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Dimensions (inches): 18.5" tall x 10.5" wide x 5" deep

Many collectors are probably unaware that the most renowned, American, 19th century carver of eagles, John Haley Bellamy (1836-1914), laid his entrepreneurial roots as a carver of other things. Ship's decoration, including figureheads, cat's heads, stern boards, and the decorative elements inside living quarters were among them, but early on he mostly carved these things while employed by others as an apprentice.

Bellamy's first venture out on his own was short-lived, lasting but one year. From June-October, 1859, he rented a shop at 17 Daniel St. in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a stone's throw from his boyhood home in Kittery Point, Maine. Here he offered "house, ship, furniture, sign, and frame carving." Hoping to increase his client base, he then moved to the Boston waterfront, but had returned home by mid-1860 and soon after was employed by the U.S. Navy Yard in Portsmouth as a ship carver.

Charles Gerrish Bellamy, John's father, was an expert woodcraftsman and, among other things, had been employed by the Navy as a lumber inspector. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, he was placed in charge of ship building at both the Portsmouth Navy Yard and the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston. At some point, the date of which is unclear to scholars, John Bellamy was transferred to the Boston yard and continued work there until well after the war's conclusion. When the war ended, the Navy was both downsizing and hiring veterans to fill vacancies. Men who had not gone to war, like Bellamy, were generally in ill favor among those who had. John held on, however, probably as a result of both his father's influence and his own significant skill. In addition to being a master carver, John was a ingenious engineer and a problem solver, working in a place and time when such skills would have been revered by his peers. He was an inventor and applied for at least 30 patents. Like most craftsmen employed by the Portsmouth yard during this out-of-war period, he pursued outside work because the yard only required 8 hour/day, while a commercial shipyard would demand perhaps 16 hours.

By 1866 Bellamy had a side business in Charlestown at 11 City Square, on the first floor of a Masonic Hall, carving frames, clocks, and shelves for a Masonic audience. In that year and those that closely followed he took on a series of profitable ventures producing these works and selling them not only in Northern New England, but soon across many states. He hired employees, among which were his brother Elijah, and even his father partook in the work for a time, at least in some small part. He had a sales staff that included at least one of his friends from the Charlestown Navy Yard, David Titcomb, who left his job entirely and appears to have been very successful in selling examples down the eastern seaboard, in West Virginia, Tennessee, and Mississippi.

In his book "American Eagle: The Bold and Brash Life of John Haley Bellamy (2014, Portsmouth Marine Society), author James Craig states that "Bellamy patented at least six different Masonic frame designs while in Charlestown." Even so, surviving examples are few and far between. He goes on to say that "Small wooden shelves meant for the display of curios and bric-a-brac in the homeā€¦are perhaps the rarest and most unusual of Bellamy's Masonic offerings." (ref. p. 53).

This is one of Bellamy's rare shelves. Because more than one person was carving them, one looks for evidence of Bellamy's skill level to determine his hand. He was meticulously involved and did much of the carving himself, at least in part. The quality of this particular example is simply exceptional and is equal or superior to all but one documented example that I have seen. I believe it to be his own work.

The frame, clock and shelf designs were purely Bellamy's. Early on, in a letter to his father John confirms this by stating "There is one thing I can say as to this work of mine. It is original with me and never was known or heard of until I produced it."

The carvings were customized and made to order. Thus they were detailed to represent various divisions within the Masons and were sometimes personalized. This one is signed with tiny metal stamped letters at the base of the hourglass, where it meets the shelf. It reads "A.J. Burdine". On the reverse there are penciled initials that consist of three letters, the first of which is an "E" and the last of which is a "R". The middle initial is illegible. This is followed by the price $2.45. These appear to be period to the work and this might well have been the original cost.

The symbolism includes a Masonic arch, capped with a keystone, underneath which is the typical prominent letter "G" for God, placed within the compass and square. The latter suggest that Masons should "square their actions by the square of virtue." Also present are the skull and crossbones, which stand as a reminder of the grim truth that death is ever immanent, so as to incite contemplation and reflection in life. The winged hourglass serves a similar theme, meaning "time flies," so one must make the most of life. In the center is the mallet and chisel, which symbolize discipline and education.

The Maltese Cross can represent a Masonic degree called the "Right of Malta," but here it probably represents the Knights Templar, an international philanthropic chivalric order affiliated with Freemasonry. Unlike the initial degrees conferred in a Masonic Lodge, which only require a belief in a Supreme Being regardless of religious affiliation, the Knights Templar is one of several additional Masonic orders in which membership is open only to Freemasons who profess a belief in the Christian religion. The order derives its name from the historical Knights Templar of the 10th-12th centuries, but does not claim any direct lineal descent from the original Templar order. Nor is it endorsed by the Catholic Church, under which the ancient order was organized. Even today the Catholic Church expressly forbids Freemasonry with the penalty of excommunication.

The important thing about these symbols to a collector is the beauty of the carvings and their terrific folk art qualities. Note the additional "G" hidden in the bracket that supports the shelf, which is perpendicular to a spear-shaped trowel, with which Masons are to "spread the cement of the brotherly love and affection of masonry" to unite the order. The remainder of the work is comprised of vegetal scrollwork.

The carving is executed from solid black walnut and is remarkably well-balanced, typical of Bellamy's genius. Take particular note of the beautifully sculpted wings, which reach to the sky like a phoenix. This same basic style is later translated to some of Bellamy's most unusual and visually impressive eagles.

Condition: There is a split in the single plank of walnut to the right, at and below the shelf. The lip of the shelf was most certainly sculpted at one time in a scrolled style. It was probably broken, then carved into a simple half moon as a manner of repair. Due to the extraordinary rarity of Bellamy Masonic shelves, particularly of this quality, it is excusable, especially since the wood is original, the shelf is the least elaborate and least interesting feature, and the current state is so beautiful. ** The last image is of a business card used by Titcomb and Bellamy, in the collection of the William A. Farnsworth Library and Art Museum in Fransworth, Maine, gift of Mr. & Mrs. Andrew Wyeth, 1974.
Primary Color: walnut, dark brown
Earliest Date: 1866
Latest Date: 1872
For Sale Status: Sold
Price SOLD
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