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Carolina Port

My father was not the funniest fellow, but surely had a way with words. On one occasion when he and my mother had come to hear me speak at the Madison, Georgia, cultural center, he made a particularly quick observation about their room at a local bed and breakfast: “Well, if what the Bible says is true—‘For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return’—then somebody under that bed is either coming or going.” I still laugh when I think about that.

It is early fall as I write this, and people seem to be settling back into something more routine after what was for us a very long summer, one without the breeze of commerce. I simply had to take to the road. As I grow older, the change of seasons brings on the memory of time and the people who have populated my years. In the week since Labor Day, I have been in touch with a half dozen longstanding clients, and each has recounted the numerous visits that typified our early relationships. They recall their astonishment at seeing me swing wide the doors of whatever I was driving—my traveling gallery—and pull out painting after painting, many dripping with canvas-bound moss and me dripping in the heat and humidity of this Southern clime. My arms are long and many of the works arranged in that wagon were within easy reach. The vertical lift of dead weight was another matter altogether.

Many of these conversations have occurred because I have reached out to old friends, letting them know I am at it again, on the road much as before. “I am off for Birmingham, but it would be easy enough to return to Charleston by way of Nashville if I might have something for you.” It has always worked this way: The more people I might see, the better business will be. Maybe I am like the dust under that bed. And maybe to my father that was a metaphor for never quite knowing what to make of me and my trade.

My two-lane travels have opened the South’s vistas to me, beckoning me into the rudest of the shacks we call shotguns and the grandest of the big houses. I like to think I can, with true advantage, tell when the landscape or architecture depicted is of and about my South. After all, I’ve seen enough of it. If given the opportunity to inspect a canvas and judge it Southern, I am seldom wrong. There’s much to be said for embracing your cause.

As illustration, I need look no further than Lamar, our regular FedEx delivery driver, who once presented us a personal Christmas card, signed with his wife as “Mr. and Mrs. FedEx.” What dedication. I made the effort through a mutual friend to convey that story to Fred Smith, the company’s founder and CEO, in an effort to applaud the allegiance of one of his employees. That sort of ground-up commitment to commerce is worth noting.

Lamar brings us many paintings—and always with care—that have beached up in distant places, including one late last fall from Ohio that I presumed was so easy to understand that I missed the message completely. This work stands in evidence that sometimes we want to believe something exists simply to satisfy our needs. Given the seemingly straightforward subject and title, I immediately deemed it a quick turnaround and compiled a mental list of potential purchasers. After all, the canvas centered on architecture and commerce and our Southern landscape; both subject and presentation would be meaningful to any number of institutional buyers.

The period nameplate proclaimed the title as Carolina Port, and surely it was. The primary residence depicted was obviously one of the big houses situated close to the Carolina water I know. While I couldn’t positively say whether North or South, I leaned toward New Bern, North Carolina. As is so often the case, the paper label on the stretcher was partially obscured and critical information thereby withheld. The date of 1838 was clear, however, as was the name “Wm. Lindsay, Esq.” An ally working in Wilmington was able to find a marriage bond for a gentleman named William Lindsay with Mary Lane on July 13, 1827, in the same Craven County, which I believed tied the matter down. The boating party appeared to be in summer dress. What a dimension of interest it would add to present this as a commemorative wedding portrait of sorts.

The staff at Tryon Palace in New Bern answered our questions and worked to be helpful. But in the end, these professionals declared that the scene depicted was either up or down the coast from them and not at the juncture of the Neuse and Trent Rivers. Online research led my daughter, Jane Harper, to the Hayes Manor House in Edenton, and we all felt that the house known by that name and known to us now on our computer screens was the missing link. We ordered the book on that property, but its contents only served to increase our confusion: the Hayes Manor House wasn’t located on water.

The tattered label also gave us the name of the artist, one E.C. Prentice. I knew nothing of him, but figured him to be from the British Isles, come to America to take down what he saw for an appreciative market back home. Mark Catesby had done it a century before in his depiction of the flora and fauna of Carolina, and Bierstadt did it a half century later by capturing the American West for an East Coast audience. This was old hat, just a new name in the game and, in this instance, I perceived the subject to be far more important than the painter.

Much of residential Charleston is built on filled land, stable soil created only when marshes beyond the waterfront mansions of an earlier day were in-filled during economic expansion for the construction of newer and typically smaller houses. Perhaps Carolina Port actually depicted several of those earlier, grander homes—represented in proximity to one another with the river beyond the marshes (though the marshes were conveniently absent in the image). Such re-ordering of the natural landscape is not uncommon. We have seen paintings of Charleston harbor—the subject indisputable—with mountains inappropriately stretching to infinity beyond. This artistic device was most often used by painters who did not work on site, but from the sketches of others or perhaps their own inaccurate memories. Then again, there were times when artistic license simply made for a better composition.

Carolina Port had to depict a port in Carolina; the label told us so, though our best efforts did not reveal anything more specific than that. And then we tried the obvious, Googling those two words, to rapid response. The search results led us to the identity of those obscured letters on the original paper label on the painting’s stretcher, “Tay,” which, when inserted, made the whole entirely readable. Yes, there is a Carolina Port on the River Tay in Dundee, Scotland. The provost of the period was a fellow named William Lindsay. The canvas before us was precisely what the label declared it to be, offering solid clues over which I chose to run roughshod in the pursuit of an American Carolina connection.

Time has passed, and our slow summer has seen change as sales and the prospect of others has been enhanced. We are ahead of where we were, and I want to say coming rather than going—though with no help from the mansions of the River Tay, a world away from our own rivers, Ashley and Cooper, and the prospect of an easy dollar. Dust to dust.

E.C. Prentice ()
Carolina Port (1838)
Oil on canvas
15 3/4 x 24 inches
Owner: The McManus: Dundee's Art Gallery and Museum, Dundee, Scotland
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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