Stobart at Noble

 Artist John Stobart in his youth. PHOTO: Kensington-Stobart Gallery

Artist John Stobart in his youth. PHOTO: Kensington-Stobart Gallery

In October, 1976 while working for the National Maritime Historical Society, Bob Murphy, good friend of the museum, invited Noble to be in an exhibition at the National Boat Show.  Noble demurred.  “The work of these sailboat and historical buffs probably has its place, but I really hate like the devil to be confused with them,” he wrote.  “I draw only contemporary things—things I have seen and which I may have the background to interpret.  Remember I am the boy in the rowboat with two oars and one pencil.” 

Shortly thereafter, disappointed that he would not participate in the Boat Show, Stobart, who was part of it, wrote to Noble, “I’ve always thought a great deal of your work and would have been glad to have the honour of meeting you.  I gather you have some pretty severe criticism of the full-sail, clipper-ship types—in which case I guess I admire you for taking a stand.”  He invited him to put work in the gallery in Georgetown he was opening with his friend Malcolm Henderson—“an extremely attractive place on the old canal (Chesapeake & Ohio).”

Again Noble demurred.  “May I confess to you in all humility that exhibiting in a maritime gallery is a thing I have a slight fear of.  Believe it or not—I have only tried to do contemporary scenes that meant a great deal to me as best I could on a lithographic stone.  (Though in my case ‘contemporary’ goes back a bit, and I did know upward of 175 sailing vessels.)  But in the last few years yachtsmen, historians, semi-historians, and sail buffs have begun to plague me with questions…that sort of put a layer of dry dust over my endeavors.  Most of my time has been devoted to attempting a decent composition, not to record history....  The fancy Sealand calendar listed me as dead, and I have been taken for something out of the Civil War period.”

 John Stobart,  San Pedro:     The Bark  Vidette  Towing into Port at Sunrise in 1890 , oil on canvas, 1983;  courtesy of Kensington Galleries.

John Stobart, San Pedro:The Bark Vidette Towing into Port at Sunrise in 1890, oil on canvas, 1983; courtesy of Kensington Galleries.

Back came a scrawled letter from Stobart in February.  He enclosed a catalog of Henderson’s etchings and a catalog of his own limited edition prints—“I tremendously admire the originality and power of your things which will prove, I know, to be a finer document than any others being done today.”  He asked Noble if he “could spare a copy or two of your lithographs.  We’d be honored to have them.”

On March 3 Noble responded, confessing, “It came as a deserved shock to me last week when for the first time I saw the truly magnificent quality of your work in South Street.”  He admired Henderson’s catalog—“Opening it up was like coming home to old friends,” and readily agreed to send “anything I have—for with such company…I would hang in a junk shop or a dark dripping cellar.”

The friendship that began then eventually engendered Stobart at Noble.  The renowned maritime painter has been a generous Trustee of the museum for 17 years.  In 2003 he staged a retrospective of his work here, and today his paintings and small pencil drawings grace our library.  Noble would have been enraptured.

-Erin Urban

REVIEW of "Perspective: Robbins Reef"

New book illuminates colorful New York lighthouse history
A review by Michael J. Fressola, art critic and guest contributor

 On the book cover is a detail of Pamela Talese's 2015 oil on panel,  The Barbican of the Kill van Kull.

On the book cover is a detail of Pamela Talese's 2015 oil on panel, The Barbican of the Kill van Kull.

Perspective: Robbins Reef, the latest book published by the Noble Maritime Collection, is a history of the 133-year old lighthouse (just off the Island’s North Shore), an exhibit catalogue, and an illustrated progress report.

Adopted by the museum, Robbins Reef was pretty careworn by 2011 when the museum signed the deed.  Nineteen months later, a 32-foot seawater surge—Superstorm Sandy slammed the place, wreaking havoc. Fortunately, the damage was reparable. Other harbor beacons didn’t weather the onslaught.  Old Orchard was obliterated. Romer Shoal Light was severely compromised.

Today Robbins Reef is a work in progress. Every few weeks, a volunteer work detail sails out to paint, scrape walls, clean, and make repairs.  Restored windows have been installed.  When all is shipshape again, tours and educational programs will be launched there.

The place has history.  Arguably, no lighthouse in the area has quite such a compelling backstory.  Researched by the Collection’s founding director Erin Urban and curator Megan Beck, the story centers on the indefatigable Kate Walker (1848-1931), the keeper who made her home in the light for 33 years and raised her family there singlehandedly.

While photographs depict a tiny, 4’10” woman in ladylike Victorian attire, hers was hardly a genteel life.  Before electrification, oil lamps provided the guiding light and they required refilling every few hours.  An uninterrupted night’s sleep? All but impossible.

