The Portsmouth Collection – A Treasure Trove of History, Art and Ephemera


Collecting is something almost everyone has succumbed to at one time or another be it stamps, stickers, shells, postcards, aeroplane sick bags or fine art. It’s also a common practice for organizations to collect and preserve items that have value, history or interest.

The Portsmouth City Collection has grown significantly since its inception back in 1945. The collection is vast in scope spanning archaeology, local history, literary history and military history.

Collection Descriptions

PORTSMOUTH COLLECTION consists of the files kept by Robert Marvin as a City council member and mayor (1933-1936) and as an attorney with the firm of Marvin, Peyser, Tucker and Marvin plus some matter from his father attorney William E. Marvin of the predecessor firm of Frink, Marvin and Batchelder (1802-1958). The collection primarily relates to City government including special projects carried out through the National Recovery Administration during the Great Depression, Mayor Marvin’s involvement in local politics and cultural activities, and his service on the Board of Trade and Merchants Exchange.

Located on the shores of the Piscataqua River, Portsmouth’s historic downtown district offers a captivating backdrop for a remarkable meeting or wedding. With three hotels and two distinctive event venues, the area is also home to a wide range of restaurants, shops, and attractions that celebrate the town’s unique seacoast heritage.

The Portsmouth Site Waste Management Program directs the storage, treatment, and disposal of waste anticipated to be produced by the decommissioning and demolition (D&D) of the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant. The Program’s remedy, outlined in the Portsmouth Site-wide Waste Disposition Record of Decision (ROD), is a combination of on-site and off-site disposal. The ROD was approved by DOE and concurred with by Ohio EPA in June 2015 after a formal, four-month public comment period.

Helen Pearson Bookplate Collection

The Helen Pearson collection consists of historic bookplates and related material donated to the library by local artist and musician Helen Pearson. Pearson gathered these bookplates from her travels, acquaintances, other collectors and membership in national and international bookplate societies. This collection is a treasure trove of history, art and ephemera.

The Pearson collection includes a large number of finely engraved bookplates. Many were created by professional engravers such as Charles S. Moncrieff or William Heatley of London and were intended to be mounted in books. Others were designed by Pearson and depicted scenes from Portsmouth or its environs. This collection also contains 14 original pen and ink drawings created by Pearson for the 1913 volume Vignettes of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

In addition to the bookplates, the collection includes several examples of manuscript ex-libris, printed and painted labels for books and a number of other items related to the study of bookplates. The collection also contains the complete run of twenty-two volumes (forty issues) of the Bookplate Society journal, which was originally edited by Professor William E. Butler and later by Brian North Lee and John Blatchly. These well-researched, scholarly articles provide much information about British and other bookplates that is still relevant today.

All bookplates are housed in small packets within acid free envelopes and arranged alphabetically by personal name, by name of institution, or by state/region where applicable. Information about the engravers or designers and the date of production are provided when available.

The collection also contains a number of books on the subject of bookplates, some of which are authored by Helen Pearson. These include:

Sarah Haven Foster Watercolors

The Library owns several albums containing nearly 1000 Sarah Haven Foster watercolors of buildings, landscapes and wild flowers painted locally or during her travels. The images are tiny, some the size of postage stamps. The watercolors are arranged into small groups of seven, titled “Sketches of Portsmouth,” and the individual paintings are dated and signed. Foster was born in 1827 and the daughter of John Welsh Foster, a prominent Portsmouth businessman involved in printing, bookselling, and bookbinding. Her father also served on the board of selectmen and as a deacon at South Meeting House. He was also the founder of the Portsmouth Athenaeum and helped to establish the Bank of Portsmouth.

In her early twenties Foster and her sister Mary took a series of summer trips to Europe, where she produced numerous watercolors of buildings and landscapes. She was particularly interested in the historic architecture of Germany, France and Italy.

A skilled artist and a dedicated local citizen, Foster worked on the project of writing and painting a guidebook to Portsmouth’s many historic homes and churches for much of her adult life. She was also active in philanthropic work and the Library’s collections include her diary and a number of her letters.

Foster’s guide book, A Portsmouth Guide Book was published in three editions between 1876 and 1880, and was an important contribution to the city’s tourism industry at a time when women rarely wrote books. Its popularity may have been due to its emphasis on the city’s unique historic structures.

Foster was a talented painter and her skill can be seen in the detail she gives to the buildings, as well as in the evocative landscapes. The realism of her work is softened by her use of color and light, making the scenes almost dreamlike. The sensitivity she brings to her subject matter and her skill in conveying narrative and emotion allow viewers to enter the scenes and feel part of the story.

Dorothy Sturgis Harding Christmas Cards

Dorothy Sturgis Harding was a bookplate designer, active in the Portsmouth art community and a member of several art and bookplate societies. She was born in Boston to Richard Clipston and Esther Ogden Sturgis, a prominent family of architects. She studied at Winsor School and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She married Lester William Harding in 1912. She and her husband owned and operated Martine Cottage, a house in Portsmouth. In addition, she worked as a draftsman at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard from 1942 to 1957.

The collection contains a series of 19 original Christmas cards that she illustrated in pen and ink on card stock from 1947 through 1976. Most of the cards depict local Portsmouth area views, including Martine Cottage. She also designed personal bookplates for famous people such as Norman Rockwell and Eleanor Roosevelt. The collection also includes photocopies of letters from 1908-1909, written by Samuel Langhorne Clemens to Dorothy Sturgis. John Cooley’s essay on these letters was published in Mark Twain’s Aquarium: The Angel Fish Correspondence (Boston, 1977).

Clemens met Dorothy Sturgis at the Princess Hotel in Bermuda in the spring of 1908. Sturgis was a seventeen-year old student at Winsor who had a strong desire to become an artist. He was impressed with her talent and encouraged her to pursue her interests. Upon her return to America, Clemens wrote to her that he had given her an angel-fish pin, a “tiny enamelled pin in the form and colors of the local marine beauty.”

She was invited to visit him at Stormfield in Redding, Connecticut in September 1908. On her way to his home, she stopped by the offices of Country Life magazine and showed him an illustrated burglar placard she had composed. The placard drew such praise that the magazine asked her to illustrate a few more and she was soon designing more for a regular feature of the magazine.

She continued to visit the Clemens’s at Tuxedo Park and he invited her to dinner in his honor at the Pleiades Club. He also enlisted her help in organizing a charity event for the American Society of Artists and later made her a member of his Aquarium Club. She and her mother frequently appeared in the social pages of The New York Times and were involved in social activities with many of the city’s elite.

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