Earle Shettleworth, History Maker

Alumni7 MIN READ

His Colby education nurtured a passion for history, art, and architecture

Earle Shettleworth ’70, the longtime Maine state historian, poses for a portrait at Hubbard Free Library in Hallowell, Maine. Shettleworth was given the Maine History Maker award this spring by the Maine Historical Society.
By Carl LittlePhotography by Gabe Souza and contributors
May 31, 2023

In announcing the 2023 Maine History Maker Award this past March, the Maine Historical Society featured a photograph of a 21-year-old Earle Shettleworth Jr. ’70 seated, holding a book in his hands, looking studious. According to Shettleworth, Peter Pennypacker ’69, a Colby classmate, took the photo of him in the fall of 1969 in a lobby of the “new dorms.” It appeared in the class yearbook.

“Having just returned from a summer in Europe and England,” Shettleworth recounted in a phone interview, “I am reading Sir John Summerson’s book Georgian London,” a classic of English architectural history.

Of course he is.

From an early age, Shettleworth steeped himself in history of all kinds, but with a special love for art and architecture. His education at Colby helped nurture that passion, which led to a career of more than 40 years at the Maine Historical Preservation Commission and as Maine State Historian. He retired from the commission in 2015, and he remains active as state historian. 

Steeped in Colby history

Shettleworth’s Colby connection goes back a century. In fall 1923 his mother, Esther Knudsen, entered the College. The daughter of Danish immigrants who came to Portland in the 1890s, and one of 13 children, she had been recruited by her math teacher at Portland High School, Martha Hopkins, a Colby graduate herself who was looking for bright young women to enroll in her alma mater.

After graduating in 1927, Knudsen became an English teacher and taught for years in the Portland school system before marrying Earle Shettleworth Sr. in 1935.

“I grew up in a Colby family, so to speak,” Shettleworth said. From 1955 to 1970 his family joined a group of his mother’s college friends near Lake Wesserunsett. On trips to Waterville for supplies, he met several of his mother’s professors, some of whom had taught at Colby before World War I.

Shettleworth got to know Dean Ernest Marriner, a college historian who graduated in 1913 and who authored several books on Maine history. He also met Professor Carl Weber, Colby’s first curator of rare books and a Thomas Hardy scholar, who was responsible for acquiring a collection of the famed British writer’s books, manuscripts, and assorted materials, including his Morris chair, which formed the core of what became the College’s Special Collections & Archives. 

Shettleworth recites the titles of the exhibitions he went to see after the Colby Museum of Art opened in 1959, among them, the landmark Maine and Its Role in American Art. The shows and their catalogs engaged and influenced him as a teenager so that when it came time to apply to colleges, Colby was at the top of the list.

Earle Shuttleworth '70 as a student
Earle Shuttleworth ’70 enjoys a quiet moment in his undergraduate days.

Having been involved in preservation campaigns in Portland, including the creation of Greater Portland Landmarks in 1964, Shettleworth thought he would major in history. Once enrolled, however, he followed the advice of his close friend, architectural historian Christopher Monkhouse (1947-2021), to take the two-semester introductory art history course.

“I must say,” Shettleworth recounted, “sitting there in the darkness of Given Auditorium, listening to the lectures by James Carpenter and William Miller, I had an epiphany.” The survey course, known fondly as Pyramids to Picasso, captivated him. At the end of his first year, Shettleworth declared for art history.

His studies proved to be the foundation for a number of future projects. For one of his independent units, under the guidance of Miller, Shettleworth focused on Maine painter Charles Codman (1800-1842). That research led to Charles Codman: The Landscape of Art and Culture in Nineteenth-Century Maine (2002) and A Century of Portland Artists, 1820-1920, published this year. His senior thesis was a history of 19th-century Portland architecture, what was to be a lifelong passion. Shettleworth also studied history.