Walker, widowed at 42, inherited the job from her husband.  She made her own repairs, braved all kinds of weather, and rescued 50 shipwrecked people during her tenure.  And guess who rowed the kids back and forth to Staten Island to school.  Still her lighthouse home had all the comforts of the day, including a phonograph (she liked Caruso).  She entertained friends and family there.  Within the harborscape, Robbins Reef occupies prime real estate.  Situated picturesquely at the mouth of the Kill van Kull, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, it figured in prints and paintings produced by marine artists.

  Perspective: Robbins Reef  includes a history of the lighthouse and its most famous keeper, Kate Walker and her family. It is also a catalogue for the exhibition  Robbins Reef Lighthouse: A Home in the Harbor , and features color reproductions of all the art in the show, including Kathy Krantz Fieramosca’s oil on linen,  Homage to Kate Walker .

Perspective: Robbins Reef includes a history of the lighthouse and its most famous keeper, Kate Walker and her family. It is also a catalogue for the exhibition Robbins Reef Lighthouse: A Home in the Harbor, and features color reproductions of all the art in the show, including Kathy Krantz Fieramosca’s oil on linen, Homage to Kate Walker.

As a catalogue, Perspective documents the exhibit Robbins Reef Lighthouse: A Home in the Harbor (through 2017).  Original furnishings recreate the round-roomed Walker household. What fun to be a child in such a setting.

As a fine-art showcase, the book includes historic depictions like Sunset, New York Bay, painted by the gifted Hudson River School romantic Edward Moran (1829-1901).  Moran presented the lighthouse gloriously backlit in a golden sunset.  With more realistic intentions, Noble drew the place quickly and fluidly at eye level, while rowing himself around the harbor.

New works of art, commissioned by the museum and exhibited during the run of A Home in the Harbor, amplify the viewer’s sense of Robbins Reef and deepen the acquaintance with Kate Walker.  Among the participants are museum trustee and noted marine artist John Stobart, R.A., and William Behnken, N.A., Michael Falco, Kathy Krantz Fieramosca, Elle Finn, DB Lampman, Michael McWeeney, Denise Mumm, Roger Sherry, Stephen Szoke (a descendant of Kate Walker), Bascove, and Sarah Yuster.

The 97-page soft-cover book, handsomely designed by Assistant Director Ciro Galeno, Jr. and written by Erin Urban, is available at the museum or through its digital bookstore.

Light, Tight, and Bright

The Noble Crew in action at Robbins Reef Lighthouse

 This restored window is located in the curved stairwell, outside the sitting room.  Stripped of a century’s worth of paint, the window casement and sill are made of oldgrowth heart pine. PHOTO: Peter Yuschak

This restored window is located in the curved stairwell, outside the sitting room.  Stripped of a century’s worth of paint, the window casement and sill are made of oldgrowth heart pine. PHOTO: Peter Yuschak

Last summer and fall were productive at Robbins Reef.  With the help of the folks at Miller’s Launch and the skill of their great captains diving through wakes, we went out often.  We restorated eight casement windows that had been shrouded in plywood and steel since the Coast Guard automated the light in 1966. The round rooms on the first three levels and the landings in the stairwell are full of light. It is astonishing.

With funds from the New York Landmarks Conservancy, coupled with matching funds from the museum’s art auction and the extraordinary help of the Noble Crew under the supervision of craftsman Roger Sherry, we ground down and painted the exterior casements, removed the paint from the interior casements, and removed the windows. Sherry then brought them to his studio in Virginia to restore them. As expected, the window frames and the old-growth heart-pine interior casements and sills had withstood salt air since 1883. Most of the glass is intact, and some panes have a faint pattern of light-blue pitting. The copper slides, the tracks the windows travel up and down in, and original pins that hold the windows open that we carefully retrieved are testaments to 19th century craftsmen.

The light that fills the kitchen, sitting room, and Kate’s bedroom is amplified by the walls and ceilings, which we scraped and painted white. Kate said she had to keep the place “bright with paint,” and we will too. We also removed the interior doors and stripped them. (Try doing that in a place with no running water). Under the many layers of paint dating back to Kate’s time we found heart pine and oak.

We are so grateful to Crew members Gerry Barton, Andrew Blancero, Cooper, Laura Kennedy, Greg Orlando, Peter Patron, Barbara Pezzengrilli, Tim Pouch, Annie Rech, Nan Smith, Chris Steffins, Damon Urban, and Lisa and Peter Yuschak—and to our trustees Brian De Forest, Kevin Mahoney, Eileen Montanez, and Sam Turvey. They endured some mighty dirty weather!


Lighthouse Log Book is a series of stream of consciousness writings by Executive Director Erin Urban after each Crew date at Robbins Reef.  It’s informal and meant to impart a sense of the energy of the volunteers and the work they accomplish in regular seven-hour workdays to Robbins Reef Lighthouse.