Dr. Francis Howe house wall murals signed by Rufus Porter in 1838 Westwood, Massachusetts are on display at The Rufus Porter Museum. These murals were originally from the house which was located on the corner of Main and Gay Street. By 1965, the house had been vacant for years and slated for demolition to make way for a hardware store. The murals were purchased and removed by Benjamin Hildebrandt and his friend Francis Holland. The mural walls were braced with 2X4 beams, removed, wrapped under tarps and blankets & stored in basements of nearby homes and in an unused Catholic Church basement.
They were later displayed in an antique shop owned by Hildebrandt called Grande Alley Antiques in Porter Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts. The walls were sold to Louis Giovanni from Newton, MA who put some on display in his restaurant called “Rufus Porter”. The remaining walls were stored in Giovanni’s carriage house. The restaurant didn’t last long and the walls were gifted to Giovanni’s alma mater, Briar Cliff University, a Catholic Franciscan University in Sioux City, Iowa, where they stayed in storage. In 2002, the fifteen wall panels were sold by Jackson’s International Auctioneers in Cedar Falls to a private concern. They are on loan to the Rufus Porter Museum and it is the hope of the museum that private donations and grants will allow for the purchase and continued exhibition of the Howe House murals in Bridgton.
These murals are highly significant in that they are from one of only three houses known to have been signed by Porter, and are the only known dated examples. The stairway mural is signed "R. Porter, 1838" on a rocky outcrop and above that is the signature "S. T. Porter", Stephen Twombley Porter, Rufus Porter's son.
Porter was also a teacher, and in his book Curious Arts (1825) he discussed the painting of landscapes on the walls of rooms. It is thought that the spectacular quality and detail of these particular murals is due in large part to his instructional demonstration of technique and composition for the enlightenment of a number of nineteenth century muralists. Porter shows an unusually "scientific" approach to creating perspective and depth of field without losing any of the naïve charm of period folk-art. These murals were executed on dry plaster and are in remarkably intact and stable condition. The plaster was applied to hand-riven lath, which appears to be of native chestnut, which is in turn attached to rough sawn chestnut and pine timbers.
At the advent of the publication of Rufus Porter Yankee Pioneer by Jean Lipman, some of these murals were exhibited in 1968 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Additionally, the murals have been prominently featured in a number of other publications by Jean Lipman including American Folk Painters of Three Centuries (Lipman & Armstrong) and The Flowering of American Folk Art (Lipman & Winchester). Contribution of information from Linda Carter Lefko
When the Rufus Porter Museum in Bridgton, Maine announced its plans in January to move to an historic house in center Bridgton, it did not know that an exciting new development was waiting. As plans were evolving for an expansion of the museum into a new, attached gallery planned to house the remarkable set of Rufus Porter murals on loan to the museum, another set of exceptional murals in nearby Baldwin, painted by the nephew of Rufus Porter, were deemed at risk.
The James Norton House wall murals in East Baldwin, Maine, signed and dated by Jonathan D. Poor in 1840, have just been donated to the Rufus Porter Museum in Bridgton. The Deed of Gift was signed by owners Glenn and Norma Haines on Saturday, April 2, and the house is being readied for the extrication of the murals. “Although it is preferable to keep the walls in situ, in this instance the owners and the realtor handling the sale of the property have agreed that the walls are of such monumental significance in the folk art world that they should be where they will be conserved and preserved for future generations, rather than at risk of demolition or damage,” said Jane Radcliffe, Board member of the Rufus Porter Museum who was on hand for the transfer.
The removal is under the direction of David Ottinger from Arlington, Mass, who is experienced in antique wall removal. This will entail removal of all the plaster, lathing and woodwork in two upstairs rooms, hallway, and the entire staircase, so when reinstalled in the new facility it will appear as in the original setting.
“This project affords a unique opportunity to see how the relationship of the architectural details interacts with the wall paintings. The prospect of preserving the connection between three muraled rooms and a “good morning” stairway is very exciting” says Ottinger.
The museum is seeking donations to cover this unexpected gift, which will join together the acknowledged best murals by Rufus Porter and Jonathan Poor, who often collaborated together as teacher and student painting murals in the 1820s. Though similar, they each had distinctive differences in their style.
While documenting known Porter School wall murals in New England as research for their book to be released in May, Folk Art Murals of the Rufus Porter School: New England Landscapes 1825-1845, authors Linda Lefko and Jane Radcliffe brought the Norton murals to the attention of the museum.
