His murals are bright with lots of yellow and green. A solitary house often sits on a green hilltop while a sailing ship floats slowly by on an adjacent river. These are the pastoral views painted on the walls of local historic homes by artist Rufus Porter.
History buffs and art admirers attended the Aug. 6 Townsend Historical Society “Porter Landscape School Murals: a Talk and Tour,” led by Rufus Porter School mural experts Linda Lefko and Jane Radcliffe.
Rufus Porter was described as a traveling folk artist and inventor who decorated walls with stenciled images and original paintings throughout New England during the first half of the 1800s.
His payment for such artistry was often “bed and board” rather than hard cash. So it is very possible that he laid his head down in Townsend Harbor while creating the scenes on the walls of the circa 1809 Reed Homestead.
His wall paintings were less costly for home owners than expensive imported wallpaper of the time. Unfortunately, much of his work elsewhere in the region was destroyed when wallpaper was applied over it in later years. Subsequent stripping of the paper removed the mural paint underneath.
Upstairs Reed Homestead murals, however, have escaped damage, and appear as bright as they probably did in the early 1800s, according to the Townsend Historical Society’s website.
Society site administrator Jeanne Bartovics explained, “In 2009, author and folk artist Linda Lefko set up an appointment to view the Porter murals in the Reed House. She and her coauthor, Jane Radcliffe, were working on a book about the Rufus Porter School of landscape murals (early 19th century), and were visiting and researching all the sites.
“The book is significant,” said Bartovics, “as it is the first study of the subject to be published since expert Jean Lipman produced her authoritative books in 1968 and 1980 (the latter being a revised edition of her first work, “Rufus Porter, Yankee Pioneer.”
“Since there were other Porter school murals in the area,” she continued, “this seemed to be the perfect opportunity to see if we could combine a presentation by the authors of this new book (released May of 2011) with a tour of those area murals. We were delighted that the homeowners of the houses with murals agreed to open their private homes to an afternoon of tours so others could see and appreciate the murals.”
While the society had done house tours before, said Bartovics, “we had never offered one showing Porter school murals in private homes. We knew there would be many participants from all over, as Rufus Porter and his folk art inspire a large number of devotees. There is a Rufus Porter Museum in Bridgton, Maine, and murals exist in other museums as well, including Fruitlands, the Maine State Museum, Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the National Heritage Museum in Lexington.”
“I know of four homes with murals in the area; three were on our tour,” she said.
During a morning presentation partially funded by the Amanda Dwight Entertainment Fund, Lefko and Radcliffe spoke about their research and on-site examinations of Porter School murals throughout New England.
Linda is an artist, teacher and scholar of historic decorative arts and an advisor to the Rufus Porter Museum in Bridgton, Maine.
Jane, currently a board member of the Rufus Porter Museum, is a partner in Museum Research Associates and has served the Maine State Museum for 25 years.
These two women have merged their passion for early 19th century landscape murals to coauthor the recently published “Folkart Murals of the Rufus Porter School: New England Landscapes, 1825-1845.” Linda and Jane followed their presentation with a book- signing.
After guests enjoyed a box lunch, they had a rare opportunity to view Porter School mural landscapes in three privately owned homes (located in Townsend, Pepperell and Groton) as well as the preserved murals in the Reed Homestead, home of the Townsend Historical Society.
The properties visited were:
The Quincy Sylvester House, 13 Turnpike Road, Townsend;
The Oliver Reed House, 72 Main St., Townsend Harbor;
The Artemas Hemenway Tavern, 74 South Road, Pepperell (Route 119);
The Oliver Prescott House, 170 Old Ayer Road, Groton.
In each setting, participants were able to observe the Porter murals close up. While the murals varied in condition from building to building, several recognizable characteristics associated with Porter’s work could be observed, including spacious country scenes with standalone houses, steamships on the water and the consistent brush strokes used for leaves on the trees.
“Many of the guests were indeed very knowledeable,” Bartovics said, “which made them even more enthusiastic about the program. Both speakers (at the talk) are advisors to the Rufus Porter Museum in Maine and are highly regarded in the field.
“I think the opportunity to see the actual murals, particularly in private homes, that they had only seen before in photographs, was truly a high point for the Porter enthusiasts,” she concluded.