The simple, austere lines and curves that convey the unmistakable sense of steadfast swiftness and strength of a Bellamy eagle—with wings outstretched, often clutching a shield or flags, and brandishing banners—evoke the character and ideals of the American nation in a way no artist prior to its creator, John Haley Bellamy (1836–1914), had envisioned. Not since the 1982 publication of lay historian Yvonne B. Smith’s John Haley Bellamy, Carver of Eagles, has this popular carver’s life and work been examined. This has now changed with the retrospective exhibition and accompanying publication, American Eagle: The Bold Art and Brash Life of John Haley Bellamy, which examines the career of this celebrated American woodcarver in depth.
Hitherto overlooked aspects of his career, involving his crafting of furniture, Masonic-themed carvings, mechanical inventions, and works of pure whimsy present a broader picture of the man, revealing him to have been an infinitely more diverse and talented artist than previously described.
The son of a housewright, boat builder, and inspector of timber, Bellamy was born in the seaside community of Kittery, Maine. Through the example of his ambitious father, Charles Gerrish Bellamy, he gained his first exposure to the woodcarver’s vocation. When the time arrived to leave home, John Haley Bellamy apprenticed to an established woodcarver. Despite older claims that Boston woodcarver Laban S. Beecher was his master, Bellamy was actually trained by Samuel Dockum in neighboring Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Dockum was a house and ship carver, who made everything from coffins to rocking chairs to the finish work on many Piscataqua River-built clipper ships. Bellamy’s apprenticeship likely lasted six years; beginning sometime after 1851, when he began working for Dockum at the age of fifteen, to 1857.
His most celebrated creation was the USS Lancaster eagle figurehead. Conceived and carved between December 1879 and August 1881, the majestic eagle is Bellamy’s magnum opus. It is as much a feat of engineering as a work of art, given the challenges of holding intact this three-thousand-pound gilded pine carving with an eighteen-foot wingspan atop the bow of a warship subjected to the unforgiving oceanic environment for over twenty years.
Bellamy’s first eagle carving commissions were for large eagles in the round or long, wide forms for commercial and civic clients. Placed conspicuously in areas of high traffic, these eagles provided Bellamy with an income and popularized another type of eagle carving he had conceived in Charlestown. Known today as the “Bellamy eagle,” these two-foot-wide painted plaques are among the most celebrated and instantly recognizable pieces of Americana.
Easily transportable, affordably priced (only one or two dollars apiece), and sporting any number of political, fraternal, religious, holiday, and personal sentiments, from “Don’t Give Up the Ship,” to “Merry Christmas!” The Bellamy eagle easily appealed to a wide and diverse clientele. His was an artistic vision that has defied changing temperaments and fashions. To gaze into the fierce eye of a Bellamy eagle is to look into the very soul of the American nation.