Nancy H. DeVita 1935-1986
Nancy was born and brought up in Old Lyme, on the Connecticut shore. She studied for four years with the renowned marine artist, Yngve E. Soderberg, and for two years with Harve Stein of Noank at Connecticut College for Women. In addition, she earned a BFA from Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island. After leaving the fashion world in New York City where she was head designer for McCall Corporation, she moved to East Dennis to finish her life's work - the visual history of the local Shiverick Shipyard clipper ships.
"In the middle of the nineteenth century, in the little village of East Dennis on Cape Cod, there existed the Shiverick Shipyard, which over a period of fourteen years produced eight magnificent clipper ships, whose destiny was to sail worldwide transporting a diversity of cargo including silk, tea, lumber, and fertilizer. A plea to the Shiverick ship captains from San Francisco brought biscuits and flour to the hoards of starving men pouring into the gold fields of California. These sailing ships were marvelous to behold; proud equals to the best in this country.
More than a century later, East Dennis is still a small, even quieter village, tiny Sesuit Harbor crowded in the summer with fishing and pleasure craft, none close to half the length of their predecessors. Imagine a clipper ship, one hundred and sixty feet more or less, being launched in the Sesuit Harbor area. The shipyard is gone, but many descendants of the shipbuilders, shipowners, captains and crews – nearly all were East Dennis men – remain, eager to share their heritage. A few of the oldest remember their fathers and grandfathers in their sailing days.
As I came to know these people, I realized a visual part of this history might slowly disappear; that I could provide a record of these ships in the way I knew best – by painting the ship’s portraits. My project was met with enthusiasm. Out of many a cottage came sail plans, old snapshots, half hulls, logs and letters, and workshop sketches. Out of many a gray head came tales of half a world away, such as those related by a handsome straight spine gentleman of ninety-one who dazzled me with tales of his own more recent travels in a very different ship – as an energetic young businessman who crossed the Atlantic from Germany in the mighty Hindenburg Zeppelin.
Now returned to live in a rambling Cape Cod cottage perched high above Sesuit Harbor, the very house occupied by a Shiverick family at the times they were active in the shipyard, his recollections included tales of the first ship built in 1850. It was the little Revenue, the last to carry the single topsail of earlier vessels. I painted her sailing into the harbor of Genoa, Italy, a port she and her captain, David Seabury Sears, knew well. An Italian pilot boat is nearby.
In 1852 the Hippogriffe was launched. After years of consistently good passages, she hit a then uncharted rock in the Java Sea. Captain Anthony Howes’ experienced paid off as he worked her off the shoal and safely into Hong Kong. There the hole in her bow was found – plugged by the coral she hit. The hull was repaired, the reef was charted and named Hippogriffe Rock, which remains to this day.
Next came the Belle of the West, still considered one of the most beautiful ships ever built. To design her, the Shivericks hired brilliant young Samuel Hartt Pook of Boston, heir apparent to the great Donald McKay. She lived up to her reputation; the Belle thrilled all who saw her whenever she sailed to port.
In 1863, ten years after her launching, the captain, Allison Howes, happened to meet his brother, Captain Levi Howes, of the ship Starlight, in Calcutta. A race home to Boston was agreed upon by the brothers. The results of this match were astounding – the seventeen thousand mile trek ended in a tie!
By the time the fourth ship, Kit Carson, was planned, ship designers realized they could flatten the keel and give the hull a fuller body, allowing greater cargo capacity without sacrificing speed. This roomier vessel plied the waters of the globe and near our shores avoided Confederate guns throughout the Civil War. The last East Dennis man to command her was Prince F. Crowell, son of the owner Captain Prince S. Crowell. Finally, she met her end as the result of warfare after being seized, then later sunk, while being used to block the Rio de la Plata in South America, the boundary separating the southwest border of Uruguay from Brazil.
The story of the Wild Hunter launched in 1855, came to me as the result of a visit with a venerable, delicate lady. A descendant of Captain Joshua Sears, her ancestral home Yankee plain from the outside, while inside reposed a small museum of oriental and marine artifacts, unchanged through the years. Judging from his detailed logs and letters, Captain Joshua seems a paradox. On one hand a highly accomplished sailor and businessman, hard driving with his vessel and crew, insistent that the Wild Hunter be a paragon of orderliness, and a talkative colorful character, yet he was plagued by seasickness and longed to retire to a place, “where I shall never see a ship again.” He was known to bring not only his wife Minerva and daughter Louisa on voyages but Louisa’s pet pony so that she could ride about the deck!
The largest of the fleet, measuring one hundred eighty feet in length, was the Webfoot, completed in 1856. Under the command of Captain Milton Hedge, she set a speed record in 1859 by sailing from Calcutta to New York in eighty-five days. The next five years found her trading mainly in the Pacific, often to Australia. She was sold to a British company in 1864, for whom she put in another twenty-two years of service.
One golden afternoon I spent in the company of a friendly, bright-eyed eighty-eight-year-old lady, a Crowell by birth, married to a Sears. As we settled down to talk, a shadow crossed her face as she patted her breast. Her discomfort passed and her fingers once again nimbly shuffled through time-worn letters in an old shoebox, while as deftly avoiding my inquiries as to her comfort. Time gave lie to her denials; she died not long after. I think she would be pleased that the pictures in words she painted for me will not pass into oblivion. One of these was the saga of Captain John Addy and his wife Persis in 1867. While passing through the waters of what is now Samoa, their ship the Christopher Hall, ended a ten-year career when it was wrecked after striking an uncharted rock. All were saved. In a letter written by Persis Addy to her mother, she describes in a most matter of fact manner how they bailed their lifeboat with a hat until a floating bucket was retrieved from the water. As they neared the shore the natives, clad only in skirts made of leaves, gathered to help; to feed and shelter the grateful crew.
Joseph Henry Sears of Brewster, himself a retired sea captain, bought the last of the Shiverick ships before its completion in 1864. At that time heading a successful shipping business in Boston, he named this last vessel the Ellen Sears, after his sister. This ship’s history is the shortest of all; her end unknown. After sailing from San Francisco in 1867, under Captain J.F. Bartlett of Brewster, she disappeared, never reaching her destination of Liverpool."
What I have written is such a small part of the story of the Shiverick ships. My intention is to provide a carefully researched visual record of these vessels. My thanks to the many people who helped make these paintings possible.
-Nancy Harrison DeVita