Thomas Clarkson Oliver
By D. Roger Howlett
Thomas Clarkson Oliver (1827-1892) was born in Lynn, Massachusetts in 1827, the youngest son of Stephen Oliver and Sarah (Newhall) Oliver. As a young man he worked in the shoe industry in Lynn as a "clicker" or cutter, in a family owned business.
Oliver studied painting with William Bradford, who had painted in the Lynn and Nahant area in the 1850s. Most of Oliver's paintings were of marine subjects, ships riding in a storm being a favorite theme. Most of Oliver's works were in color, however in his later years he worked in black and white or grisaille. Many of his paintings were sold to private collectors, and he participated often in Lynn painting exhibitions. A Lynn Item article claimed Oliver's work "for years was handled by exclusive dealers in Boston." Between 1881 and 1890 he exhibited in Boston Art Club exhibitions. He was a reserved person who worked diligently on his paintings and had a love for literature and philosophy. His last exhibited work was in 1890 at the Boston Art Club Exhibition, two years before his death in Amesbury, Massachusetts.
Oliver's painting career began in the 1860s and by 1869. Oliver regularly received favorable notices in the Lynn papers. They described him as “a producer of sketches and small marine paintings,”[i] and noted with evident pleasure that the Boston papers were also reviewing Oliver for “a striking picture of a scene of our bay.”[ii] Oliver’s work in Lynn and Boston exhibitions was regularly reviewed throughout the 1870s.[iii] “Mr. T. Clark Oliver of this city, is acquiring a deservedly high reputation for the excellence of his artistic productions,” The Lynn Transcript noted in 1877. “His pictures and sketches of country and shore scenery in both oil and India ink, have been highly approved by competent critics and are meeting a ready sale in Boston. Mr. Oliver is painstaking and truthful in his work and many of his sketches have an historic as well as artistic value.”[iv]
By the early 1880s, a group of Lynn natives including Thomas Clarkson Oliver (1827-92), Charles Edwin Lewis Green (1844-1915), Nathaniel Berry (1859-1929), and Charles Herbert Woodbury (1864-1940) joined several other artists including Edward Burrill (1835-1913), Edward A. Page (1850-1928), and Bradford’s student William Partridge Burpee (1846-1940) to form a group that may be termed the Lynn Beach Painters. All of them had grown up by the Atlantic Ocean and had the opportunity to know the oceangoing men of their day, the sailors of the transoceanic ships and the fishermen who risked all in their tiny dories on the sea. A respect for the ocean and shore life may have united the seven artists who painted Lynn beach scenes regularly in the decade and a half between 1882 and 1897.
This group formed the most cohesive “school” of painters in either the nineteenth or twentieth centuries that developed in Lynn. The members of this group had various connections. Many of them, including Oliver, Page, Green, and Berry, had worked in the shoe and leather industry and used the money they had made and their artistic ability to find another profession. Three of them, Berry, Oliver, and Burrill, had adjoining studios in Lee Hall at City Hall Square in Lynn. All of these artists showed their work, and most were regular exhibitors at the Boston Art Club from the 1880s through 1909; there they were able to meet at openings, lunch, dinner, and other club events.
In 1880, Clark Oliver submitted to the enhanced art department of the Essex County Agricultural Society Fair held at Lynn. “The exhibit in the art gallery contained fine specimens of oil paintings and crayon drawings, prominent among the former being those of Messrs. Edward B. Stewart and Clark Oliver,” the Lynn Transcript reported on October 2. When the prizes were handed out, Woodbury took a two-dollar prize for crayon drawing and a two-dollar prize for a combination of an oil painting and a large crayon drawing; T. Clark Oliver received three dollars for “oil painting sepia and India ink drawing”, Edward B. Stewart received two dollars for “oil paintings and crayon”; and N. L. Berry received one dollar for crayon portraits.[v] This county show is the earliest known exhibition of three of the artists that would form the Lynn Beach Painters. Unfortunately the subjects of the oil paintings are not known.
