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Secrets and the 2017 Gallery Crawl

The 2017 Gallery Crawl is quickly approaching! As I mentioned before, the theme for this years event is the Secret Life of Objects. I thought I would entice you by showing one of the objects we’ll be highlighting during the event.

The object is a painting of the US Coast Survey Steamer Robert J. Walker. The scene shows a port broadside view of the vessel steaming through a moderately rough sea by artist W.A.K. Martin of Philadelphia. It’s rather non-descript if you ask me. Just a standard maritime portrait of a vessel—albeit a nice one. Martin very clearly identifies the ship on the front of the painting so we thought it was a little odd that the back of the painting carries the inscription “Loss of the U.S. Brig “SOMERS”, W A K Martin pnxt Phila 18??”.

The Robert J. Walker was one of the first sidewheel steamers built for the Revenue Service (the forerunner of the US Coast Guard) but it ended up being turned over to the US Coast Survey. In June of 1860, while returning from survey work in the Gulf, the Walker was involved in a collision with the schooner Fanny. The Walker sank about thirty minutes later taking twenty of her crew with her. It was the largest loss of life suffered in the history of NOAA and its predecessor agencies.

In 2013 NOAA began investigating a wreck off Absecon with the purpose of positively identifying the wreck. Our painting, the only known image of the vessel, was key in helping identify the wreck (Walker had rather odd square portholes which are clearly depicted in the painting). Because of its importance, the wonderful people at NOAA offered to pay to have the painting conserved.

Prior to conservation the staff at Mariners’ decided to x-ray the painting to try and figure out why that odd inscription was on the reverse. What we found was a second painting underneath the image of the Walker—a scene that showed a ship rolling over on its side in stormy seas. Apparently Martin reused an older canvas for the new scene but because the inscription on the reverse had been painted on he didn’t bother to remove it.

The scene Martin painted over depicts the sinking of the US Navy brig Somers. In December 1846 while on blockade duty off Vera Cruz, Mexico the Somers capsized in a gust of hurricane strength wind. Thirty-nine sailors were lost despite the heroic efforts of rescuers sent from the French, British and Spanish ships-of-war that were nearby.

While the image in the x-ray is a little difficult to interpret it very closely resembles the image of the sinking Somers found on the medal presented by the US Government to the officers and crews of the foreign vessels that rescued the Somers surviving crew members.

I plan on displaying the painting with both the front and reverse exposed along with a large image of the x-ray and maybe even the medallion showing the sinking Somers.

If you live nearby and can attend the event you should! It’s always great fun with tons of food and drink and this year all of the money we raise will support our reduced price admission. It looks like we’ll see more than 60,000 people this summer—imagine how many people can visit if the entrance fee is only $1.00 all year round!

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