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New Jersey Remembered: A Seventy-fifth Anniversary; Philadelphia Collection 75; October 2005
 
 
painting
 
Peter Caledon Cameron
(dates unknown)
Absecon Island, New Jersey
Watercolor on paper, 17 1/2 × 27 inches (sight)
Signed, dated, and inscribed at lower left: “ABSECON.ISLAND./ N.J—U.S.A/PCameron [initials conjoined]/1894”
Inscribed in ink on mount verso: “Sandhills on Absecon Island, Coast of New Jersey. U.S.A./painted on the spot from nature direct (no duplicates) in pure water colors./by P. Caledon Cameron./This scene depicts a piece of the best sand-dune region characteristic of the whole/coast of New Jersey State from Sandy Hook point in the North to Cape May Point in/the extreme south./The artist has travelled mostly on foot along the whole/extent of this coastline and here many of his best subjects have been found./In no other region of the world can be seen such marked evidences, as/here, of the building up of the continent from the wind-blown sands of the sea. It is/supposed that the land surface of the Earth is very slowly rising along this coast with/the effect of causing the sand-banks along shore to form into long narrow islands/which extend for hundreds of miles of outlying barrier on the east side of which the/Atlantic surf beats incessantly and on the west or inside of which are vast lagoons or/bays largely covered with a thick black vegetable deposit level with high tide./The sand-dunes travel in ridges or waves westward ultimately covering/the bays or drowned-lands (as Henrich Hudson called them) and these ridges of/Sand often assume very curious forms. The picture shows one which in a/few weeks totally disappeared as if removed by excavations, the wind alone having/performed the mysterious labor/price without frame $ 100.00/Note—This study was made for a setting for a large oil painting ‘Captain Kidd/burying his treasure’ which the artist has painted./It is well-known that Kidd when hard pressed unloaded his pirate booty from his/ship at Absecon Island. He did not reckon for the fact that the sandhills, in/time change their appearance and position; therefore his buried treasure has/never been re-located although many have searched for it.”

Peter Caledon Cameron was an accomplished artist whose identity has only just begun to emerge. The Schwarz Gallery has had about a dozen large watercolor landscapes he painted of southeastern Pennsylvania and the Atlantic County, including the five included in this exhibition. In addition, two of the artist’s winter views of Niagara Falls recently appeared on the art market.1 Cameron was born in England and, according to the inscriptions on two of these New Jersey watercolors, was certified as a British government art master in South Kensington, London, in 1883. This must have been at the National Art Training School, which was founded as the Government School of Design in 1837 and has been known as the Royal College of Art since 1896. In the inscription accompanying Gloaming on the Tuckerton Salt Marshes, the artist also identified himself as “diplomaed biologist,” but nothing is known of his scientific pursuits. Cameron exhibited one painting, Rising Storm Absecon Meadows, at the annual exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1902 and listed his address as 910 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. According to Who Was Who in American Art, he may also have exhibited in Washington, D.C. The artist’s typically lengthy inscriptions record topographical details, local history, and occasionally the meteorological conditions at the time he worked.

Cameron’s meticulously detailed technique and sometimes eerie lighting effects imbue his landscapes with a sense of heightened realism. He appears to have been something of an eccentric perfectionist who was deeply concerned with making as literal a transcription of nature as possible. For this reason he painted directly from nature, and he noted this to the point of redundancy by inscribing two of these watercolors with the phrases “painted on the spot from nature direct” or “Original Study from Nature (done on the spot).” Unfortunately this aesthetic was more in keeping with the past generation of American landscape painters and was completely out of fashion at the Pennsylvania Academy by the 1890s and early 1900s.

The first three watercolors in this group were all painted in 1894 and represent Absecon Island. The name Absecon is a corruption of the Indian word for “little water,” an allusion to the saltwater lake or bay northwest of Atlantic City. Absecon Creek, which forms the southern boundary of the town of Absecon, is about nine miles long and flows into Absecon Bay. According to the U.S. Census, Absecon had 530 permanent residents in 1900; the town was incorporated as a city in 1902. In addition to representing what Cameron called “a piece of the best sand-dune region characteristic of the whole coast of New Jersey State from Sandy Hook point in the North to Cape May Point in the extreme south,” Absecon Island, New Jersey served as the setting for a large oil painting, Captain Kidd Burying His Treasure (location unknown). Around 1698 the famous Scottish privateer Captain William Kidd sailed up the Atlantic Coast from the Caribbean to Boston, where he hoped to defend himself from charges of piracy. He stopped at a number of places in New Jersey (and elsewhere), where he was rumored to have buried a considerable treasure. Because pirates were known to have stopped at Cape May to obtain fresh water, it was rumored that Kidd had buried his treasure somewhere in that vicinity.

In Sandhills near Ventnor—Atlantic City Island, Cameron documented the appearance of the sand hills “before they were leveled to make the extension to Chelsea.” This was an allusion to the Camden and Atlantic Railroad Company’s new line that ran southward along the Atlantic, connecting Atlantic City to Chelsea Ward and nearby Ventnor City, ultimately extending down to Longport. Ventnor, located two miles below Atlantic City, became a popular resort and was incorporated as a city in 1903.

By his own testimony, Cameron commenced Sunset over the Salt Meadows in 1901 and kept taking the watercolor back to the site for the next seventeen years, watching “for similar sunset effects in order to make this as perfect as possible.” The Tuckerton Wireless Station was built by a German concern between 1912 and 1914, giving rise to the rumor that it was used for espionage. A history of the area states that “The site faced an uninterrupted sweep of the Atlantic and there was no electrical disturbance near it . . . Taken over by the federal government in World War I, this was later acquired by the Radio Corporation of America, which installed new equipment involving the erection of fourteen Marconi tubular masts each 305 feet high, to transmit messages to European cities as well as to communicate with ships at sea. The main mast is 778 feet high and weighs 250 tons.”2

The Professor Julius Nelson mentioned in Cameron’s inscription was a prominent biologist and authority on the oyster. He became biologist of the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station in 1888, after the New Jersey legislature enacted a law providing funds for the study of oyster culture. That same year Nelson became a professor of biology at Rutgers College (now Rutgers University) and remained there until his death. He was appointed the State Biologist of New Jersey by a special act of the state legislature in 1901. Cameron may well have known Nelson personally and been interested in his biological research.

Cameron explained that the primary object of Gloaming on the Tuckerton Salt Marshes was to capture one of the “beautiful, wonderful and gorgeous sunrises and sunsets . . . that frequently appear on these great dismal swamps.” He also intended this watercolor to serve as a scientific illustration for a book devoted a local phenomenon concerning the sea-grass he had studied for twenty years. Apparently he never wrote the book.


Notes

1. American Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture, Sotheby’s New York, May 19, 2004, nos. 64 and 65, pp. 98–99.

2. Harold F. Wilson, The Jersey Shore: A Social and Economic History of the Counties of Atlantic, Cape May, Monmouth, and Ocean (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1953), vol. 2, pp. 816–17.



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