Muralist Rufus Porter left his mark on many homes and inns in the Monadnock Region


Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Published: 02-01-2020 1:04 AM

Artist, inventor and publisher Rufus Porter is one of the most famous of the itinerant New Englanders who were commissioned to paint murals in homes and inns. And before his death in 1884, he left his mark on the Monadnock Region where his murals at the Hancock Inn and the Birchwood Inn in Temple continue to be admired today.

Itinerant, or traveling, painters like Porter would typically base themselves at an inn or the home of a rich patron and paint in lieu of room and board, hiring a runner boy to solicit other commissions in the area by horseback, Hancock Inn owner Marcia Coffin said.

Coffin believes Porter was a repeat lodger at the Inn during the 1820s: his murals grace a number of private homes in town, she said, and his murals previously filled both floors of the inn. The inn’s only remaining original mural is in the Rufus Porter suite.

“We’re so grateful that it didn’t get papered or painted over,” she said.

“It’s like waking up on a camping trip without a tent,” Coffin said, recalling a little girl’s description of her stay in the inn’s Rufus Porter suite, where one of Porter’s original murals covers all four walls.

One other original mural fragment was preserved when a closet was built in a corner of the Inn’s John Hancock Suite: In an example of what Coffin referred to as typical Yankee frugality, nobody ever bothered to paint the inside of the closet.

Born in 1792, Porter established what’s known as “The Rufus Porter School of landscape painting” and detailed his painting techniques in a thorough, step-by-step manual that a number of his contemporaries readily adopted.

What these artists left behind is a curious vestige of a 200 year-old New England folk art, the painted plaster wall. Hand-painted murals, which could extend around all four walls of a room or even up a flight of stairs, depicted hilly pastoral landscapes, shorelines and trees, or in some cases, more exotic locales. The art form’s heyday spanned the 1820’s and 30’s, and although many have been damaged or lost to time, the surviving murals and the lure of their painters continue to capture imaginations.

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The region’s murals have been documented by historic mural painter and researcher Linda Lefko, including works at the Hancock Inn, the Birchwood Inn in Temple, the now-demolished Prescott Tavern in Jaffrey, and the Cragin House, a private home in Greenfield.

In the 1820s, elaborate scenic wallpaper was all the rage in high society, Jason Hackler of the New Hampshire Antique Co-Op in Milford said. The full-room scenes they depicted were a mental escape in the time before television, he said, like a destination vacation for people without the means to take one. Wallpaper was too expensive for all but the wealthiest homeowners, however. Enter the itinerant painter of old New England, who could paint an affordable, custom mural in the style of the popular wallpapers.

Tim Schloemer and Denise Poulin said the murals in their Greenfield home were a selling point when they bought it in 2008.

“My wife and I saw the photos online and said oh, man, this is amazing,” Schloemer said.

They believe the murals in the foyer, stairwell, second story hallway and master bedroom were painted in 1822.

The paintings feature recognizable buildings and landscapes, including the White House, Monticello, the Old Man in the Mountain, and the Saint Lawrence Seaway.

“They all have this movement in them,” Poulin said of the ships on the mural, no two of which are alike.

Tiny details stand out: peacocks on a lawn, pedestrians, ducks on a pond, porcupines and raccoons in a tree. Horses gallop up the hills that rise along the staircase.

“Even though they are so simple, they are just perfectly done,” she said.

The Greenfield murals are featured in “Folk Art Murals of the Rufus Porter School,” a book written by Linda Lefko and Jane Radcliffe. Based on some of the deviations from Porter’s style, Schloemer and Poulin agree with the authors that their murals were likely done, at least in part, by an artist other than Porter, possibly Richard Poore.

Rufus Porter was “America’s own Leonardo da Vinci,” Birchwood Inn owner Matthew Cabana said, describing him as a renaissance man. Cabana became captivated by the artist as he explored the history of his inn’s own mural.

“There’s something about this guy,” he said.

Beyond painting murals and portraits, Porter additionally spent parts of his life as a professional musician, Cabana said. Porter founded a dance school, and produced about 25 patents over the course of his life, including one for a “revolving rifle” he sold to Samuel Colt.

“He invented the windless water lifter,” Cabana said, “basically the modern well pump.”

In addition to his books on painting technique, Porter founded the publication Scientific American.

“Today we’d put him on ADD meds,” Cabana said of Porter’s varied career path, but that he feels an affinity for the artist. “I’m kind of the same way,” Cabana said, with lots of ideas he wants to bring to fruition.

