AN EYE FOR THE COAST: The Maritime and Monhegan Island Photographs of Eric Hudson, by Earle G. Shettleworth Jr. and W.H. Bunting, with a foreword by Jamie Wyeth, Tillbury House, Gardiner, 212 pages, $25.
Eric Hudson arrived on Monhegan Island in 1897 for two reasons. He loved to sail and he loved to paint. When he dropped anchor in the harbor of the island off the coast of Maine, he knew he had found a jewel in the ocean. He was 35 at the time, a single man, an artist and committed seaman. Once back in Massachusetts, he quickly convinced his mother to build a home on the island. By 1899, the Hudsons were part of the summer colony of artists who made Monhegan one of the most famous painting spots at the turn of the century.
Hudson had another talent, too. He was a superb marine photographer who shot with an artist’s eye and a technician’s skill. His photographs might have gone undiscovered if not for the good luck and extensive efforts of Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. In 1992, while researching the works of 19th century photographer Edward Robinson, Shettleworth met Hudson’s daughter Jackie, who eventually invited him to look at her father’s glass negatives of Monhegan and maritime themes.
What he found in those boxes that day in 1993 is immortalized in “An Eye for the Coast: The Maritime and Monhegan Island Photographs of Eric Hudson,” published earlier this year by Tillbury House in Gardiner. Shettleworth writes, quite accurately in the opening section of the book, that the collection revealed “a wealth of new photographs, the subject matter and quality of which were spellbinding.”
Shettleworth combined his own interest in history with the expertise of William H. Bunting, a maritime and photographic historian, and the two have collaborated on this project. Their shared commitment and camaraderie are evident in the friendly and fluid juggling of captions each has provided for more than 100 photographs in this book.
“An Eye for the Coast” is divided into two sections. The first includes Hudson’s maritime photographs from his trips between harbors from New York to Maine. He does for boats what Alfred Stieglitz did for skyscrapers. He gives them imaginative presence, and makes them speak stories about storms and craftsmanship and lives that have flourished and perished at sea.
The second half of the book is devoted to scenes on Monhegan Island at the turn of the century. Many of the photos are as breathtaking as any watercolor by Winslow Homer, and almost all of them invite a reverie about the way life used to be way out there on a mile-long island in the fierce waters of the Atlantic.
The range of moments Hudson has captured with intriguing clarity is great. He shows fishermen purse seining from a dory. He shows informal gatherings of men and their children on the shore, a wagon pulling townspeople on the Fourth of July, Victorian women reading on the rocks, the crest of a powerful wave rolling through the harbor between Monhegan and the smaller Manana Island. In addition to depicting the moment at hand, the photographs also depict the life of a man who eschewed his background in accounting for the visual arts.
Shettleworth and Bunting sharpen the focus by providing meticulous as well as entertaining background information for each photo. For instance, they give the history of a famous Monhegan house “The Influence,” which in one version got its name from being a central spot for artists, and in another version had a secret cellar stocked with barrels of rum during Prohibition years (at least on the mainland!). Thus women would say their drinking husbands were “under The Influence.”
Equally enamoring is the story of Hudson and his wife, Gertrude Dunton, an independent woman from Massachusetts who built a house on Monhegan a year after the Hudsons. The two met on the island, discovered they shared many interests, and married after several years of courtship. They had two daughters, and returned to the island nearly every summer of their married life — living in Hudson’s house and reserving Dunton’s for visitors.
As with Hudson, who alone provides an alluring story of an artist in a time when artists were respected as such, the Hudson-Dunton romance is a tale that begs to be told in a longer version.
All this points to the same fact about “An Eye for the Coast”: It has fire in its pages for sailing buffs, photographers, painters, historians and dreamers. If you’ve been to Monhegan Island, this book will hold special meaning. You’ll feel you’ve stepped into a past you could only imagine after walking on the cliffs and through the cathedral woods there. If you’ve never visited Monhegan, “An Eye for the Coast” will romance you toward that beloved destination. Either way, take the time to sit with this book, to read every detailed analysis of the photos, and to step into the history of an artist, some boats and an island.