September 14 was the three hundredth birthday of Boston Light, a lighthouse on the Harbor Islands in Boston. It was the first lighthouse built in what would be the United States. The original tower on the location was blown up by the British when they withdrew from Boston in 1776, and the second one, built in 1783, is the second oldest working lighthouse in the United States. I’ve lived in the Boston area for almost 20 years, and been to the Boston Harbor islands a couple of times, but I’ve never been to Little Brewster Island where Boston Light is located. I think you have to take a special ferry, although it is open to the public with tours by the lighthouse keeper, making it also the only lighthouse left in the United States with a resident keeper. It wasn’t automated until 1998, the last working lighthouse in the US to be automated.
That’s a lot of “firsts” and other noteworthiness, and I thought its tercentennial was a good time to see what relief block prints I could find of this historic structure. Alas, I didn’t find as much as I’d hoped - it isn’t really a particularly famous lighthouse, considering all its claims to fame. Not so many people visit it as more accessible lights, and it hasn’t had much drama since it was reignited after World War II. Still, it’s a classic lighthouse on a scenic little island, and I hope it’s receiving plenty of love on its 300th birthday.
So, what have I got? I’m charmed by this rough little block print of the lighthouse keeper waving a flag at the passing ship. (At least, I hope it’s passing and not heading smack into the rocks. It’s hard to tell.) Although the lighthouse and the keeper are both pretty rough, the ships has lots of detail, as do the waves, and there are even gulls flying around the rigging. The odd sun looks downright hieroglyphic. Is it meant to indicate that the sun’s rays are all being blocked by clouds?
The first engraving dates to when the second tower was brand new. Only small boats are around, but you can see the keeper standing at the base of the tower with a telescope, perhaps seeing what vessels are on their way. In the second engraving the keeper is not at work, but fishing off the rocks. Of course I don’t really know if this is meant to be the keeper, but there are records that the lighthousekeepers enjoyed excellent fishing from Little Brewster Island. I can’t find a date for this one, but my personal guess based on style is second half of the 19th century. There is one technical printmaking detail to note: in the bottom center there is a blot poking up above a rock. Clearly some little speck of dried ink or other foreign matter got onto the plate during printing, causing the characteristic black spot surrounded by white.
And finally, a modern depiction of the Boston Light today, and certainly the most interesting view. I’m sorry there isn’t a better image of this wood block print by Kathleen Tannian Sheehan. I wonder whether she used a photo taken from a plane. I don’t remember seeing the Boston Light while flying in or out of Boston, but it’s certainly plausible that some flight paths would go right past it. I’m always trying to think of new ways to show things that artists have already shown many times before, and I think it’s a great idea to give a gull’s-eye view of a lighthouse.
[Pictures: An early cut of Boston Light, woodcut reproduced in 1895 (Image from Library of Congress);
Boston Light, 1788, copper engraving from Massachusetts Magazine, February 1789 (Image from United States Coast Guard);
The Outer Lighthouse, Boston Harbor, copper engraving (Image from US Coast Guard);
Boston Light, woodcut by Kathleen Tannian Sheehan, c. 2015 (Image from Deviant Art).]