Astrolabe

The Oldest Image?

as-image1The museum acquires the earliest painting of Grand Turk.

By Dr. Neil Hitch, Director, Turks & Caicos National Museum

Photos Courtesy Turks & Caicos National Museum Collection

In the Spring 1998 Astrolabe, Barry Dressel, then museum director, wrote a brief article describing the oldest image of the Turks & Caicos Islands. This image is a woodcut of South Caicos depicting East Harbour in 1860. It shows a view of the harbour from a sailing vessel and was published in New York in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. This image of South Caicos, of which the museum does not have an original copy, was the oldest known image of the Turks & Caicos Islands.

The museum does own a very early sketch of the wreck of the steamship Medina. This image shows a ship stuck on the reef off Grand Turk. It predates the South Caicos image by 20 years and would technically be the earliest image, but it does not show land.

In January 2009, the museum acquired a watercolor painting of Grand Turk. The reported date of this image is ca. 1830, which would make the painting the oldest image of the Turks & Caicos Islands.

Finding the painting

During the summer of 2008, the museum received an email from a rare books seller in London. It included details of a newly discovered painting and an offer to hold the artifact for the museum until it could be acquired.

The painting had been found at the San Francisco Book Fair. An American rare books seller had discovered the work in a notebook of miscellaneous 19th century papers and prints. The book had been taken apart and each individual page sold. The image of Grand Turk was glued on a page of the book marked in pencil, “Turks Island, British West Indies.” The London book dealer saw the picture, and understanding what it was, bought it and took it back to London.

After being contacted, staff at the national museum began to look for a local foundation who might sponsor a trip to London to view the work. Discussions and grant applications were unfortunately interrupted by the September 2008 hurricanes and the following weeks of clean-up and rebuilding.

Finally in January 2009, museum staff were able to travel to London to authenticate the image. Several photographs were taken to London to verify that the picture was in fact of Grand Turk. Verification of the date of the painting, if possible, was also important.

The painting is small, 20mm x 31.5mm (7 7/8″ x 12 5/8″). However, it is very detailed with attention to subtle value differences. For most of its life, the painting has been enclosed in a notebook where it never saw the light of day. Because of this, the pigments are vibrant and maintain their original intensities. On the back of the painting there is a penciled notation that reads, “Grand Turk, Turks Islands.” This was a positive starting point.

as-image-5Like the image of South Caicos, the new watercolor painting shows Grand Turk from the view offshore. The area depicted is Front Street between Market Street and Chancery Lane. Today this area is between the library and the Cable & Wireless complex. Museum staff made a positive authentication by focusing on one building that was clearly identifiable. This building is depicted on the painting as a white building with a white roof. The two story porch is covered with a shed roof that continues off the front of the hipped roof. The porch has eight bays with nine supporting porch columns.

This building can be located on several images of Grand Turk taken in the 20th century. It is clearly visible on a 1949 postcard of Front Street. In this image, the building can be located directly to the right of the St. Mary’s Anglican Church. The building is also identifiable in a 1961 slide taken by Ted Phillipona. In this image, the building is identified as the Tatem House. During the 1960s there was a small grocery store on the first floor. The building was one of several that were burned in the early 1970s.

The 1949 postcard also depicts the library, the Frith Brothers & Company iron building, and what is now the Grand Turk Inn. Because these buildings post-date the image, the painting must have been made before any of these buildings were built. The Grand Turk Inn was originally built in the 1860s and for many years was the Methodist Manse. Likewise, the Frith Salt Warehouse was one of two iron buildings brought to Grand Turk from Scotland during the late 1860s. Construction of the library began in 1887. St. Mary’s Church was constructed in 1899. Because these buildings are not recorded in the painting, the image has to at least date before the 1860s.

Sailing vessel

The image also shows a sailing vessel at anchor at the edge of the reef. The vessel is a brig, a two-masted vessel rigged with square sails. The rigging seen between the two masts is for staysails. This would have been used for windward work.

Ship portraits are a very common genre in nautical painting. Many portraits of sailing vessels are painted with the backdrop of a port. The artist is typically sailing on the ship and knows the details from personal experience. In most cases, though the painter is painting from the view of another vessel, they are actually on the ship they are painting. This is why the images tend to be so detailed, as seen in the Grand Turk image.

The flag at the top of the foremast is a blue and white signal flag known as the Blue Peter. Since 1752 the British navy has used this flag as the signal for “all aboard, preparing to proceed.” It is still one of the official 26 signal flags. There is a small boat approaching the brig full of crewmen dressed in white and blue. The boat is possibly returning crewmen to the vessel. A smaller skiff is tied to the front of the brig.

There are unknown objects on the deck of the brig. It is possible that the black object in the center of the ship represents a cannon. There does not appear to be any gun ports marked on the vessel. A brig of 18 guns was fairly common in the early 19th century. But the ship in the image appears to be a merchant vessel.

Is it possible that the vessel represents an English packet boat? It was common for specific vessels to sail a route between England and the Caribbean. Packet boats carried both supplies and people. They were the first passenger ships, taking goods, mail, and travelers.

