My Studio, A selection of plein air drawings by John A. Noble
On view in the Noble Library through December 2017
Hearkening back to John A. Noble’s early years exploring New York Harbor in his rowboat, the Noble Maritime Collection is featuring 23 drawings from that period in its new exhibition, My Studio: A selection of plein air drawings by John A. Noble, 1930-1950.
”These are his first, fresh takes on the Harbor landscape,” noted Erin Urban, Noble’s biographer and the Executive Director of the museum. “They show his unedited response to the world and the growth of his mastery in charcoal and pencil. He did hundreds of drawings in this fertile period, on the spot, in all kinds of weather conditions. He rarely parted with one of them and kept them as his personal resource file.”
All of the drawings are part of a major gift from the Noble Family. The museum has over 600 “rowboat drawings” in its collection, which also includes Noble’s lithographs, paintings, writings, and over 6,000 photographs that chronicle the maritime industry in New York Harbor in the last century.
My Studio takes the viewer to Port Johnston, the huge boneyard of abandoned vessels on the Kill Van Kull in Bayonne, New Jersey, where Noble set up a working studio beginning in 1939. He first saw Port Johnston at age 15 from the deck of the Anna Sophia on his first schooner trip in 1928, and he was astonished by what it symbolized. The sailing ships that lined the pier represented the waning days of the Age of Sail. It was a sight, he said, which affected him for life.
After returning from the trip, he went to the boneyard and befriended its watchman, Tillison Gorton. After Gorton died in 1939, Noble took over his job and began setting up the studio in the remnants of what he said had been “the teak saloon of a European yacht.” Fully restored, the houseboat studio is the centerpiece of the museum’s exhibitions.
Noble’s study of Port Johnston includes several views of the cabin studio, which was on the Port Johnston pier in 1939. But by the mid-1940s the pier began to collapse, and in order to save his studio, Noble was compelled to build a barge out of the wings of an abandoned Bethlehem Steel dry dock, “each one painfully loose,” he said. He brought the planks from Brooklyn to Port Johnston in his rowboat, and the cabin floated on the barge he built for it for the next more than 40 years. He later commented that he did not think there was anyplace else where he could draw. From the pier he launched his rowboat and roamed New York Harbor and its surrounding waterways.
My Studio includes examples of the fruits of those explorations, including drawings of two floating grain elevators owned and operated by International Elevating Company in around 1950, the three rail bridges at the mouth of the Hackensack River, and an abandoned “coal pocket” in the upper reaches of Newton Creek around 1935.
The museum’s publications include John A. Noble: The Rowboat Drawings by Erin Urban, which is on sale in the museum shop and includes drawings in the My Studio exhibition.
This exhibition was funded, in part, by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.