In the month of December 1880 at an exhibition at Silas A. Barton’s Market Street store, Edward Burrill submitted three works, an oil painting, a watercolor, and a “crayon” picture; Clark Oliver and C. E. L Green each submitted one work. Burrill took first prize in professional oil, watercolor and crayon; Oliver took second prize in professional oil for a painting described as “Galloupe’s Point . . . smaller [than Burrill’s] but a perfect gem of marine art in which the touch of a master cannot be mistaken.”[vi]
All of the Lynn painters should have been attracted to the November 1881 exhibition of twenty-two of William Bradford’s paintings of the Arctic and Yosemite at the galleries of Williams and Everett, art dealers, in Boston. Oliver especially would have noted this exhibition, since he had studied with Bradford. A reviewer of the show noted Bradford’s prolonged absence from the Northeast by stating that Bradford had bought the ship Panther thirteen years earlier, and had spent seven years in the Arctic and then six summers in Yosemite. Bradford’s absence had not, however, prevented Lynners from following his career. In June 1871 the Lynn press noted that Bradford was being honored in England:
William Bradford, the artist, who is now on a visit to England, has been received with distinguished honor by his brother artists there. At a grand reception given him at the Langham Hotel in London a few evenings since, there were present the Duke of Argyll, the Marquis of Lorne, the Princess Louise, Sir Henry Rawlinson, Mr. Ruskin and other celebrities in the world of art and science . . . It will be very gratifying to Mr. Bradford’s numerous friends in this vicinity to know that his talents as an artist, as well as his labors in the cause of science, are appreciated on the other side of the water.[vii]
Bradford had taken the fruits of his first voyage on the Panther to London and achieved a signal success. A reviewer of the 1881 Boston exhibition might have been describing many of Bradford's students' William P. Burpee's or Oliver’s Luminist paintings when he wrote of Bradford’s picture, “The vivid rose-color and deep magentas multiplied in quantity by the water reflections make the pictures glow like coal fires.”[viii] Oliver and Burpee had both been students of Bradford. Oliver was listed in the Lynn City Directory as a marine painter as early as 1863. It is probable that he studied with Bradford when Bradford was working in Lynn in the late 1850s.
On April 28, 1881 Clark Oliver sent a black-and-white drawing, South Easter, (and had sent the drawing Coast Scene the previous year) to the twenty-seventh exhibition of watercolors and drawings at the Boston Art Club,[ix] both were offered at twenty-five dollars. Homer sent a drawing — probably from his new home in Prout’s Neck, Maine— A Young Driver (twenty five dollars), and a watercolor, Fishing Fleet Coming In (five hundred dollars). Childe Hassam was represented in the same exhibition with a black-and-white illustration Harbinger of Spring — In the City and in the Country, and a watercolor, Bit of Autumn offered at fifty and thirty-five dollars respectively. Oliver was at least attempting to place himself on the same price plane as the well-established Homer and the younger but well-reviewed Hassam. Hassam had first exhibited at the Boston Art Club in the January exhibition and continued to place work in most of the oil and watercolor exhibitions at the club during the 1880s.
A letter to the editor of the Lynn Transcript on January 22, 1886, suggested that Lynn was a hard market for an artist.
Home talent, real merit, good results, genuine success in art: — are they recognized and appreciated in Lynn? … For twenty years and more the writer has been in the habit of looking in upon art exhibitions in Boston and thus has got something of an idea of good work, and without claiming to know very much about such things, or professing to be able to describe the good or bad qualities of a picture, still feels that he has learned to recognize a good thing when he sees it.
Such being the case, I was induced to ask one of these artists if he got a fair patronage from our own city, and his answer was not such as to show that his labors were satisfactorily appreciated. But perhaps we should remember the old saying, “A prophet is not without honor save in his own country.” My object, therefore, in writing thus much is to call more particular attention of our citizens to our fellow townsmen, and I feel assured that when our well-to-do and art-loving people fully appreciate their work, more of the parlors and halls of our city will be decorated by the pictures of T. Clark Oliver, Edward Burrill, Jr. and Charles E. L. Green.
As if in response to this somewhat challenging letter, the First Congregational Church of Lynn set aside an “Art Room” at its church fair on March 31 and April 1, 1886. According to the Lynn Transcript, the room was “decorated with Oriental draperies by Mr Wildes of Boston, and upon exhibition and sale will be some of the best works of well-known artists of Lynn and Boston. The following artists will be represented: C. E. L. Green, C. R. Grant, E. Burrill, Jr., J. F. Rock, Clark Oliver, C. S. Huskins, E. A. Page, C. H. Woodbury, E. B. Stewart and others. Many valuable paintings will also be loaned from choice collections in this city.”[x]
Included in this exhibition of Lynn and Boston painters were five Lynn Beach Painters, among them Edward A. Page, who had moved to Lynn three years earlier. Burrill, Green, and Oliver were represented as were Clement R. Grant (1849-93), J. Foxcroft Cole, Frederick P. Vinton, and James F. Rock. The show also featured marine paintings by William Bradford. Page showed Lynn Beach; Burrill On Guard, Our Grandmother’s Days, and Cow; Clark Oliver Marine, Bailey’s Hill, Marine View, Hauling the Net, After the Storm, Marine, and the Alabama and Kearsarge; and Green showed Peasant Girl.[xi]
An Art Exhibition and Fair at the Lynn Young Women’s Christian Temperance Union, took place on March 23 and 24, 1887 in the hall in Valpey and Anthonys’ Building, 61 Central Avenue. The paintings in the WCTU show were all by “local professional artists,” and the list included Edward Burrill, N. L. Berry, T. Clark Oliver, and E. A. Page.[xii]
Clark Oliver was enjoying success in a local venue. Oliver had exhibited drawings of marine subjects in the Boston Art Club watercolor and drawing exhibitions in April 1881, 1882, and 1884. In March 1888 Oliver presented a collection of his oil paintings in the window of W. C. Robinson’s store on Market Street in Lynn. The "two color" work was undoubtedly some of his oil studies in black and white or grisaille. The Lynn Transcript reported on March 9:
They embody as specimens the best forms of Mr. Oliver’s long and patient study, both in color, figure and light and shade; and we do not exaggerate in saying that in the marine subjects, decidedly, and possibly as well in landscapes, he has placed himself side by side with some of the best painters of the day.
