Boat officials graciously arranged a visit for me last week, and, indeed, the painting looks wonderful in the dazzling riverfront surroundings of the EB complex, which literally bustles with its more than 3,000 employees. But the public can't see it, which, at the very least, would probably sadden banker Harwood.

A spokesman for the Seaport said it may eventually recall the loans of the Petersen paintings. A new $10 million exhibit hall is already on the drawing boards at the Seaport, eventually providing more space to possibly some day display them.

Meanwhile, though, I can't help but think that a reunion of the three Petersen paintings, or at least the public display of all of them, would be another good way to remember the whaling summer of 2014.

They tell a great story.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

Twitter: @DavidCollinsct

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