The “bold and brash” John Haley Bellamy – as his biographer Jim Craig describes him – had a lasting effect on American decorative arts. His story, being told in an extensive new exhibit, "Bold & Brash: The Art of John Haley Bellamy" in the Discover Portsmouth Center, curated by Craig, is the first-ever comprehensive look at his work. Working after the Civil War, as the tourism industry began to grow along the Atlantic seaboard, Bellamy created demand for his carved pine eagles, purchased as souvenirs for $1 or $2 and now worth tens of thousands. Bellamy eagles were the forefront of the passion for Americana in the re-uniting country as it turned to a new century.
The exhibit and the research turned up many surprises and re-discoveries of works thought to have been lost. Among them is the impressive 15-foot eagle that once topped the flagpole at the Appledore Hotel on the Isles of Shoals. Another is the paneled wall from Sparhawk Hall that once stood on Kittery Point.
But while visiting Strawbery Banke Museum for a talk based on his new book, and to visit the laurel wreaths Bellamy carved for the portico of the Goodwin Mansion on the edge of Museum grounds, Jim Craig took a look at the eagle head given to Strawbery Banke in 1991 by Mrs. Stephen Decatur, one of the founding members of the museum. This eagle is displayed in the Lowd House as part of a historical exhibit on local woodworkers and their tools and craft. Attributed to Bellamy, Craig confirmed it has all the characteristic details: the beak ridge on the inside of its mouth, the sinuous lines paralleling the beak and under the eye, the cross-hatch feathering on its neck. But he also guessed that this head was part of a complete eagle, due to the three-dimensional finishing of the back of the piece. If it had been intended as a typical Bellamy plaque, the back of the eagle’s head would be flat.
Based on its size, which suggests that a full-bodied piece would be 16 feet in wing span, this might perhaps be a part of the eagle that once topped Portsmouth’s Old City Hall, now offices, at 126 Daniel Street. Craig remembered a reference Bellamy made to working on that project in a letter now archived with the rest of his papers at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine.
The suggestion awaits further investigation. In the meantime, the eagles have landed in Portsmouth. The latest New Hampshire Audubon count determined that the wild eagle population is again on the rise on the seacoast. The proud birds of the Bellamy flock are certainly coming home to nest.