In his pieces in two color work, he gains all the effect that we desire in the finest steel engraving; while he of course avoids all of the unnatural network of lines that mere engraving can never be free from. Yet Mr. Oliver is no mere crayon worker, but handles color with all the freedom and thought of a veteran. No one can fail to notice the delicate atmosphere that he hangs over his backgrounds, nor the remarkable play of the afterglow in the two sunset pieces in this set. All that know his work somewhat will attest the profound and terrible suggestiveness that appears in the deep-water foregrounds . . . Altogether, the collection does its author credit and we hope it may help his to well-merited success.
The Boston Art Club exhibition from April 5 to 26, 1890 included Clark Oliver’s black-and-white drawing, Abandoned, and Woodbury’s black-and-white drawings, Dandelion Gatherers and Break-Neck Stair, Quebec. The September – October 1890 Triennial Exhibition of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association included Burpee’s Return at Low Tide, Swampscott and Clark Oliver’s Moonlight and Misty Morning.
On June 24, 1892, T. Clark Oliver died in Amesbury, Massachusetts, the second of the seven Lynn Beach Painters to be removed from the group. As the only one of the Lynn Beach Painters to live wholly within the nineteenth century, it was perhaps fitting that he was memorialized with a fifty-four line elegiac poem. In part it read:
O Painter! upon the canvas of thy life
God spread many glowing hues,
And if the sapphire tints forbidding
Shadows cast at times,
‘Twas only that the shining peaks
Might stand the bolder forth,
And through the fervor of thy
Endow thine own creations
With their excellence,—
O Teacher! by reason’s paths
Thy philosophic mind didst
Search for truth;
And when thou wast rewarded by
That rare knowledge which thy
Earnestness had won,
Thou freely gave to others;
And some there are today
Who feel thy thought was golden . . .[xiii]
Oliver was a teacher as well as a painter, as the poem noted. All of the other Lynn Beach Painters were as well. Not only had Oliver and Burrill taught many of the Lynn Beach Painters, but each of them would help to teach another generation of Lynn marine artists.
(Extracted and Edited from The Lynn Beach Painters: Art along the North Shore 1880-1920 by D. Roger Howlett; the Lynn Historical Society, Lynn, Massachusetts, 1998.)
[i] “A Relic of the Past,” The Lynn Transcript, July 10, 1869, 2.
[ii] “Gems of Art,” The Lynn Transcript, Nov. 13, 1869, 2.
[iii] The Lynn Transcript, Oct. 18, 1871, 2; “Pencillings by T.C. Oliver,” The Lynn Transcript, Jan. 20?21, 1872, 2.
[iv] The Lynn Transcript, Feb. 10, 1877, 2.
[v] “The County Fair,” Lynn Transcript, Oct. 2, 1880.
[vi] “Lynn Art Exhibition” (1880) in the Charles H. Woodbury “Black Book.” The “Black Book” is the scrap book kept by Charles and Marcia Oakes Woodbury and is currently in the possession of Mrs. David Woodbury.
[vii] Lynn Semi-Weekly Reporter, June 17, 1871, 2.
[viii] Alpha in Art Amateur 6 (November 1881) 115.
[ix] Janice H. Chadbourne, Karl Gabosh, and Charles O. Vogel, The Boston Art Club: Exhibition Record (1873-1909), (Madison, Conn.: Sound View Press, 1991). Unless otherwise noted all detailed information on Boston Art Club exhibitions is from this source.
[x] “Art Exhibition at the First Congregational Church,” Lynn Transcript, Mar. 26, 1886, 2.
[xi] Catalogue of Post 5, G.A.R. Loan Art Exhibition in Aid of Charity Fund [Lynn] 1887.
[xii] “Art Exhibition and Fair,“ Lynn Transcript, March 18, 1887, 2.
[xiii] Ellen F. Wetherell “In Memoriam: T. Clark Oliver,” Lynn Transcript July 1, 1892, 2.