Naval Historical Foundation Life Member James L. Kochan recently wrote to let us know that an exciting new exhibit is opening at his gallery this weekend. The second installment of Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights: The War of 1812 and the Shaping of America will open to public viewing at the Frederick, Maryland gallery of James L. Kochan Fine Art & Antiques on Sunday, June 16th and closes on September 1st. The exhibition chronicles this conflict and its legacy through an impressive collection of its material remains–rare artifacts, artwork, manuscripts and imprints. The war, bitterly opposed by many Americans, brought great political and economic turmoil to the new nation. However, it also stimulated growth in American industries and in the arts, where paintings, engravings, silver, furniture, and ceramics celebrated American victories and/or were festooned with eagles and other patriotic motifs that reflected a burgeoning sense of national identity.
The first installment of Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights opened a year ago, running from June 2-September 9, 2012 and focused primarily on the naval battles and military campaigns fought in or along the Atlantic seaboard. Lack of gallery space for the extensive collection led to the decision to mount a second installment of the exhibition in 2013. This new installation takes the war inland to the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River borderlands with Canada, where most of the major land actions and arguably the two most strategically-important naval battles–Lake Erie and Plattsburgh–were fought and won by the United States. It will also take its viewers far to the west, including both a secret British mission to the Pacific Northwest and Captain David Porter’s single-ship foray that devastated the British whaling industry in the South Pacific and culminated in a final battle off Valparaiso, Chile.
The exhibit at James Kochan Fine Art & Antiques will feature a wealth of original period military and naval artwork and artifacts—including letters, diaries, personal artifacts, arms, and uniforms spanning the 1812 epoch, most of which were acquired by its proprietor for his personal study collection over the past two decades. Some of the pieces in the exhibition were published as illustrations in Kochan’s various books and articles on the military and naval history of the War of 1812 era, but nearly all of them have never been publicly exhibited before, much less offered for sale, since he acquired them. Prior to forming his fine art and antiques business in 1998, Kochan worked in the museum field for 15 years, including stints as director of museum collections at Mount Vernon and supervisory curator of Morristown National Historical Park. A specialist in early 19th century military and naval material culture, he is frequently called upon to serve as a consultant to museums and film or television productions, including serving as the historical advisor for costume, props, and set decoration for the blockbuster Peter Weir film starring Russell Crowe, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
Manuscript materials include eyewitness accounts of the battles of Chippewa, Lundy’s Lane and Hornet vs. Peacock, army and navy officers’ commissions signed by President James Madison, and a letter from a U.S. Congressman to his wife following the burning of Washington in which he notes that “Our Government is coming to pieces…Monroe is appointed Secretary of War and the Office of Secretary of State is Vacant…I have not seen James Madison, the saying here is that both he and his Wife [Dolley] are depressed [as] One of the British Officers took Her Velvet Cushi[o]ns from her sofa [alluding to the sacking and burning of the White House]”. An unpublished orderly book of the 4th U.S. Infantry provides new details and insights into the 1813 Niagara campaign, abruptly ending at Stoney Creek, a crushing defeat that halted the American advance into Upper Canada. Captured during that battle was Major Christopher Van Deventer, Assistant Quartermaster General, who despite an attempted escape remained in captivity for most of the war’s duration. The mess chest he used during that campaign (complete with original contents that include tin containers and platters, as well as a pewter coffee service), will be displayed below a handsome portrait of the young officer painted by his friend, the noted artist-playwright William Dunlap of New York.
Kochan, who grew up on the south shore of Lake Erie and camped on Put-in-Bay, is particularly keen on the assemblage of artifacts relating to the battle of Lake Erie, fought off that island. This includes a detailed account of the action written by Lieutenant John O’Fallon and the gilt-mounted sword of Midshipmen Peleg K. Dunham, the finest example of the eight surviving Congressional swords from that battle. Perhaps the most unique item is a souvenir taken back to New England after the war by one of Commodore Perry’s sailors–the painted canvas, wardroom sign of HMS Queen Charlotte, the original flagship of the British squadron. Two other presentation swords, superb examples crafted by Philadelphia artisans, are also featured in the exhibition. The first is that given to Lieutenant James Biddle for his heroism during the battle between the Wasp and the Frolic, when as part of the boarding party he pulled down the ensign of the British sloop. The other was presented by the state of Virginia to native son Midshipman Richard Heath for his “intrepidity and valor…in action at the capture of the British Frigate MACEDONIAN….” Other notable relics of hard-fought battles include cuttings from the captured ensigns taken by “Old Ironsides”, the frigate USS Constitution, in her victories against HMS Guerriere, HMS Java, and HMS Cyane.
