Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on January 7, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of the author. The essay was previously included in an illustrated softbound book titled Rediscovering S. P. Rolt Triscott: Monhegan Artist and Photographer, by Richard H. Malone and Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr. The book was first published in 2002 by Tiffany House Publishers and the ISBN number is 0-88448-240-5. Images accompanying the text in the book were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the book, please contact Tiffany House Publishers, 2 Mechanic Street, Gardiner, Maine 04345, tel. 800-582-1899.
The Role of Photography in the Art of S. P. Rolt Triscott
by Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr.
When S. P. Rolt Triscott died on April 15, 1925, he left his estate to his housekeeper Nellie Humphrcy Colomy. In addition to his home and three hundred paintings, Mrs. Colomy inherited the artist's photographic equipment and a large number of glass negatives of Monhegan Island scenes. The equipment and negatives soon went to Josephine Davis Townsend, a young photographer who had assisted Triscott in making prints and enhancing them with overpainting. Townsend printed thirty of the negatives for herself and then carefully stored all of them in boxes, interleafing each one with a carefully cut piece of newspaper to protect against damage. Decades later she gave one box to the Monhegan Museum, but she kept the balance of the collection until her death in 1981. The Triscott negatives then descended in her family until they were acquired by the Maine Historic Preservation Commission in 1998. What Josephine Davis Townsend preserved is an extraordinary body of photographic work by a major New England painter. These negatives, combined with original prints and other material, make it possible to reconstruct the role which photography played in Triscott's artistic career.
The introduction of the dry plate process in the early 1880s enabled photographers to work more freely in the field. The result, as William F. Robinson has observed in A Certain Slant of Light, was "the evergrowing band of amateur and professional photographers who began using the camera for their own artistic expression." Between Triscott's first visit to Monhegan in 1892 and the publication of his photographs as illustrations for A. G. Pettengill's article "Monhegan, Historical and Picturesque" in the September 1898 issue of the New England Magazine, the artist took many pictures of the harbor, the village, its people, and the dramatic island scenery, He was joined in this pursuit by his close friend and fellow painter William Claus, whose photographs also appeared in the New England Magazine article along with Frank Myrick's sketches.
Triscott and Claus probably were the first artists to make extensive use of photography on Monhegan, both as an art form in its own right and as a means of capturing subjects for paintings. Triscott's pre-1900 photographs of the local fishermen, their harbor fish houses, and their village homes.share the refreshingly direct quality of Eric Hudson's genre photographs of the same subject matter made between 1897 and 1900. In contrast, when Triscott turned his camera to such natural features as Monhegan's meadows, woods, coves, and headlands, the results were more painterly. After 1900 he took this approach a step further by creating dramatic impressionistic photographs of cliffs and surf. Unlike most early Monhegan photographers who were summer visitors, Triscott's decision to live year-round on the island enabled him to record its beauty in all seasons, especially winter.
Late nineteenth-century advances in photolithography made possible the widespread reproduction of photographs in newspapers, magazines, books, postcards, and advertising materials. In addition to the New England Magazine illustrations, Triscott sold a photograph of surf crashing against Swim Beach to G. W. Morris of Portland for a circa 1905 postcard. After the Island Inn opened in 1907, Triscott's photographs illustrated a promotional brochure for the new hotel.
A more significant source of income for Triscott was the sale of his photographs of Monhegan scenery as artworks. Like his watercolors, he sold his photographs in his studio to summer visitors seeking a souvenir of the island. One Philadelphia purchaser clearly treasured a Triscott surf photograph as a remembrance of a Monhcgan vacation, having it richly framed at Strawbridge and Clothier and inscribing on the back, "Whitehead, Monhegan, Maine, June 17-July 21, 1913, Triscott Studio." Beginning in 1900, Triscott made 4 1/2- by 6-inch contact prints from his 5- by 7-inch glass negatives and mounted them on 8- by 10-inch pieces of dark gray or black cardboard. On some of the negatives used for this format, he etched a copyright date and his signature "S. P. R. Triscott." Some of these 4 1/2- by 6 1/2-inch mounted photographs received light highlighting in watercolor, while others were so heavily overpainted as to make them virtually indistinguishable from actual watercolor paintings.
During the first two decades of the twentieth century, Samuel Triscott also made larger cliff and surf scenes which he printed in either sepia or gray tones, often with a gravure quality. Triscott's favorite subjects for these impressionistic art photographs included the Crow's Nest at Lobster Cove and a lone tree silhouetted against the headlands. Some of these photographs were printed as contact prints from 8- by 10-inch glass negatives, while others were enlarged to 9 1/2 by 11 3/4 inches. Most of these prints were signed in ink by Triscott with a copyright date and his name.
Born seven years after the introduction of photography in 1839, Triscott lived in a world, both in England and America, in which the camera had assumed a growing presence. From the inception of the daguerreotype, artists had used photography as an alternative to sketching for recording subject matter for paintings. The development of the dry plate process in the 1880s made the camera an increasingly attractive tool for the artist to take into the field, and such Triscott contemporaries as Winslow Homer and Eric Hudson employed it in this way during the last two decades of the nineteenth century.
While many of Triscott's watercolors were painted on site, several of his pictures indicate a direct reliance on his photographs and were probably created in his studio with the aid of photographic prints. These include a woods scene at the Monhegan Museum, a small harbor scene owned by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, and a major watercolor of Fish Beach, two of the village, and a gully scene, all in the Malone Collection. In the case of the Fish Beach scene and Stormy Day, which depicts the road through the village during inclement weather, the artist included figures to enliven the pictures.
Triscott's creation of watercolors based on photographs may help to explain the story of young Lelia Richards Libby spotting a new painting of White Head in the artist's studio when she knew he had not visited that location in years. Triscott explained this as a function of his mind's eye, saying "Ah, but I can still see the Headland." While surely Triscott had committed Monhegan's rugged topography to memory, his many photographs of island life and landscape must have provided him with a continuing source of inspiration and reference for his work. A century later, Triscott's photographs, many of them printed from his fragile glass negatives, form an important part of the artistic and documentary legacy which he left to Monhegan.
Copyright © 2002 Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr.
About the author
A native of Portland, Maine, Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr., attended Deering High School, Colby College, and Boston University. At the age of thirteen, Shettleworth became interested in historic preservation through the destruction of Portland's Union Station in 1961. A year later he joined the Sills Committee which founded Greater Portland Landmarks in 1964. In 1971 he was appointed by Governor Curtis to serve on the first board of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, for which he became architectural historian in 1973 and director in 1976. Shettleworth has lectured and written extensively on Maine history and architecture, his most recent publication being Mount Desert Island, which he co-authored with Lydia Vandenberg in 2001. He currently serves as chair of the Capitol Planning Commission and the State House and Capitol Park Commission.
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