The steamship Medina stopped at Grand Turk as a mail packet from England. In 1842 the vessel ran upon the reef and was sunk. Subsequently, mail service from England was discontinued. The sketch of the Medina floundering on the reef at Grand Turk was likely completed in 1842. This is one of the earliest images of the Turks & Caicos, but it lacks detail and does not show anything that adds to the physical history of Grand Turk. It does, however, show a small brig very similar to the one in the new Grand Turk image.

In 1850, the governor of the Bahamas wrote a note “pointing out the benefits that might be derived from substituting for the present miserable schooner which conveys mails and passengers from St. Thomas to Nassau a small screw steamer that might drop the English Mails at Grand Turk and Inagua and take the homeward bound mails from those islands on her return from Nassau to St. Thomas.” Prior to this time, the Government of the Bahamas was already paying for “postal communication between Grand Turk and Nassau,” which was a schooner that regularly made the trip back and forth.

Flags

There are several flags in the image. The American Stars & Stripes flies over what would have been the consular office. An American Consul opened on Grand Turk in the early 1800s, and according to H. E. Sadler, the American Consul cleared more than 100 vessels a year loaded with salt bound for the United States.

In the mid-20th century, salt merchants ran flags up poles as signals that salt could be purchased and loaded. There are two flags flying in front of two establishments. The flags appear to be the English flag, the Union Jack.

Both the brig and the small boat appear to be flying the Blue Ensign of the Royal Navy. The blue ensign is a flag with a blue field and the Union Jack in the corner. This flag eventually became the national flag of many English colonies, with the crest of the country in the field. The flag of the Turks & Caicos Islands is a good example, but was adopted as the national flag long after this painting was painted.

In 1864 the Royal Navy drafted new flag regulations that only allowed the blue ensign to be flown on a merchant vessel if the captain and six of the crew were members of the Royal Navy Reserve. Before this date, the blue ensign, red ensign, and white ensign had all been flown on various vessels of both military and merchant class.

Conclusion

The watercolor image of Grand Turk is an exciting new museum collection piece. Research will continue to see what other insights can be learned from the image. If anyone has other information or has some guesses to the clues seen in the image, please contact us and share your thoughts.

With most artifacts, interpretation is an ongoing process and information is often revealed in unexpected ways. What we can be sure of is that the artifacts of Turks & Caicos history still exist and just occasionally, we find a really good one.



9 Comments

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harold c gibbs
Apr 28, 2009 1:29

i was born in the turks and caicos , now living in the usa , im looking for information on the gibbs family tree, the gibbs family was from devon england uk, looking for a george gibbs from the 1700s/1800s, im a descendant of this george gibbs , if you know more about this family , please free to contect me @ hgibbs8@aol.com

Anthony Sweeting
Jun 18, 2009 8:47

In 1993 I researched and wrote up the story of the Medina and her loss on the reef off Grand Turk. Interested?

Edward Arthur Grice
Aug 15, 2009 17:10

My name is Ed Grice, grandson of Arthur Frith who lived in Vancouver British Columbia Canada.
I have just found out that my grandfather and great grandfather Frith were born on the Turks islands.

My aunt aparently has some history and old post cards. I am going to meet with her as soon as I can to find out more.

If these are relavent to help on this subject or on other historical events I would love to help.

Anne Lariviere
Mar 12, 2012 15:23

To Edward Arthur Grice

My grandfather was one of your grandfather’s brothers – he was born on Grand Turk and he and his large family of brothers and sisters ended up in Vancouver with their mother Roberta. Their father had died in 1900.

Are you still in Vancouver? I’m in Ottawa.
Anne

Liz Buniski
Sep 26, 2013 12:11

I’m a decendant of the Eve family who also lived in Turks. Found a record of a family will of David Francis Eve that states he had leased Salt Ponds, Hawk’s Nest Pond, Old Ground to Jas Misick for 14 yrs. (1842-1861) at time will was written.

John Philip Frith
Oct 9, 2013 18:06

To Anne Lariviere,

My grandfather was Walter Darrell Frith, son of Daniel Nathaniel Frith and Roberta Alice Frith (nee Darrell). Do you any more details about the family?
John

Ed Grice
Nov 24, 2013 17:56

To Anne Lariviere,
Anne, I have found a fair amount of info on the Frith family and their move to the Vancouver area from Grand Turk. Feel free to contact me at eagrice@hotmail.com we can share our family history.

Dianne Dirksen
Feb 8, 2014 20:21

Anne is my cousin Ed ! Found her!

Jeff Dodge
Mar 10, 2014 13:19

Hello – – I collect early photo postcards of the Turks Islands (circa 1904-1915). I have quite a few, but I am aware of at least 6-9 that I don’t have. If you have any cards of this vintage, I would appreciate if if you could scan them and email the scans to me. If you don’t have a scanner, If you would just note what is written on the front of the cards, that would help me identify those I don’t have. I would love to know how many different scenes were made into these early postcards. Thanks. Jeff Dodge (email: tinqua@midcoast.com).

It would be great if the Museum of the Turks and Caicos Islands were to catalogue these cards and publish a booklet if them all.

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