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The Lost WPA Murals of Gladys Brannigan

gladys_00They’re out there somewhere. Keep your eyes peeled for four, large, rolled paintings on canvas. Each one measures 7.5 x 11.5 feet and each depicts a pivotal scene from Portsmouth history. These four mural panels by artist Gladys Brannigan hung in the auditorium at Portsmouth Middle School on Parrot Avenue. The paintings were installed with great pomp in the fall of 1936. It is not yet clear exactly when they were taken down or where they ended up. (Continued below)



Four Lost Scenes of Historic Portsmouth

ARE THEY GONE? Harold Whitehouse says the murals were destroyed in the 1970s: Read more

Brannigan’s mural was funded by an economic stimulus package called the Federal Art Project, part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was created  by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during hard times in the 1930s. At the peak of the Great Depression the federal government took a stand. Artists were workers, according to Roosevelt’s “New Deal” administration. Hiring out-of-work artists was therefore good for the economy. Introducing the public, especially children, to the arts and culture, was considered good for America. Federal funding during this period created an estimated 2,566 murals, 17,744 sculptures, 108,099 easel paintings, and 240,000 prints. Artists including Thomas Hart Benton, Jackson Pollack and Ben Shahn participated.  

At the dedication  

Gladys_Brannigan_portraitGladys Brannigan may have been the only woman on the makeshift platform in the junior high that evening in the fall of 1936. She was surrounded by the mayor, school officials and representatives of the WPA. A “gratifyingly large number of citizens” were on hand to see the paintings unveiled, according to a newspaper account. One large panel showed George Washington in 1789 entering the gates of the Gov. John Langdon mansion on nearby Pleasant Street. Another celebrated the triumphant visit of the Marquis de Lafayette in 1824, and the next showed John Paul Jones about to depart on the sloop of war Ranger in 1777. The fourth depicted a 17th century Indian raid on the Portsmouth Plains.  

Following a piano solo and a prayer, Mayor Robert Marvin, who was also president of the Board of Education, spoke briefly. Marvin told those gathered that he was happy to see the “long bare spaces on the auditorium wall filled so beautifully.”  

New Hampshire’s WPA art director Omer T. Lessonde took the microphone and announced: “I think the murals were beautifully painted and I am thoroughly satisfied … I think they are above criticism.” 

Principal Raymond Beal could not pass up the opportunity to boost the new Middle School that had opened five years earlier in 1931 to accommodate 800 boys and girls. Besides being the first school in the state to install a mural, he pointed out, Portsmouth was also first to have a public address system, a talking motion picture machine, and a campus radio station.  

Artist Gladys Brannigan then told the gathering about her in-depth research, right down to the buckles on George Washington’s shoes. (Her notes and rough sketches have been preserved in the UNH Special Collections library.)   

“I think there are but few places as rich in storied past,” Brannigan told the assembled crowd at the dedication. Historic Portsmouth, she said, offered an infinite number of topics, and she had picked four that would “commemorate the glamorous past of this city” to its children.


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Tuesday, February 20, 2018 
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