From Fishing Boat to Painter's Palette: Ellery as Artist

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Thompson-Krepcio Collection

Long before he gained a measure of fame from The New Yorker profile and his two books, Ellery had followed in his mother's footsteps as an amateur artist. She had encouraged him to take it up, so he went to Brater's Art Store in New London -- which readers of a certain age will remember -- and after a few months without much to show for his efforts his mother advised him to try painting things like "fruit on a table." He preferred stormy seascapes with boats, but with often dismal results. Art tutorial books didn't help, so, as he wrote in Draggerman's Haul, he "went at it the hard way, painting night and day" while following the advice of Charles W. Davis, president of the Mystic Art Association, who told him, "Above all, paint to please yourself." 

He painted other fishermen's boats on request, frequently gave paintings to friends, and sold many over the years.  He estimated that he painted some 2,000 pictures, and while he never accumulated much from their sale, he once said they "helped keep the wolf from the door."

In 1960 he exhibited at Hoxie's Studio Workshop in Mystic, and in other years at the Outdoor Art Festival. A story published in the Compass at the time of the Hoxie show prefaced a lengthy discussion of his painting history with a colorful description of his earlier life as a draggerman: "...the quaint, wry-tongued, lean-figured, hardy fisherman, spinning salty yarns, tootling a musical horn, mending nets, scraping barnacles off keels, overhauling rigging, etc."

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Below: In an unpublished typescript from the Thompson-Krepcio Collection Ellery describes his newfound diversion from the hard work of fishing:

first painting set
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In the introduction to an exhibition of Ellery's work at Mystic Seaport in 1989, curator William N. Peterson wrote:

   "Ellery was probably at his best when he was painting vessels and places with which he was familiar, such as draggers, menhaden steamers, and lighthouses...Many of his patrons would refer to his work as primitive, a term which used to anger him before he understood that the term simply meant his technique was unschooled. When one lady said he was the first primitive artist she had ever met, he replied, 'I'm not as primitive as I have been. Nowhere's near. Back before I got the rheumatism I was, without a doubt, the most primitive man in eastern Connecticut.'

Peterson concludes with this thoughtful assessment: "As an interpretation of place and as a reflection of a man's love for his maritime environment Ellery Thompson's work will always have special meaning to the inhabitants of southern New England."

---Used with permission of the author---

Editor's Note: William Peterson's 1982 interview with Ellery Thompson is in the Oral History Collection at Mystic Seaport's Collections Research Center.

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In 2005 Susan Tamulevich, then Curator at The Stonington Historical Society, mounted an exhibition of Ellery's paintings that sparked a great deal of community interest, some of it in an unexpected way.  The show opened with about twenty paintings lent by local collectors and the Custom House Maritime Museum. As the news spread, people would bring in their Ellery paintings and these were added to show until nearly fifty were on view. Susan recalls how lenders and other visitors would laugh and reminisce, and how the show became a "real community happening." Bernard Gordon and other friends spoke at a gallery event on July 17.

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B.Gordon UK card

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Always seeking to advance Ellery's fortunes, Bernie Gordon reproduced some of Ellery's paintings in postcard format to sell to summer tourists at his Book & Tackle Shop, which had a much loved branch on Watch Hill's Bay Street. The proceeds went to Ellery.  

One of the cards (left) was sent by Bernie from London: 

"Today my wife and I saw the Queen of England. I got a good photograph of her but didn't get close enough to give her one of your postcards!" 

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   "Bernie keeps my book afloat and stops by with a stack of postcards. He did a wonderful job. He's been good to me. I call him at the Book & Tackle and say, 'down to one postcard.'

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The cards may be enlarged by clicking on each in a two-step sequence. Reverse the process to get back to the page.

Ellery often mentioned the tragedy of the steamer Larchmont, which went down off Watch Hill in 1907 with great loss of life when he was eight years old. One of the risks of dragging was catching the net on submerged wrecks. He may have painted the Larchmont as an homage, but also as a reminder of dangers at sea, whether for those aboard large steamers or small fishing boats.

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Ellery Thompson's Paintings at the Custom House Maritime Museum

The collection of Thompson paintings at New London's Custom House Maritime Museum is perhaps the largest on public view anywhere. Also on display are photographs, two of Ellery's illustrated nautical charts, his sea chest (gifts of Marion Krepcio, who also gave several paintings), and the wooden mechanism --"otter trawl"-- that controlled the opening of the dragger's net.

The idea for a "117th birthday" fundraiser in 2016 took shape when Susan Tamulevich met Andrew Blacker, a local Thompson collector. He later lent several works for the event, donating one of them to the Museum. The funds were used for the restoration of "Racing to Market, a recent gift from William and Elizabeth Lacey; restored in 2019, it is now a highlight of the collection. 

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As happened with the Stonington show in 2005, the New London event attracted the attention of Ellery aficionados. The Museum began to receive donations and loans of his paintings from individuals, some of whom were eager to share stories about Ellery. Most of the Museum's twenty-one Thompson paintings hang in the main stairwell of the historic Bank Street building. Built in 1833, the Custom House was designed by Robert Mills, architect of the Washington Monument, the Treasury, and other buildings in the nation's capital.

"Racing to Market" is the large painting, center left, in the wall arrangement shown below.

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Below: One of the illustrated charts Ellery drew of his fishing world, from New London to Cape Cod and beyond. On the wall array it hangs just below "Racing to Market." Another version of his fishing world was used as endpapers for Come Aboard the Draggers.

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Below: A self-profile, written when he was an interpreter ("activist") at Mystic Seaport, refers to his painting history and influences. Gordon Grant was one of the best known marine painters of the early 20th century; Ellery saw an exhibit of his work in New York and the McGuire Library has four of his books.

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Bindloss Dock (1937)

Purchased from the Bindloss family

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Right: The painting of Stonington's Bindloss Dock (1937) saw wide distribution in miniature as one of the postcard reproductions printed and sold by Bernard Gordon at his Watch Hill Book & Tackle Shop.

As a glimpse of the place where most of Ellery's fishing trips began and ended, and where he lived for a time aboard the Eleanor, this painting has special, even poignant significance for all who are interested in Ellery Thompson's legacy.

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"My paintings were my children." --  Ellery Thompson

From Fishing Boat to Painter's Palette: Ellery as Artist