Close your eyes and imagine. It's morning on the Potomac. A fresh breeze stirs broken puffs of mauve clouds. Your ship, creaking and rocking on the lazy tide, weaves among a tangle of tall, square-rigged clippers, graceful schooners and a tug belching black steam on its way to the wharves of the Alexandria waterfront. The sun, rising to the southeast, warms your left cheek.
It is the 19th century. The thriving seaport of Alexandria is teeming with activity. Ship bells ring in the distance, and burly stevedores shout in various languages from the brick warehouses that line the water as they load grain and flour onto ships and unload exotic guano from the Chinos Islands off the coast of Peru, which was used to nourish soil depleted by tobacco crops. The Alexandria ferry is poised to make its run to Georgetown. The scent is rich and gamy.
That, at least, was what maritime artist Christopher James Ward saw in his mind's eye last year as he stood on the deck of the Cherry Blossom, the tourist-laden replica of a Victorian riverboat, as it chugged south toward the Torpedo Factory, the sun warm on his left cheek.
He saw not the broken mishmash of parking lots, industrial terminals, parks and private buildings on today's waterfront. Instead, he imagined an idealized seaport of Alexandria in its heyday, when Pioneer Mill at the foot of Duke Street was one of the largest grain mills in the South, storing wheat to be shipped to the Caribbean; when John Fitzgerald, veteran of Valley Forge and soon to be mayor, built his warehouse, and F.A. Reed Co. imported ice next door.
It was a time when Alexandria's harbor, at 66 feet, was one of the deepest on the East Coast, capable of handling the largest ships of the day. It was an era when Alexandria was the sixth-largest port in the United States, and the third-largest exporter of flour and grain.
Ward envisioned a romantic past, when the waterfront made the city.
His iridescent painting, "Alexandria, Circa 1790-1880," was unveiled May 1 at the Principle Gallery on King Street to a crowded room full of local luminaries and art aficionados. The first major maritime painting of the Alexandria waterfront featuring painstakingly accurate historical detail created in almost 30 years, it had sold for $60,000 -- a decision that took the anonymous Old Town buyer less than two minutes to make -- well in advance of its unveiling.
Ward is donating all the proceeds from the sale of 500 prints to the Campagna Center, the local nonprofit organization that runs Head Start and before- and after-school programs for disadvantaged children. In just a few weeks, the $1,000 prints have raised nearly $40,000.
But the story of how the painting came to be, the self-taught artist who painted it, the people who persuaded him to do it and why is a veritable sea tale.
It started, perhaps, in 1974, on the island of New Castle, N.H., when Christopher Ward was 6 years old. His mother, a portrait artist, was trying to get some work done and her wiggling son was underfoot. She gave him a canvas and some oil paints and promptly forgot about him.
A few hours later, she went looking for him and found him smiling proudly before a fully realized landscape painting of the Fort Point lighthouse.
"I've had clients look at that today and think it's a recent work," said Ward, 37. "People ask if I always wanted to be an artist, but I never thought about it. It's just what I do. What I've always done. It's kind of like breathing for me."
He began painting full time at 16 and, forgoing college and the possibility of being influenced by art teachers, began grinding his own pigments and selling his work at 17. He painted for a time with John Stobart, who by all accounts is considered the world's premier maritime artist.
It was Stobart himself who in 1976 painted the last major historic work of the Alexandria waterfront, "The Ship 'Fairfax' Leaving for Rio de Janeiro in 1845." He'd picked a date, then looked up announcements in the Gazette newspaper for the ships in port. A print of the painting hangs in a corridor on the second floor of City Hall. The original is in a private collection in California.
Now, Ward is considered an up-and-coming maritime artist -- a highly specialized and lucrative international market of largely old-money collectors. Michael Florio, owner of Quester Gallery, a premier maritime gallery in Connecticut, said Ward has a unique style. "The way he uses light, he blends the qualities of a luminous painter with an almost naive American folk-art feel," he said.