Their book focuses attention on the work of Jonathan D. Poor, who has been relatively unknown.
The signed Norton House Walls are the very best examples of Poor's work at the height of his painting career and will be a superb addition to the Museum's collections. Decorated walls are part of the context of historic houses. These walls have importance as signed examples of a typically anonymous form of American Folk Art. Not only are they rare survivals but are additionally recognized as among the best extant examples.
The fact that walls of this caliber have been donated to the Porter Museum is a testimony to the importance of this American art form and of the confidence in the Museum’s purpose.
Although the philosophy of the museum, and most preservationists, is to keep all wall murals in their original setting, each case has to be evaluated separately. The Norton set of three rooms of murals have been deemed to be in danger by everyone involved in this project: the current owners, the museum personnel and all preservationists involved.
The house itself was rescued in 1980 by the current owners, primarily to prevent any further damage to the murals. With parts of the roof missing, leaking water was causing erosion to the paint in places. Reaching retirement, their efforts to safely sell the house containing the murals have been in vain for two years, and there was no assurance that new owners would preserve the murals.
The Norton murals are the most significant painted walls in Maine, being signed and dated and recognized as the best example of the work of Jonathan Poor. It is rare to find murals in original condition with no restoration, and to have the most important ones in this condition is remarkable. They were deemed to have such significant artistic value that it was felt they should be in a position to be accessible to the public, and safely protected from any chance of vandalism or lack of proper care.
The original house frame has, over time and for a variety of reasons, been shifting. Located just 15 feet from railroad tracks, damage from vibrations and an unstable foundation have made the walls the most fragile ever encountered with severe cracking of the plaster throughout. Amazingly, the most beautiful of the scenes are relatively free of water damage or severe stress fractures.
As moving the house was not an option, Glenn and Norma Haines reluctantly reached the conclusion that the best security for the future was to have the walls installed in the newly formed Rufus Porter Museum. They had consulted with other residents in the local town and the historical society, who also concurred. As the time when they could protect the walls had come to an end, they wanted assurance that the remarkable art they loved would continue to amaze others on public view for future generations.
DONATED WALL MURALS IN BALDWIN REMOVED
The intricate process of removing 22 pieces of wall murals from a house takes time, as each piece has to be carefully loosened from its support system, then freed in place and framed for removal after the plaster has been glued to the lathing with heated rabbit glue. This process has been taking place in nearby East Baldwin all summer since Glenn and Norma Haines made the generous donation of these historic walls in April to the Rufus Porter Museum. The walls were painted in 1840 by Jonathan D. Poor, a nephew to Rufus Porter who apprenticed to him as a lad and continued a career on his own in Maine painting wall murals.
Considered by historians to be the finest example of work by Poor, the walls were deemed to be in danger by historian and preservationists, as the property is for sale and no protections existed. Stories on the importance of the walls and the donation have appeared in the Portland Press Herald, and the front page of the Boston Globe, as well as Antiques and Fine Art Magazine and Early American Life Magazine.
Links to these articles can be found on the website.The Museum has overseen the laborious work involved, undertaken by David Ottinger, the leading wall removal specialist in New England, while attempting to raise funds to cover the expense of this unexpected donation.
As the process is nearly finished, the Haines will now be able to restore the house and return it to the market for sale.Anyone able to assist with donations toward this important, historic project for Bridgton, may contact the Museum at 207 647-2828. They are more than halfway towards raising the funds needed, and will appreciate any help available. You may also donate on the website, www.rufusportermuseum.org, or send it to P.O. Box 544, Bridgton, ME 04009.
Once a new facility in downtown Bridgton is completed, the three rooms of murals including the original woodwork and staircase, will be reassembled for display in their original setting. Placed alongside the 15 murals from Westwood, Mass. by Rufus Porter, a most unique exhibit will emerge as a national destination for the study of New England wall murals and folk art.
The removal of the walls from the Dr. Norton house by a crane and air ride truck should be finished this week, and the accompanying photos illustrate how difficult the process has been. Many volunteers have helped to make this possible. This is such an exciting achievement for the town of Bridgton to own this exceptional art, and the Museum welcomes everyone’s participation.
For questions regarding the extrication, David Ottinger may be reached at 617 721-1728.
by Jane Radcliffe.
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