The Two Nautical Instruments in North Square

Recently installed public art gives visitors a glimpse of Boston’s past and draws inspiration from the children’s book One April in Boston

by Ben Edwards  | 01.17.20

In colonial Boston, the North End was home to mariners and sea captains, one of whom was my sixth-great-grandfather, Captain Benjamin Edwards. Born in England in 1685, he came to Boston with his mother Sarah when he was a teenager and began to work aboard sailing ships. Benjamin was married on December 10, 1706, just five days short of his 21st birthday, by Doctor Cotton Mather at the Second Church in North Square. It was his first of three marriages. He served as captain of his own vessel as early as 1713. Captain Edwards had ten children; four died in infancy. His ninth child, Dolling Edwards, worked as a mastmaker at a shipyard in the North End. His son Ben, the main character in my children’s book One April in Boston, inherits his grandfather’s spyglass in the story and uses it to glimpse the future. In the opening scene, 10-year-old Ben Edwards, with spyglass in hand, strides through North Square, past the Second Church, and toward Paul Revere’s silver shop near Hancock’s Wharf.

I spend a lot of time in the North End and especially in North Square, having served on the Board of Directors of the Paul Revere Memorial Association (which owns and operates the Paul Revere House) for 20 years, thanks to a decision one of my ancestors made over 200 years ago to marry into the Revere family. Spoiler alert for the book: Ben’s sister Sally Edwards married silversmith Paul Revere Jr. on July 25, 1782.

As a private tour guide in Boston for the past 16 years, I was excited to learn that a renovation of North Square would begin in 2017. That year, a $350,000 redesign of Rachel Revere Park across the street from the Paul Revere House was completed. A renovation of the square itself, a $2.5 million project, began with a groundbreaking ceremony in October 2017. Work included resetting all the granite paving stones, making it more accessible for people with physical challenges, aligning the street grades, reinstalling the nautical chains that border the triangular square, and adding four pieces of public art. The commission for the art was awarded in April 2017 to Ann Hirsch and Jeremy Angier of A+J Art+Design. When the ideas for their North Square Stories art project were released, I was particularly intrigued by one of the sculptures initially described as “An Interactive Maritime InstrumentAn imaginative nautical device enables viewers to peer through a scope at a North Square scene from another era.”

I reached out to Ann and Jeremy by email congratulating them on their commission, noting my interest in their project, and mentioning my family’s connection to the North End and its maritime history. I also brought up the spyglass in One April in Boston and sent them a copy of the book. We were able to connect and I learned that while the spyglass in my book enabled young Ben to see into the future, their nautical device would allow viewers to glimpse the past. They received and were very complimentary of the book and its illustrations, and I had the chance to spend some time with them in the North End visiting Copp’s Hill Burying Ground to point out the markers for Captain Edwards and the Mather family, including Increase, his son Cotton, and grandson Samuel. I was pleased to be asked to serve as a member of the Advisory Panel for the North Square Stories project, where I offered suggestions at various stages and visited the A+J Art+Design studio in Somerville to view the sculptures in process.

The ribbon cutting to celebrate the renovation of North Square took place on September 23, 2019. The newly unveiled public art was a big hit with those in attendance. The four bronze sculptures include:

  • “1798 North Square View”—a relief with labels showing and identifying which buildings were visible from that spot in 1798
  • “North End Story Map”—a three-dimensional birds-eye view of the North End as it exists today
  • “What We Brought With Us”—a suitcase containing scenes that focus on the North End’s immigrants and cultural traditions
  • “Fantastical Historical Nautical Instrument”—a sculpture that floats on sculpted water, supported by three figureheads. It contains five scopes through which viewers can see images of people and scenes tied in to the North End and the sea. Photos of this instrument appear below.

Ann and Jeremy describe the Fantastical Historical Nautical Instrument in this fashion: “An assemblage of scopes offering imaginary views. Each scope aims towards what appears to be an abstract pattern, but when the viewer peers through the scope’s eyepiece a coherent image is revealed. The abstract patterns are a form of visual distortion called oblique anamorphism. An anamorphic image appears correct only when seen from a specific oblique angle, to which the scopes are appropriately set. The scopes also have explanatory text, and they point in the actual direction of the sites represented in or associated with the anamorphic scenes.” Through the scopes the viewer sees the following images: Onesimus, an African born man held as slave by Cotton Mather, who introduced an African inoculation process used in smallpox-stricken Boston; Sarah Josepha Hale, Founder of Seaman’s Aid Society; Rev. Edward Taylor of Seamen’s Bethel; John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald and Rose F. Kennedy who was born on Garden Court just steps from North Square; and the SS Andrea Doria, an Italian ocean liner wrecked off Nantucket in 1956.

The explanatory text on each of the five scopes is shown here:

Onesimus – Late 1600s-1700s – African Born Man – Held as Slave by Cotton Mather, Pastor of North Square’s Second Church

Sarah Josepha Hale – 1788-1879 – Author – Preservationist – Editor – Founder of Seaman’s Aid Society Which Opened North Square’s Mariners House   

Rev. Edward T. Taylor – 1793-1871 – North Square’s Seamen’s Bethel – Now Sacred Heart Church – Beloved Preacher of the Nautical and the Biblical

John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald and Rose F. Kennedy – 1863-1950 and 1890-1995 – Grandfather and Mother to Pres. John Fitzgerald Kennedy – Residents of Nearby Garden Court

SS Andrea Doria – Italian Ocean Liner – Sank off Nantucket After Colliding with MS Stockholm – July 25, 1956 – One of the Worst Maritime Disasters in U.S. History

In the headline for this post, I mentioned “Two Nautical Instruments in North Square.” One is fantastical, as noted above, but what about the second? It is a little more difficult to spot and, on first inspection, might be overlooked. In December 2018, Ann and Jeremy notified me that they elected to add something to their sculptural relief of a panoramic view of North Square in 1798 before turning it into bronze for perpetuity. The spyglass Ben carried in One April in Boston and the Edwards family’s journey the book conveys had provided inspiration for their work and, as such, they had decided to add to the street scene in the center of the relief: a young boy looking through a spyglass at Paul and Rachel Revere standing in the doorway of their home. I was so happy to learn this news.  An adult stands next to the child. In my imagination, this might be Ben, age 33 in 1798, working as a cooper in the North End, and sharing his “gift of the spyglass” with the next generation of children from the neighborhood. See photos above and below.

As we stand in front of “1798 North Square View,” we see Boston as a bustling seaport town of more than 24,000 inhabitants just as it appeared when the Massachusetts State House opened on Beacon Hill. Looking up from the relief and to the left, we view buildings in a modern city with a population of nearly 700,000something my ancestors would hardly recognize. Glancing ahead, we are reconnected with Boston’s colonial past as we see the Paul Revere House (ca. 1680) and Pierce/Hichborn House (ca. 1711). One can only wonder what this view will look like 100 years from now, but it is heartening to know that a young boy and his spyglass inspired by a children’s book will still be there to greet visitors in North Square.

The Story of North Square Stories

Learn more about North Square Stories at the A+J Art+Design website.

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The Spyglass Blog was created to mark the 20th anniversary of the children’s book One April in Boston. Here the author and illustrator share the stories behind the illustrations, give insight into the artistic process, and introduce related artwork Ben Edwards shares on his Walking Boston private tour. SpyglassBlog.com

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