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  MASONIC SHELF FROM THE SHOP OF MASTER EAGLE CARVER JOHN HALEY BELLAMY, 1866-1890, BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS
Dimensions (inches): 19" tall x 10.75" wide x 7" deep
Description:
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 and early in his career he primarily 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 an 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. Even his father partook in the work for at times. 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 the shelves from the Bellamy shop. This could be by his own hand or by a carver in his employment. While very nicely executed, I expect the latter is probably the case. Whatever the case may be, 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. The symbolism on this example includes a Masonic arch, capped with a keystone with three small lines of chip carving to represent a sprig of the acacia plant. Underneath 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 is a winged hourglass, reminding the viewer that "time flies," so one must make the most of life. In the center is the gauge and gavel, which symbolize measurement of the Mason's work and a tool to knock off imperfections. The ladder, to the left of the gauge and gavel, represents the ability of a Mason to ascend to the summit of Masonry. The carving on the other side appears to be a representation of a plumb bob, which is a reminder that the line created by it always stretches to both the center of the earth and to Heaven and reflects justice, equality, and truth. Note the beautiful scrollwork brackets that support the shelf, at the center of which is a trowel, with which Masons are to spread the cement of the brotherly love and affection of masonry to unite the order. The edge of the shelf is scalloped and finely molded.

The important thing about these symbols to a non-Mason collector is simply the beauty of the carvings and their wonderful folk art qualities. The work 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: Splits at the top of the arch were repaired with a metal plate on the reverse. in the single plank of walnut to the right, at and below the shelf. At least some of the surface was at some point stripped and re-varnished. This was done in an attractive manner.
   
Primary Color: natural, walnut
Earliest Date: 1866
Latest Date: 1890
For Sale Status: Available
Price $2,650
E-mail: info@jeffbridgman.com
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