Preserving a lost art

Library exhibit highlights decorative stenciling from RI’s 17th century ‘building boom’

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After being postponed a year, local historian Ann Eckert Brown has finally opened her exhibit at the Warwick Public Library, sharing the history and techniques of wall stenciling as a form of interior decoration.  

The exhibit, “Painted Rooms of Rhode Island,” has been in the works since Brown first began researching the subject back in the 1960s. 

“I’ve been teaching early American and doing early American decorative painting, all kinds of early American decorative painting, and wall stenciling is just one of them,” she explained in an interview on Friday. 

During the Colonial and Federal eras, roughly 1790 to 1840, the state saw rapid economic and population growth. It was during this “building boom,” as Brown calls it, that Rhode Islanders embraced the wall stenciling techniques of interior design. 

In her third and latest book, also titled “Painted Rooms of Rhode Island,” Brown writes that the rise of painted interiors reflected the “unbridled optimism that was rampant among the citizenry of a new state, especially those of the middling class, who were at last able to upward socially and economically.” 

Brown’s research took her all over the state, where she visited houses and historical sites, like taverns and churches, to view the painting techniques firsthand. 

“A lot of it was very deteriorated. I thought, ‘Ah, when these houses disappear, so will every evidence of the stenciling.’ And I thought it would be good to record it, which I have done” she shared. 

Brown recalled hearing stories of young homeowners who were unaware of the history on their walls, and painted or wallpapered right over one-of-a-kind stenciled designs. 

Brown replicated the designs by tracing shapes and patterns she found on walls throughout Rhode Island as she completed research for her three books on early American architectural decorative painting. 

For the book’s accompanying exhibit, facsimiles were created on large, framed 31-by-41-inch panels to resemble the original stenciling in colorations, spacing and layout. Aging and damage was not incorporated, as Brown wanted to preserve the art and artist’s original intent. 

In “Painted Rooms of Rhode Island,” Brown shares over 50 examples of these wall stencil designs from all parts of the state. Each chapter of her book is dedicated to a different Rhode Island county, exploring the historic sites that are known for their wall decorations. 

In her book, Brown takes readers through the history of 17th-century interior designs with illustrations and photographs. 

She writes that paint-decorated rooms “were fairly plentiful” during the Colonial period, “especially in mansion-like homes built by wealthy merchants attracted to the area by the vibrant, unfettered business atmosphere and religious freedom.” 

According to her research, “the shelters of the first Rhode Islanders were sparsely decorated, and their overall appearance could be described as drab,” she writes in her book.  

The “Spartan aesthetic” gave way as the colony grew more prosperous and commercial building supplies began more widely available, including paint materials such as linseed oil, pigments, and turpentine. 

Brown did point out that it was very easy for artists to borrow inspiration from other artists. “There were so many artists, and they traveled with cut stencils. And they applied them to walls in a different manner and different arrangement. And they did, I must say, copy from each other. Because when you’re staying in a tavern and your bedroom is covered with this kind of stuff, it’s very easy to trace and then put in the next place that you stay.” 

While the artistic plagiarism was evident, Brown said there weren’t conflicts between artists, as “they didn’t get together much, and there were no copyrights or lawsuits over designs.” 

Some of the influential artists that Brown has noted include J. Gleason, Rufus Porter, D. Bartling, and William Gibbs. 

Gleason was known for signing the walls that he painted, one of which Brown has recreated in her exhibit.  

“A lot of the houses in northwest Rhode Island can be assigned to him because they share motifs. They may not have the signature, signatures disappear or get painted over, but we have one in Rhode Island that’s very important,” she said.  

The wall that Gleason painted and signed can be found in the Deacon Daniel Hopkins House in Foster.  

Wall stenciling can still be seen at local historic sites like the Christopher Rhodes House in Pawtuxet Village, the Thomas Arnold House in Apponaug, and the Peter Greene House at 1124 West Shore Road. 

According to Brown, it’s “debated” whether the stenciling techniques fell out of fashion with the rise of wallpaper. Displayed in the exhibit with the stencils are newspaper advertisements selling wallpaper. “Whether or not the wallpaper influenced the stencils, or vice versa,” she said. “We don’t know. They used similar kinds of designs.” 

Wall stenciling was such a prolific art that it established the state as “a true microcosm of American interior architectural painting.” 

Brown’s goal is to share “the knowledge to help people know what this is and to preserve the history,” she said at the exhibit’s opening last Friday. “This is all about preservation.” 

Brown hopes to bring her exhibit to Bristol, displaying it on the East Bay side of the state.  

“This is a part of our history,” she said. “We really must save it.” 

For more information about Brown’s work, visit anneckertbrown.com. The “Painted Rooms of Rhode Island” exhibit will be on display during Warwick Public Library hours through the end of August.

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