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On the trail of a Cape Cod portrait artist

By Cate McQuaid, Globe Correspondent, 7/26/2003

BREWSTER -- Felicity and the fancy of a curious scholar have returned Giddings Hyde Ballou to Brewster, where he spent several years flirting with the young ladies of the Cape Cod town and earning his keep as an itinerant painter before the Civil War. His paintings of the good folk of Brewster, Chatham, and Truro can be seen in "With a Passion for Brush and Palette: Giddings H. Ballou and his Cape Cod Portraits, c. 1841-1861," at the Brewster Ladies' Library, opening Aug. 12.

Ellen St. Sure, a former English professor at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, came to Brewster to research a young ship captain who had a dramatic shipwreck. She was reading the memoir of Sarah Augusta Mayo's Brewster girlhood when she happened upon Ballou.

"She wrote that Mr. Ballou came from Medford, and he was an invalid, and he painted a number of portraits in Brewster," St. Sure says. "It was a flashing light for me. Where were these portraits? Who was Mr. Ballou?"

Mayo "mentions that he was witty, a bachelor," says St. Sure. "She and her friends, 12 young women of 19 and 20 years old -- and all the able-bodied boys went to sea at 16, so this was virtually an all-female town -- got together to found a library. A Harvard-educated schoolteacher shared a room with the painter, and these two helped raise money to establish a library." One hundred and fifty years after that library opened, it will be the site of the exhibition of Ballou's paintings. St. Sure continued to pursue information about the ship captain, but Ballou kept popping up. "It was a series of almost miraculous happenings," St. Sure says. "The real material on this painter fell into my hands when I wasn't looking for it."

When she contacted a local man about his ties to the captain, he mentioned that he had four portraits. They turned out to be of Brewster lawyer George Copeland and his family.

"The memoir mentioned that Mr. Ballou had boarded with Mr. Copeland, the town lawyer," St. Sure says. Itinerant painters, she adds, "were a dime a dozen. They would find a well-to-do family to live with, and then they would paint their landlords. I made the theoretical assumption that these were made by Ballou."

One day, St. Sure stopped in a Brewster antiques store. She saw 19th-century portraits on the wall and inquired of the dealer if she had heard of Ballou. She had not, but a year later St. Sure got a note from the dealer, who had come across an unframed painting with a paper receipt on the back that read "Jan. 14, 1841. Isaac Small of North Truro paid $10 to G.H. Ballou to paint his likeness."

Then, "an elderly man in Chatham sent me to the Chatham Museum," recalls St. Sure. "They had four or five portraits. After the Civil War, Ballou married a widow and spent the last 20 years of his life in Chatham."

The painter was the eldest son of Hosea Ballou II, the first president of Tufts University. He spent six years in Brewster. Unfortunately, the 1840s and '50s were dicey times for portrait painters. Daguerreotypes were becoming the fashion.

"He lost his profession when photography came in," says St. Sure. ". . . I found an ad Ballou put in local papers in 1850. He hadn't advertised before. He was evidently hurting."

In the ad, Ballou said he would make paintings of clients' daguerreotypes.

The researcher's most surprising discovery came when she found Ballou had painted portraits of her own ancestors. "I knew my maternal grandmother's family came from Eastham, Brewster, and New Bedford," says St. Sure, herself a native of California. She uncovered four portraits of her great-great-grandmother's family.

"My family lived across the street from the Copelands," St. Sure marvels.

The exhibition's catalogue suggests that Ballou was a good painter, if not a great one. Although he never gave up painting, he went on to write about the Civil War, and to teach school. Ballou died in 1886. St. Sure has yet to determine exactly why he was often referred to as an invalid.

"I found the house he lived in in Chatham," St. Sure says. "I've been in it. To think, he lived here, he painted here; his work was hanging on the wall. I think I would have liked him."

Cate McQuaid is a freelance writer who lives in Haverhill.

© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.