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Identifying Historical Fire Brigade Buckets Painted by ‘The Borden Limner’

by Martin Willis (02/07/11).

Mechanic Fire Society fire buckets painted by John S. Blunt.

I came from a town right outside of a small New Hampshire historical harbor city, Portsmouth. It was first settled in 1630 and has wonderful early brick architecture and early wooden homes and structures. It is a treasure trove of regional antiques of all sorts. There are many renowned pieces originating from Portsmouth, including exceptional furniture in the Colonial & Federal era. My father was lucky enough to buy a historical waterfront home that was built in 1672. When he bought the property, it was loaded full of period antiques, which he sold at auction for the owners for a whopping $40,000 in the early 1970s. That was a very big auction then. To compare the scale of it, my father bought the real estate for $30,000.

There are still a number of homes that have never been out of family ownership in this town; they are passed down from generation to generation and often full of period antiques. A lot of antiques were disposed of over the years and some pieces migrated to the attics & barns in various stages of repair. There is nothing like being in the auction business when someone calls you to come empty out one of these amazing places. You get all dusty and dirty, but the treasure hunt is on and what a rush.

A fraternal organization contacted me in 1980s and said it was bequeathed a few items from a historical family where the last of the generations had recently passed. When I first arrived they said that I should not get too excited, it was only a few pieces. There were three unsigned portraits, consisting of a couple and a single woman. It was obvious the paintings were by the same hand and they had a great folk art look to them. They were all seated and I remember the couple had matching opposing drapes in the background. The backs of all the canvases had a red tint, which was unusual to me. Then they brought out a pair of fire buckets and I thought my eyes were going to pop out. They were beautiful decorated with dramatic eagles and had the family’s name and both were inscribed “Mechanic Fire Society” in banners.

A pair of portraits of a lady and a gentleman by John S. Blunt.

Fire buckets were made of thick leather hide and tightly stitched. They are tanned or painted and almost always stenciled with the family name and sometimes decorated. They have a swinging handle joined by rings to the bucket itself. These buckets were for the use of a fire brigade that was organized by creating a line of people from the fire to a water source. Sometimes the water was several blocks away, so you can imagine the scale of people that could include performing the task. The buckets would pass empty from hand to hand traveling to the water and back full to douse the fire. The Mechanic Fire Society was one of many organized societies in Portsmouth that were trained to perform this task. Fire buckets hung just inside the door of these early homes and usually had a bed wrench and a valuables bag inside them. You may think it is humorous to have a bed wrench, but beds were treasured in colonial times and they were made to quickly knock down and get out onto the street for safekeeping. Owners of the properties in danger would race back and forth grabbing what they could before fire engulfed their home. Furniture often had brandings on them of the family’s name so they could be identified post fire. These are called firebrands and are often mistaken as the furniture maker when found on pieces.

Getting back to my new consignment, I asked what information they had about the lot. The only information they had was, they assumed everything originated in Portsmouth.

I knew I had something good, but had to think on how to start my detective work. I called an old friend, the late Joe Copley. I had become friends with Joe and there was no one who knew more about Portsmouth-area history and the early artisans then he. Joe always shared his knowledge freely and had amazing in depth stories. He would never take a fee for any research he did or any of his information. I would ask him how he knew so much about whatever it was we were talking about and he’d simply reply, “Joe Knows” with a smile.

Unknown lady with gold comb by John S. Blunt.

Mrs. Miller of Newton, New Jersey, c. 1830 by John S. Blunt.

So Joe came over to my auction gallery the next day to look at the pieces. While looking at them one at a time he kept saying, “hmm, yah, hmm.” After a few minutes, he said that he was pretty certain that the whole group, even the fire buckets, were painted by the same artist, John Blunt. He suggested that I go to the Portsmouth Athenaeum Library and see what they have for the fire society related to the family’s name on the fire buckets. The Athenaeum is a beautiful, early brick building with many early local historical treasures. I went there the next day and asked if I could look through everything related to the Mechanic Fire Society. I scanned through the minutes of meeting after meeting and—eureka!—found the induction of the family named on the buckets.

The Internet was not around in 1980s to surf for additional information. I had to go to the Portsmouth Public Library to find out about the artist. With help, I found the Portsmouth, N.H., artist John S. Blunt (1798-1835). There were no images of his work available in the public library at that time. I later realized I walked right by a John S. Blunt landscape on my way up the stairs to the Athenaeum Library. I asked for help once again at the Athenaeum, and they told me about a book to send away for on the artist titled “The Borden Limner.”