Porter even created prototypes for a dirigible airship, Cabana said, whose schematics grace some of his paintings. The invention appeared to be a bit too forward-thinking for the 1830s, Cabana said: Porter was unable to attract enough investors to produce a full-size version over the subsequent twenty years.

Porter traveled the East Coast from Maine to Washington D.C. throughout his life, and was even rumored to have visited Hawaii on a trade voyage. He lived to be 92 years old, and had 15 children between two wives.

“I don’t know how he did it with a huge family,” Schloemer said.

Schloemer is skeptical that Porter could have ever made it to the Pacific, but can’t deny that some of the plants in the master bedroom mural look tropical.

In Hancock, Coffin pointed out the efficient stamping technique that populated Porter’s trees with leaves, and said it’s no surprise to her that a man who patented so many timesaving inventions extended that mindset to his own paintings.

The inn in Temple went by a different name in the 1820s when Porter completed its mural, Cabana said. He imagines that the artist might have spent the evenings playing music at the inn, and expects that Henry David Thoreau saw the original mural in close to its original splendor when he visited in 1852. By the 1970s, the mural was faded and buried beneath two coats of wallpaper, and was repainted in the 1980s. Cabana lamented the historic use of the mural room as an infrequently-used overflow space in the inn.

“This is the centerpiece, this is special,” he said.

He plans to display some copies of Porter’s patent illustrations on the walls of the inn.

“There’s no better marketing piece,” he said, than preserved history.

The Prescott Tavern in Jaffrey had a number of murals that were long assumed to be Rufus Porter works. Before its demolition in 1950, the murals - horsehair plaster, lathe board and all, were carefully relocated to the Goyette Museum of Americana in Peterborough. One panel eventually made it to the Boston Museum of Fine Art. Hackler himself wound up with another panel, framed in wood from the tavern, when he bought the Goyette Museum building with all its contents. Its strawberry stencil motif has been restored by Linda Lefko, and is currently for sale in Milford for $18,000.

In the last weeks of 2019, Hackler said that Lefko contacted him with a discovery: she no longer believed the panels had been done by Porter himself.

“There’s a question as to who this artist is,” Lefko said.

It was fairly common for work to be attributed to Porter in the past, she said, since he had greater name recognition than other artists who painted in his style.

“The only way you can ascertain absolutely is a signature,” she said, but there are only two known murals that are signed by Porter.

Lefko instead identifies distinct “hands” of artists in nuances and deviations from Porter’s style. The hand that painted the Prescott Tavern was active in Southern New Hampshire and Northern Massachusetts, she said.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever get a name,” Lefko said of the mystery painter, but said she’s excited to potentially find out more as she begins work to restore a mural in a private home that appears to have been done by the same person.

“Some parts are still under paper,” she said, and have never been uncovered. “We get calls maybe once a month about new discoveries.”

“People always want to know how much their walls are worth,” Lefko said, but it’s difficult to assess since the murals are typically not transportable. Porter walls typically command a higher value than work by other muralists, she said, but ultimately, “it’s all in the eyes of the beholder.”

Hackler said he’s unsure how the painter’s identity will affect the value of the panel he’s selling, but said he’s sold four or five other panels by Porter as well as his contemporaries.

“American painted plaster doesn’t have the cachet that European painted plaster does,” Lefko said. “They revere their artifacts there. We paper over them.”

Lefko said that many murals are lost due to demolition or homeowners not recognizing what they have. The murals remaining in the Monadnock Region today have been faded by sun, or damaged by water or wallpapering. Lefko said that interest is often high in restoring damaged murals, but cautioned that the historical value of a mural is lost if it isn’t retouched in an archival manner.

“Nothing is reversible,” she said.

She recommends mural owners work with an art conservator qualified by the American Institute for Conservation. A symposium titled ”Conserving Our Painted Past” is set to take place in Portland, Maine in April, Lefko said, and will feature talks by conservators on the restoration and valuation of painted walls.

Schloemer said he’s been communicating with staff from the Rufus Porter Museum about what to avoid when he goes about restoring a hole in the plaster in his home’s murals. Schloemer, who is a painter himself, said he wants to follow Porter’s painting guide to restore the section himself.

“He worked very thin,” Schloemer said, with light layers of pigment on brushstrokes. “I wish there was a market for doing this now.”