Theater & art

Frame by Frame

Nautical figure at Vermont museum is lovable, if a little lost

Collection of Shelburne Museum

SHELBURNE, Vt. — I feel I know this rotund and anxious man. His name is Jack Tar. Without his boxy stand, he’s 3 feet 6 inches tall. His circumference at his widest point (that includes those brusquely jutting elbows) is a more than respectable 5 feet 10 inches.

Jack — maker unknown — is on display at the marvelous Shelburne Museum of Art in Vermont. I met him there in August, and have felt on friendly terms with him since.

I worry about him, to be honest. I look at those concerned eyes, that furrowed brow. He’s sort of mid-wince, isn’t he? Something troubles him.


He in turn, I feel, worries about me. He’s full of fellow-feeling, is Jack.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

He dates back to 1860 or 1870 or thereabouts. He’s seen a lot, no question. But I suspect he isn’t entirely sure what to make of it all. He is a sailor, of course, and he has the expression, perhaps, of someone who has just come ashore. Maybe he’s struggling to find his land legs again? Queasy feeling. That could explain it.

There’s not much else I can tell you about him. He used to stand outside a ship chandler’s shop in San Francisco. Later on (isn’t it funny, the turns life takes!) he stood sentry outside a cigar store in San Jose, Calif.

I don’t know if he smoked himself. If he didn’t, there’s another thing that might account for his expression: Some people go for cigar smoke. Others really don’t.

At any rate, we know from the man who gave Jack Tar to the Shelburne Museum, way back in 1964, that people have always been fond of him. As a matter of fact, when Jack was outside the cigar store in San Jose, a little boy used to rub his stomach when he came by on his way to school. (That same boy, when he had grown old, came upon Jack by surprise in a gallery and reported this story to the gallery owners.)


I hope he found the boy’s rubbing soothing. I suspect he did, and think he might actually miss it. I had the urge to rub Jack’s tummy too. It’s very rubbable.

His name? It’s a generic sort of moniker. “Jack Tar” was a term that was used for British sailors in the merchant or royal navies. By World War I, it was also in common use to describe sailors in the US Navy.

Presumably, the “tar” part alluded to the common practice of waterproofing clothes with tar before going to sea. High-grade tar was also applied to sailors’ long pony tails, to fatten them up and stop stray hairs getting caught in the ship’s equipment.

Our Jack has a hat to help with that. But he’s not at sea anyhow. And that’s perhaps his real problem. Bless him.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at