The work produced during John S. Blunt’s short life was unknown for many years. He was coined the “Borden Limner” after portraits in New Bedford, Mass., of Captain Borden and his wife. The Borden Limner was later identified as John Samuel Blunt through the artist’s ledgers by comparing entries to known portrait examples. The late Dr. Robert Bishop discovered this through his research. There were 250 entries of works by Blunt, and only 121 have been located today. Deborah Child is currently working on the Blunt catalog raisonn’e and eagerly looking to locate more works.

I sent away for Dr. Robert Bishop’s book and waited an eternity for it to arrive. Pre-Internet, this is what you had to do . . . wait.

I remember the package finally arriving and I was very excited to see the images were in the exact style of the portraits I had. The red paint on the back of the canvas I spoke about earlier was noted. As I looked through the pages and, low and behold, there was an image of fire buckets with identical style and quality decoration as the ones I had in hand! Mechanic Fire Society fire buckets were listed in John Blunt’s ledger as well.

I now felt confident to advertise the pieces as the works of John S. Blunt. When I contacted the consignors to talk about my discovery, they revealed that they had been offered $5,000 for the lot. They asked me if it would be a good idea for them to accept the offer instead of selling at auction. I gave them a guarantee of $15,000, which is something I rarely do. You have to remember that even though 1980s was not that long ago, prices for objects like these were lower then what they are today.

I spent a little extra on my brochure and on advertising. I featured the fire buckets in trade and local papers everywhere. I had a copy of the Mechanic Fire Society minutes and Robert Bishop’s book for display. I was all ready to go.

Piscataqua River from Noble's Wharf, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, painted by John S. Blunt.

When auction time came around, there were people I had never seen before at the preview and one of them eventually became a very good friend of mine. He was talking to a well-dressed gentleman and as they were looking at the fire buckets for a good deal of time. I heard him say, “You really have to own these.” The gentleman said, “I suppose I do.” I was asked what the estimate was on the pair and I was telling everyone that is was $5,000 to $10,000. I kept waiting for someone to say I was crazy because fire bucket had never really sold that high before.

Auction day came and it was a full house, the consignors were there and everybody became quiet when the fire buckets hit the stage. They started out at $5,000 and quickly made their way to $20,000. Just when I was ready to say “SOLD!” a new bidder jumped in—the “well-dressed gentleman.” When all was said and done, they went out the door at $32,500, a new world record. The paintings sold for around $12,000-$15,000 a piece. The consignors could hardly contain themselves in their seats.

My friend’s client was indeed the proud new owner. He resold them about 10 years ago at an auction for $88,000. It goes to show, when you buy the best, nine times out of 10, it is a wise investment.

A lot has changed since 1980s and a $30,000 item is no big deal in today’s auctions. For me, it was really exciting at the time. Thanks to my good friend Joe Copely, I had a great deal of fun researching and nailing down the Borden Limner’s work.

Since that time, the Athenaeum Library has been renamed: “The Joseph P. Copley Research Library.” As I mentioned above, Joe gave his information freely. During his life, Joe gave of himself for the preservation of Portsmouth’s history and he left his research library to Athenaeum. I dedicate this article to the memory of my old friend.

Martin Willis is Worthologist and auctioneer who owns Tiburon Arts Consulting. You can hear his podcasts at the at Antique and Auction Forum, featuring interviews with key players in the antiques and collectibles trade

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7 Responses to “Identifying Historical Fire Brigade Buckets Painted by ‘The Borden Limner’”

  1. I really enjoyed this article, thank you for sharing it. Joseph P. Copley sounds like a wonderful person, you were richer for having known him. I also wanted to mention that librarians are still a good source of information and help and people should not be afraid to approach them for that help.

    • You are right about that. Joe didn’t take to everyone, but he saw that I had a sincere curiosity for learning. I was lucky to have known him and Portsmouth was lucky for the history he preserved.

      I agree about librarians and also want to mention that there is still a lot of information in books that you will not find on the internet.

      Thank you Johanna,

      Martin

  2. Lisa Mull says:

    Thank you, Martin, for a thoroughly delightful article. I hadn’t known where the term “firebrands” came from, so I learned something. I do own a family primitive portrait, so that info was also of interest to me (although mine is far more primitive, having been painted by an itinerant painter, we belive). I like the way you write–clearly, concisely and with the fascinating backstories.

    Thanks for making my Friday!

  3. Maggie Turnipseed Maggie Turnipseed says:

    I dream about researching items like you had at your auction…. Great Story!
    The Pixar Podcast…… was very interesting too!
    Thank you!

  4. Very nice of you Maggie, thank you.

  5. Marty,

    I read your article about the Blunt portraits and fire buckets. Well-done! What a find!

    Russ

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