Most of the early Portsmouth touring books include photographs, but Helen Pearson did something different. Her 1913 "Vignettes of Portsmouth" featured her warm evocative pencil sketches. The little booklet of nearly two dozen images appeared as a cloth-covered paperback with text by Harold Hotchkiss Bennett. Although many of the images have re-appeared in articles and books since, to our knowledge, it has never been reprinted. Because it was a delicate booklet, copies show up only rarely in used book stores.
Little information is known about Pearson who died in Portsmouth in 1949. Nonagenarian Dr. Dorothy Vaughan, who began work at the Portsmouth Public Library in 1921 knew Pearson. "I used to call on her," Vaughan told SeacoastNH.com. "She was a delightful woman with a sort of a flourish. She had a hot house in the back of her home on Broad Street where she lived with her brother Dan. They raised wonderful flowers, sold them, I think, for weddings and funerals, back before there were florists like today."
According to Vaughan, brother Dan Pearson (neither married) may have been an inventor. He reportedly designed the mechanism for coupling railroad cars that may have provided the income for the Pearsons. While Dan was highly mechanical, sister Helen was artistic and had attended art school in Boston.
It is worth speculating whether Helen Pearson had met the "grandmother of Portsmouth tourism" Sarah Foster, whose Civil War-era pocket guide to Portsmouth historic houses was a runaway bestseller locally. Foster, like Pearson, had painted the region's historic homes and both also had a passion for painting flowers. Foster lived on Richards Ave. near Broad Street, never married, and was struck and killed by one of the town's first trolley cars in 1900.
Pearson may have been carrying Foster's work into the next century. Pearson bequeathed the original images in "Vignettes" to the Portsmouth Public Library where they remain today, archived on the same shelf as the original oil paintings of her predecessor Sarah Foster. The work of both artists deserves to be rediscovered, reprinted, studied and displayed.
In this online gallery of Pearson's work we have included, not only the pencil images from "Vignettes", but also some of the accompanying text from the original booklet. Where possible, we have also included links to other pages on this web site that relate to the images shown.
By J. Dennis Robinson
"Vignettes" of Downtown Portsmouth
© 1999 SeacoastNH.com
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