"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Saturday, May 6, 2017

“Elizabeth Bishop’s Beginnings” Permanent Exhibit: Concept

We all come from somewhere. Elizabeth Bishop wrote in her famous poem “The Moose” that she was “From narrow provinces / of fish and bread and tea,” that she grew up in a “home of long tides / where the bay leaves the sea / twice a day…” Of course, she meant, first and foremost, Nova Scotia, but also the Maritime Provinces generally, as she had ancestral links to all of the Maritimes. Her maternal grandfather was born in Nova Scotia. Her maternal grandmother was born in New Brunswick. Her paternal grandfather was born in Prince Edward Island (the narrowest province of them all). Though she herself was born in New England, where her father was born; Bishop’s spiritual home was Great Village, where her mother was born. She told the writer Anne Stevenson that she was three-quarters Canadian and one-quarter New Englander. She told Robert Lowell she was a "herring-choker" [New England] "bluenoser" [Nova Scotian].

In the class prophecy of her Walnut Hill School graduating yearbook (1930), her peers foresaw Bishop’s life in this way: “Miss Bishop, the poet laureate of Nova Scotia. Walnut Hill has proudly placed her bust in the alcove, while she remains in Nova Scotian seclusion.” In her 1934 Vassar College yearbook, she declared her home beneath her graduation photograph.
When the residents of Great Village affixed a memorial plaque to St. James United Church in 1992, they were publicly claiming that Bishop was our “home-made” poet, something the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia has celebrated and honoured for nearly a quarter of a century.
With this legitimate claim to Bishop’s life and art, it seemed reasonable to assert that Great Village is a, if not the, place of  “Elizabeth Bishop’s Beginnings” and to shape the permanent exhibit around this idea.

The exhibit will be a presentation of the most important element of those beginnings: Bishop’s maternal family, the Bulmer-Hutchinsons. It will include a set of images of Bishop and her immediate family, as well as carefully selected artefacts to represent each person.

Each image and artefact will have its own story-caption, which will be collected in a catalogue, copies of which will be on hand for those who want to delve into the details of the individuals’ lives.

For example, Bishop’s Great-Grandfather Robert Hutchinson, was, arguably, the ancestor who most intrigued Bishop.

All of Elizabeth Bishop’s ancestors were British (Bulmers, Hutchinsons, Bishops and Fosters) who made their way at different times to North America, from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries.

The Hutchinsons were some of the most colourful of these ancestors — seafarers, missionaries, educators and artists. Bishop was especially interested in her Great-Grandfather Robert Hutchinson (5 October 1816–30 September 1866).

Robert Hutchinson married Elizabeth Black sometime in the late 1840s. They emigrated to Saint John, N.B., in 1848. Their first two children were born in this port city. Sometime in the mid-1850s, the family moved to Folly Village (now Glenholme). Their remaining children were born in Nova Scotia.

The History of Great Village lists Robert as a “Master Mariner,” which did not necessarily mean he was a captain, though Bishop believed he was. He sailed on the ships that were built in nearby Great Village, which plied the world’s oceans, including as far south as Cape Horn, a site Bishop was told her great-grandfather reached on one of his voyages.

Seafaring was a dangerous business. The danger fatally found Robert Hutchinson in 1866 when his ship was lost at sea with all hands. Bishop was told the ship went down in a “famous storm” off Sable Island (though she also recalled it might have been Cape Sable Island). Whichever place it was, Robert Hutchison died leaving a young widow with four children.

So convinced was Bishop that the wreck had been off the infamous “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” that she made a trip to Sable Island in 1951.

The origin of this image is unknown, but in all probability, it is a drawing done by Robert’s artist son George W. Hutchinson.

Most of the material in the exhibit is found at the Esther Clark Wright Archives at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S. Some of the exhibit artefacts are on loan from there. The Bulmer family archive has been digitized and can be seen by clicking here.

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