A Look at the Unknown and Hope for the Future: The Artwork of Shipyard and Museum Staff Artist Thomas C. Skinner

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CRUISER USS PORTSMOUTH AT PIER, oil on canvas 1945, by THOMAS C. SKINNER 1956.47.04

Thomas Catlett Skinner’s office was a loft overlooking the dry dock at the Newport News shipyard.  Frequently he would gather his tools and wander through the yard, stopping to observe and document the many scenes unfolding before him.  A vat of molten steel.  Red hot metal beams being bent into shape.  Yards of canvas transformed into sails.  The welcome respite of a lunch break.  The intensity of a foreman’s face.  A ship being refitted for the next voyage.  Scenes that were rarely seen by anyone outside the shipyard and activities that many people never knew existed.

Skinner’s tools were paint, pencils, canvas and paper.  His loft workspace shook with the unending pounding from riveting hammers and vibrations from heavy machinery.  And when he set up his easel beside the piers, dry docks and workers, he was surrounded by noise and dirt and exposed to the fickleness of the weather.   Yet despite the adversity, he created amazing drawings and paintings that transport the viewer back in time.  His body of work contains striking, colorful images that make it easy to imagine all the noises in the shipyard, the sound and feeling of waves acting on a ship and the harsh sounds of battle. Today, as part of our 90th Anniversary celebration, we take a look at the Mariners’ Museum staff artist, Thomas Skinner, some of his work, and its importance.   Read more

Life on board a ship…

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Just the thought of spending any amount of time on the water makes me nauseous because I’m the kind of person who gets seasick sitting on a ferry. To even think about doing anything besides curling up in a ball and waiting for it to be over is an accomplishment in my eyes. That’s why I just had to share what I saw in collection MS0007,  the Robert Weir Papers.

In 1862, Weir enlisted in the Union Navy and served as third assistant engineer and second assistant engineer on the USS Richmond. While on board the sloop-of-war USS Richmond in the early 1860s, he spent some time to capture scenes from everyday life on board a ship in his pencil and ink drawings. We are lucky to have his unique works in our archives, so please enjoy this small sample! Weir gives us a glimpse into training activities. Below is an image of a broadsword exercise: In the drawing below, Weir provides a caption for the scene: “Pikemen – Away!! Repelling boarders”. I love how he pays careful attention to the details. See that small box towards the bottom right-hand corner of the image? In the actual piece, this section is approximately 1/2 cm, but he has provided a label for the contents of the box: “LOADED IX IN SHELL 5 sec.” In the sketch below, Weir provides the following caption for this image of the ironclad Manhattan: “a truthful sketch of the Manhattan as she was when I visited her this morning- our load was very near being landed high & dry in her decks several times-“ Finally, Weir also provides a view of the vessels Genesee, Richmond, Monongahela, Kineo, Mississippi, Mortar Boats, Essex, Albatros and Hartford in battle.

This is just a very small sampling of the drawing in the Robert Weir collection. Come on by the Library to see his other illustrative works (and to see the very fine details). In addition to these snapshots of life at sea, we also have his satirical pieces, sketches of vessels, fleets and correspondence.   Read more

Animal Encounters

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Whale drawings, Logbook #019

One Saturday in March of 1864, a man aboard the whale ship John P. West wrote in his journal, “My Pidgeon layed 4 eggs.”  He also documented the day that his dog fell overboard (Logbook #027).  Nine years earlier Asenath Taber, daughter of a whaler, noted the “beautiful little chicken” her family had on board their ship (Logbook #002).  For these and other people at sea, animals could provide food, serve as companions, and bestow a sense of comfort during what were often years-long journeys abroad.

The life of a whaler was often one of extremes – some days were exciting, with several whales encountered and caught, while others were long and lonely, with nothing on the horizon and feelings of listlessness and homesickness setting in.  Sightings of whales and other animals receive frequent note in many of the journals, with log keepers recording a variety of wild encounters, including sperm whales, right whales, turtles, porpoises, Portugese man o’ war, an array of birds and fish, and – as the log keeper aboard the Courser states rather ominously in his entry from October 6, 1860 – “Monsters of the Deep” (Logbook #300).   Read more

"Notes on Knots" Online Exhibit Coming Soon

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From the rigging of the Niña, Pinta,and Santa Maria to the humble fisherman’s line, knots have been at the foundation of many of the most important, and everyday, events in maritime history.  Without knots, much of the maritime world would literally fall apart.

Library staff recently unearthed what many in the knot-tying community consider to be the “Holy Grail on knots,” Henry North Grant Bushby’s manuscript “Notes on Knots.”  Composed of eight volumes with over 1,900 hand-written pages and beautifully drawn pen and ink diagrams,  Bushby’s manuscript represents an in depth study of knotting and ropework, as well as knot theory.  Written between 1902 and his death in 1926, Bushby’s work was never published.  Bushby’s daughter, Dorothy, donated her father’s writings to The Mariners’ Museum Library in 1957.   Read more