He developed his passion for collecting at Colby. He gathered posters, flyers, handbills, and other printed materials around campus related to political issues and set them aside. Years later, going through his papers, he pulled out those items—around 80—and gave them to the College’s Special Collections & Archives. “They didn’t have any of those things—nobody saved them, they just came and went in a day or two—but they captured the spirit of the times.”

At Colby, Shettleworth obtained “a very firm grounding” in art and architectural history and conducted significant research and writing. With guidance from Carpenter, Miller, and newly appointed museum director Hugh Gourley, he organized his first exhibition, a survey of 18th- through 20th-century architectural books, which Maine Sunday Telegram art critic Philip Isaacson reviewed. And he published his first academic paper, on Fairfield Center architect Charles Lawrence.

Shettleworth can’t resist paying homage to one more teacher, Eileen Curran, who specialized in 19th-century English and American literature, “which of course, greatly interested me, because, you know, I live in the 19th century.”

Shettleworth went on to earn an M.A. in architectural history at Boston University, and he also received honorary degrees from Bowdoin College and Maine College of Art. He spent 42 years at the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, first as architectural historian and then director. In 2004 Gov. John Baldacci appointed him state historian, a position to which he was reappointed twice.

Shettleworth has stayed connected with his alma mater, starting with a major Maine architecture show at the College in 1976. More recently, in 2018, Shettleworth taught a Jan Plan course in the History Department, where over the years he has lectured on architectural subjects. On the 100th anniversary of World War I, he taught a four-week unit on WWI in Maine and at Colby. 

Shettleworth has also become friends with Professor of Art Véronique Plesch, chair of the Art Department. He admires how she has introduced students to local cultural history, including the South Solon Meeting House and the L.C. Bates Museum. “On the one hand, you can be steeped in the chambers of academe, talking about things that are several thousand years old or several thousand miles away,” Shettleworth notes, “but it’s also very important to make a connection with your own surroundings.”

Earle Shettleworth '70
Earle Shettleworth ’70 was given the 2023 Maine History Maker Award by the Maine Historical Society

His passion for research and discovery inspired the Maine Historical Society to bestow its highest honor on Shettleworth May 16.

When congratulated on the accolade, Shettleworth expressed amazement and humility. Between his four decades-plus as director at Maine Historic Preservation, his many publications on Maine art, architecture, and photography, the exhibitions he has helped organize, his advocacy for architectural preservation, and his sheer passion for Maine history, Shettleworth is, to paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan, the very model of the modern major historian.

“I like the concept of living history,” Shettleworth said. “In researching and writing and speaking about history, you must always understand that nothing is definitive and that, in many ways, the more you know, the less you know.”

The next chapter

Since stepping down from the Maine Historic Preservation, Shettleworth has been one busy gentleman. His résumé lengthens every year as he follows the muse of history down all kinds of byways.

A short list of recent activities offers a picture of an individual fully engaged with history: discussing his friendship with painter Mildred Burrage (1890-1993) on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the Maine Art Gallery in Wiscasset; teaming up with poet Jefferson Navicky to consider the life and art of the 19th-century painter Harrison Bird Brown at the Northeast Harbor Library (his article on the artist appears in the 2023 edition of Chebacco, the Mount Desert Island Historical Society’s annual journal); and consulting on the latest Maine Historical Society exhibition, CODE RED: Climate, Justice & Natural History Collections.

Shettleworth hopes to produce a sequel to his Portland artists book, this time focusing on the Maine Historical Society’s maritime art holdings.

“As a historian, I’m just scattering crumbs along the path,” he added, and then he cited Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The past will not sleep. It still works. With every new fact a ray of light shoots up from the long-buried years.”

Shettleworth also shares a quote from James Baldwin. “History is not merely something to read,” the famed novelist wrote. “On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all we do.”

“It’s just so important for us to understand all that has come before us and to care passionately about preserving it, delving into it, understanding it, sharing it, because that history has led to where we are now, as a state,” Shettleworth said. That said, he acknowledges that we’re still facing issues we’ve been fighting for 200 years. “If we don’t have history as a guide, we’ll never find our way out of these situations,” he said, “History is more relevant than ever.”