Some of the important works of art that will appear in ‘Free Trade & Sailors’ Rights’ are watercolors depicting naval actions painted not by professional artists, but rather by amateurs who were eyewitnesses to the actual events. The first is a pair of naive drawings, the first view showing the famous action fought off Boston between the Chesapeake and the Shannon, the former with her white battle flag bearing the motto ‘Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights’ flying prominently from her mainmast; the latter showing the same ship after her capture, jury-rigged and with a British ensign triumphantly flying above the American flag at her stern, being towed into Halifax Harbor by the victorious Shannon. Five of the six watercolor views done by the surgeon of the HMS Racoon during 1810-1815 relate to that ship’s War of 1812 adventures in the Pacific. Originally part of a squadron sent to seek, capture or destroy the Essex after that American frigate had taken most of the British whalers then in the South Pacific, the Racoon was detached on a secret mission to take the Fort Astoria, an American fur post on the Columbia River. The group includes a view of the sloop temporarily grounding on a bar at the mouth of the Columbia during her departure, the fort now in British control; another watercolor is perhaps the most accurate, contemporary depiction of the Essex‘s last battle and capture. American naval victories are equally represented, including a pair of oil paintings of the capture of the Frolic by the Wasp, displayed in association with the aforementioned Biddle presentation sword. These striking and colorful works of the moonlit battle were done by George Ropes of Salem in 1813. Ropes, the deaf son of a Salem shipmaster, studied painting under Michele Felice Cornè, the first professional marine artist working in America and became a successful painter, most noted for his 1812 sea battle-pieces and views of Salem. Works by Ropes are extremely rare due to his short working life and they are highly prized by both marine and folk art collectors today.
“June will prove an exciting, but exhausting month for me,” said Kochan, who in addition to curating Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights, is also participating in Enemies to Allies, an international conference on the War of 1812 that will be taking place at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis that same week. “I’m presenting my paper on Friday afternoon, then doing a book signing the following morning, after which I have to race back to Frederick in time to take down a War of 1812 display at City Hall, reinstall the artifacts in my gallery and prepare to greet guests for the exhibit preview party that evening. Whew!!” His June 14th talk will be on the Colonial Marines, a little-remembered corps composed of runaway black slaves from the Chesapeake region that bravely fought for their freedom by serving under the British flag against their former white masters. “I had originally intended to open Free Trade at least one or two weeks after the conference, but then I learned that Frederick was planning to take advantage of Flag Day weekend to appropriately commemorate one of its native sons, Frances Scott Key (author of The Star Spangled Banner) and it seemed only right that the exhibit should be open to coincide with the city-wide celebration.” He noted that “my conflicting schedule will, unfortunately preclude me from personally participating in most of Frederick’s activities, but I will be lending artifacts relating to Frederick’s role in the defence of Baltimore for the City Hall exhibit that features the original draft of The Star Spangled Banner.” The manuscript, on loan from the Maryland Historical Society during June 14-15, was penned while the poet-lawyer witnessed the British night bombardment of Fort McHenry. The poem, set to music shortly after the 1814 battle, would eventually become our national anthem. The poet-lawyer and his most famous work will be temporarily reunited during a ceremony at the Frances Scott Key Grave Monument, when the manuscript will be escorted to Mount Olivet Cemetery from City Hall by the Army’s Old Guard and the Fort McHenry Fife & Drum Corps. Additional events include the unveiling of interpretive panels at the Key Monument, the Hessian Barracks (where Kochan is a member of its Friends group) and other historic sites with Key or 1812 associations. The full schedule of activities may be found at: www.bit.ly/StarSpangledBannerFrederick2013.
Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights: The War of 1812 and the Shaping of America will be on view at James Kochan Fine Art & Antiques, 218 North Market Street in historic Frederick, Maryland, opening on June 16th and closing September 1, 2013. Hours: 11-5 PM Friday-Sun or by appointment. A catalog of the exhibition will be published and purchase details, as well as a online flipbook version of the catalog, may be found on the gallery’s website: www.jameskochan.com.