Ellery Thompson's legend continues at Custom House

Detail of one of the pieces in the Custom House Maritime Museum’s collection of Ellery Thompson’s paintings (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Detail of one of the pieces in the Custom House Maritime Museum’s collection of Ellery Thompson’s paintings (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

It might sound odd to celebrate someone’s 117th birthday, but not if you are among the local residents who knew the legendary Ellery Thompson, who lived from 1899 to 1986.

And if you’re not familiar with the Stonington dragger-boat captain, writer, painter, trumpet player — and above all else, fascinating character and rule breaker — you’ll have the opportunity at a fundraiser on April 9 at the Custom House Maritime Museum in New London to learn all about the man who was immortalized by Joseph Mitchell in two 1940s-era New Yorker magazine profiles.

The purpose of the event is to raise between $4,000 and $4,500 to restore a large painting by Thompson titled “Racing to Market” that was recently donated to the museum by William and Elizabeth Lacey of Maryland, who have ties to the region. William Lacey’s father worked in Groton and his parents received the painting as a wedding present in 1940.

In January, Susan Tamulevich, the museum’s executive director, brought the painting to Patricia Sherwin Garland, who had been a conservator at Yale University Art Gallery, to do the restoration.

“The painting is covered with a thick layer of nicotine — both generations of Laceys were smokers!” Tamulevich says. “And there are areas of thick paint that have cracked and are lifting off the mahogany plywood paintwing surface.”

But Tamulevich believes it’s well worth the cost to bring the painting back to its original splendor.

“It’s the earliest and one of the finest Ellery Thompson paintings we’ve ever seen,” she says.

Tamulevich curated the first Thompson exhibition more than a decade ago when she was curator at the Palmer House in Stonington. She worked with the late Bernard Gordon, a friend of Thompson’s who owned Watch Hill Book & Tackle Shop and a small press that republished Thompson’s books.

While putting that show together, Tamulevich met Marion Krepcio, another friend of Thompson’s, who owns a number of his maritime-themed paintings, one of which is on loan to the museum.

Krepcio met Thompson in the late 1970s while she was working in a law office and witnessed his will.

In his later years she helped Thompson organize his manuscripts and books and recalls, “I would bring him his supper and he would tell me all these stories. He had such an adventurous spirit and knowledge of local history and he was indeed a character, but he was also a generally kind soul. As a writer, he documented his entire life. And how many people take the time to do that? And he did it well, for someone who never had an education. He was self-taught and an avid reader.”

Krepcio is a conchologist — she studies local mollusks.

“I started doing research on mollusks in 1989 and came to find out that the work Ellery did back in the ’40s is what they’re using today at Yale. They’re sourcing Ellery’s work,” she says. “He was active in Stonington’s fishermen’s fleet and really knew the local waters, which is how Yale got to know about him. His research is still used by the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection).

“It says on Ellery’s gravestone: ‘Imagine the Excitement on the Other Shore’ and that’s the way he lived his life and the reason I was a close friend of his,” Krepcio says. 

Speaking of Thompson

Another friend of Thompson’s — Steve Jones — will speak at the event. Jones is the author of 11 books, professor in the Maritime Studies Department at UConn Avery Point, and owner of West Mystic Wooden Boat Company. Jones wrote an extensive afterword (85 pages) about Thompson for the republished (in 2007) “Draggerman’s Haul: The personal history of a Connecticut fishing captain,” Thompson’s autobiography, originally published in 1950.

Jones says, “I got to know Ellery running into him in (various) places. Writer, trumpet player and fisherman — I had all those things in common with Ellery, plus living in this area.”

“Art is what fed Ellery,” Jones says, and he means literally. “He had a cash flow problem. He’d do a painting, and I’m not sure exactly how they were rated: so many hamburgers and cups of coffee.”

Jones notes that Thompson had a number of brushes with fame, explaining that after Mitchell’s two-part profile appeared in The New Yorker, Viking Press sent Thompson a contract to publish “Draggerman’s Haul.” John Steinbeck was among the literary greats published by Viking, and the same editor, Robert O. Ballou, who edited “Grapes of Wrath,” edited Thompson’s book.

After the book came out and received national acclaim, Thompson’s life almost was immortalized in film — both Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda were being considered to play his character. But like many Hollywood scripts, it never came to fruition.

These are among the many stories Jones will touch on at the event.

Also on exhibit will be a number of paintings on loan from Andrew Blacker, who runs Carson’s diner in Noank and is a collector of Thompson’s work. Two of Thompson’s original books, a scrapbook containing his original photographs, letters and newspaper clippings, his memory charts, and a trumpet believed to have been his also will be on view, as well as three paintings by Thompson’s mother, Frances Thompson.

Local historian Steve Jones stands in front of the New London Maritime Society Custom House Maritime Museum’s collection of Ellery Thompson’s paintings  on March 24. The museum will be holding a fundraiser on April 9 to restore Thompson's painting, “Racing to Market.” (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Local historian Steve Jones stands in front of the New London Maritime Society Custom House Maritime Museum’s collection of Ellery Thompson’s paintings on March 24. The museum will be holding a fundraiser on April 9 to restore Thompson's painting, “Racing to Market.” (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

IF YOU GO

What: Ellery Thompson’s 117th Birthday Party fundraiser

When: Sat., April 9 at 6 p.m.

Where: Custom House Maritime Museum, 150 Bank St., New London

Tickets: By donation; Sign up online at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2516392.

Info: Call the museum at (860) 447-2501 or visit www.nlmaritimesociety.org

Other details: Among the speakers at the event will be museum executive director Susan Tamulevich, author Stephen Jones, and Christopher Dunklee, a historic maritime artist inspired by Thompson in his work

Refreshments will include raw oysters (donated by Fishers Island Oysters) and other hors d’oeuvres; Real McCoy mojitos (rum donated by Real McCoy Rum); and birthday cake. Several of Thompson’s paintings will be for sale.

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