Fast forward to the summer of 2003. Ward has painted, literally, all over the world, capturing the shimmering harbors of London, Hong Kong and Honfleur, on the Seine in France. He runs a gallery out of the Wentworth by the Sea hotel in New Castle. Hundreds of his prints decorate the walls.
Alexandria residents and civic activists Lonnie C. Rich and Marcia Call were on vacation with their two young daughters at the Wentworth. Call had grown up in New Castle. She immediately recognized Ward's work. She used to baby-sit Ward when his father, Harry, an IBM engineer and avid softball player, was out at his games.
A reluctant phone call -- "I didn't want to seem like a groupie," Call said -- led to a meeting over drinks at the Wentworth's bar, which led to an idea that seized both Call and Rich: They wanted Ward to paint Alexandria's waterfront.
Over the next few weeks, Rich, a former City Council member, scoured art galleries and historic collections in Alexandria. Outside of Stobart's work and the 1863 "Bird's Eye View of Alexandria," which shows the city occupied by Union troops and warships and hangs over the dais in City Hall, Rich could find nothing.
And so a passing fancy, Call said, became a crusade.
"I grew up in Portsmouth, a seaport city [in New Hampshire], where anywhere you turn, you can find a work of art that's very accessible to people of all economic levels. People can acquire a piece of art of their town," Call said. "I was surprised that this town, which had a much more dramatic and historically significant waterfront and an arts community that was so much more sophisticated, didn't have the same thing."
The two thought Alexandria needed to be reminded of the waterfront's vibrant past as city leaders begin to contemplate its future -- a contentious and multimillion-dollar endeavor.
"The waterfront right now is pretty trashy in spots," said Rich, who is chairing the Waterfront Commission for the city's Chamber of Commerce.
"I would really like this painting to start a conversation that will ultimately help develop the waterfront to be the gem it once was and I know it can be again," Call said. "Right now, there's no consistent flow if you try to take a walk along the water. . . . Frankly, it leaves us with the legacy of the Civil War."
Rich started sending Ward maps, old photos and historic materials, and he and Call began calling at least every other week. At first, Ward was reluctant. He is usually booked a year in advance, and his well-heeled clients have already paid for the paintings he wants to do.
Finally, Ward agreed to come to Alexandria for a visit. Rich took him out on the Potomac aboard the Cherry Blossom. And there, with the sun on his face, Ward had his vision. He decided to do it. And, after an evening out on Rich's porch with Katherine Morrison, president of the Campagna Center, he agreed to donate the proceeds of the prints to the organization. Ward, whose father was an orphan, said it wasn't a hard sell.
"I fell in love with Alexandria and I wanted to give back," explained Ward, who has made similar arrangements to donate the proceeds of other print sales to charities. "I've had years of success."
Ward then met T. Michael Miller, Alexandria's historian, and the two spent hours poring over old insurance maps and photographs and walking the waterfront, counting the blocks to the Old Presbyterian Meeting House spire.
Ward used artistic license to paint some of the city's most historic buildings as he thought they looked between about 1790 and 1870, though in reality, some had burned before others were built.
"The waterfront was ever changing. It's always been in flux," Miller explained. "Ward certainly was able to re-create the atmosphere of the 18th- and 19th-century Alexandria waterfront. And he's been very meticulous in trying to study and re-create the buildings, rather than just use artistic fancy."
Ward leased a house in Alexandria and began to paint in earnest in January. The painting was finished in March. And before its first showing, a member of the Junior Friends Board at the Campagna Center, who has a small collection of marine art, bought it.
For himself, Ward wanted to create a sense of place, a scene that viewers could put themselves in. It's a Friday morning. Along with the bustling trade, people are out sailing in their Potomac dories and schooners, enjoying the river after a long week of work. He wanted both to capture a regal air and evoke a simpler time.
"It's a life. I wish I could step back into at times," he said.