by Becky Jennings
The mighty lighthouse stands secure,
Undaunted by the restless sea;
Ravaged by the changing tides
And buffeted by winds blown free.
Yet, it sheds its beacon straight and true,
Unfaltering in the bleakest night,
Guiding every passing ship
Uncertain of the course that’s right.
May we be diligent and true,
Dedicated to the right
And like the stalwart lighthouse stand
A beacon in the darkest night.
Having spent my early working life on ships travelling around the world I have an affinity for lighthouses which would often signal landfall after many days and sometimes weeks without seeing land. There is something very majestic and imperious, dare I say, even romantic about lighthouses as they rise skyward on rocky headlands guiding ships carrying seafarers homeward bound to the arms of their loved ones.
Today I am featuring a beautiful watercolour featuring a lighthouse by one of my favourite American artists, Edward Hopper. Although he was not alone in depicting lighthouses in his paintings, nevertheless Hopper was one of the few artists who made the tall structures the focus of his compositions and by doing so gave them an iconic presence. For Hopper, lighthouses were majestic architectural structures and things of beauty. His name was synonymous with depictions of lighthouses so much so that when Time magazine did a story about his life in their 1956 Christmas issue, the James Chapin portrait of Hopper on the cover included a lighthouse in the background.
During the early days of his career Hopper would often spend the summers in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, and he had become fascinated with lighthouses and went on to depict these tall structures in several media. It was in the summer of 1927 that he painted the watercolour depicting the Portland Head Light entitled Lighthouses and Buildings, Portland Head, Cape Elizabeth, Maine which I am featuring today. The painting resides in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This lighthouse was the first one to be built in the state of Maine, which at the time was still part of Massachusetts. It sits on the headland overlooking the main shipping route for vessels, which are approaching from the south, prior to entering Portland harbour. Up until this time there were no lighthouses on this part of the coast and the local merchants continually petitioned that one should be built so as to avoid ships and their cargoes being lost due to going on the rocks whilst approaching the busy port. In 1787, two more people were killed when a vessel went aground on Bangs Island (now known as Cushing Island) close to Portland Head and this disaster and loss of life resulted in George Washington authorising the building of a lighthouse on the headland so as to avert any further shipping disasters. Washington arranged that the lighthouse was to be built by two local Portland stonemasons Jonathan Bryant and John Nichols. As the State was not awash with money he stipulated that the materials used to build the lighthouse should be “taken from the fields and shores, which could be handled nicely when hauled by oxen on a drag”. The tower was built of rubble stone and Washington set a deadline for the build telling the two masons that he wanted it completed within four years. It is interesting to note that the original plans for the build was for a fifty-eight foot tall structure but on completion it was realised that, at that height, the light would not be seen by ships approaching from the south and so the tower had to be raised to a height of seventy-two feet. The tower was completed during 1790 and first lit January 10, 1791.
Hopper’s watercolour of the Portland Head lighthouse is one of the most picturesque, and by far the most reproduced of his works. In the painting we see the lighthouse and to the right are the lighthouse keeper’s house and garage which, as the light is now fully automated and does not need the presence of a lighthouse keeper, since 1992 has become the Portland Head Light Museum. Hopper decided to use some artistic licence in his depiction of the lighthouse and the surrounding area for he omitted from his watercolour a number of fences and paths which he believed would detract from the finished work. It is interesting to note the limited palette used by Hopper for this work which enhances it. He used light blue for the sky and a darker blue for the ocean. The roofs of the buildings are of a reddish-brown and the grass in the foreground is gold and light green.
In Edward Rowe Snow’s book The Lighthouses of New England, he described the lighthouse and its surroundings as:
“…Portland Head and its light seem to symbolize the state of Maine – rocky coast, breaking waves, sparkling water and clear, pure sea air…”
Gail Levin, art critic and author of the Hopper biography, Edward Hopper, An Intimate Biography, suggests that there was a personal and physical relationship between Hopper and lighthouses. She wrote:
“…He [Hopper] was nearly six feet five inches tall and perhaps felt a special affinity to this genre of architecture, which like him, stood apart from the rest of the world…”
Other art critics look upon Hopper’s passion for lighthouses as an architectural manifestation of the theme of loneliness which can be found in much of Hopper’s art.
I started this blog with a poem written about lighthouses and I conclude today with a longer one on that same subject, written by the famous American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
The rocky ledge runs far into the sea,
and on its outer point, some miles away,
the lighthouse lifts its massive masonry,
A pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day.
Even at this distance I can see the tides,
Upheaving, break unheard along its base,
A speechless wrath, that rises and subsides
in the white tip and tremor of the face.
And as the evening darkens, lo! how bright,
through the deep purple of the twilight air,
Beams forth the sudden radiance of its light,
with strange, unearthly splendor in the glare!
No one alone: from each projecting cape
And perilous reef along the ocean’s verge,
Starts into life a dim, gigantic shape,
Holding its lantern o’er the restless surge.
Like the great giant Christopher it stands
Upon the brink of the tempestuous wave,
Wading far out among the rocks and sands,
The night o’er taken mariner to save.
And the great ships sail outward and return
Bending and bowing o’er the billowy swells,
And ever joyful, as they see it burn
They wave their silent welcome and farewells.
They come forth from the darkness, and their sails
Gleam for a moment only in the blaze,
And eager faces, as the light unveils
Gaze at the tower, and vanish while they gaze.
The mariner remembers when a child,
on his first voyage, he saw it fade and sink
And when returning from adventures wild,
He saw it rise again o’er ocean’s brink.
Steadfast, serene, immovable, the same,
Year after year, through all the silent night
Burns on forevermore that quenchless flame,
Shines on that inextinguishable light!
It sees the ocean to its bosom clasp
The rocks and sea-sand with the kiss of peace:
It sees the wild winds lift it in their grasp,
And hold it up, and shake it like a fleece.
The startled waves leap over it; the storm
Smites it with all the scourges of the rain,
And steadily against its solid form
press the great shoulders of the hurricane.
The sea-bird wheeling round it, with the din
of wings and winds and solitary cries,
Blinded and maddened by the light within,
Dashes himself against the glare, and dies.
A new Prometheus, chained upon the rock,
Still grasping in his hand the fire of love,
it does not hear the cry, nor heed the shock,
but hails the mariner with words of love.
“Sail on!” it says: “sail on, ye stately ships!”
And with your floating bridge the ocean span;
Be mine to guard this light from all eclipse.
Be yours to bring man nearer unto man.