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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.





In love with Portsmouth 

Gladys Brannigan (1882-1944) was far from the first artist to be enamored of Portsmouth. Illustrator Beatrice Pearson and 19th century guidebook author Sarah Haven Foster, for example, had created hundreds of sketches. “Painting Portsmouth,” an exhibit currently running at Strawbery Banke Museum, features local scenes by artists John Blunt, Edmund Tarbell, Charles Woodbury, Russell Cheney and many more. The exhibition, recently made available as a hardcover book, includes a striking image of the city’s South End by Gladys Brannigan. Her painting is entitled “Portsmouth from New Castle.”  

The junior high murals were not her first Portsmouth paintings, however. Born in Hingham, Massachusetts, Brannigan had lived in New York City and Washington, DC by the time she arrived here in 1929. Her husband Robert was ailing when the Brannigan’s settled into the historic Nathan Parker House on Livermore Street overlooking the South Mill Pond.  

In the early 1930s Brannigan painted a number of imagined scenes of early Portsmouth on the walls of the house next door on Livermore Street. The Portsmouth Herald called her work there “one of the finest sets of murals in New England.”    

Brannigan attended a variety of art schools and exhibited her paintings widely in shows and galleries. While living in Portsmouth, her husband died. Brannigan then moved on to take a position as art director at Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia. She was there in May 1936 when a letter arrived from Mayor Marvin announcing her WPA commission at the Portsmouth Middle School. She returned here for the summer, working in a large space at the high school with an assistant, and completed all four paintings in roughly three months.  

Brannigan’s original sketches -- the ones approved by the Portsmouth school department -- still survive in the principal’s office at the Middle School. But the murals themselves, at this writing, have disappeared. They do not show up in the inventory of Portsmouth city archives created 10 years ago.  

Murals WPA-style  

Much of the public work created by the Federal Art Project has suffered a similar fate.  Statues rust, memorials are neglected or go out of fashion, murals are frequently painted over or destroyed with the buildings they occupy. Public tastes change too. Brannigan’s formal work, with its sketchy faceless figures, might not appeal to modern viewers. They look today like images from a child’s coloring book, but she was following the fashion of her time.  

Omer Lessonde, who managed New Hampshire’s WPA art projects, also hired Brannigan to decorate buildings in Dover, Durham, and Keene. Murals, unlike “easel painting”, Lessonde said in 1936, had to follow federal guidelines.  

“Murals must not be too realistic and Mrs. Brannigan’s are not,” he explained. “Murals must be authentic in every detail.”  

Brannigan described her mural work as “architectural” and said that it functioned much like ancient tapestry – filling spaces with iconic scenes. Her purpose was commemorative, she said, rather than anecdotal. She wanted young people to know that “Washington walked these streets.”  




Making public art   

“What rules?” says Gordon Carlisle, a muralist and fine artist working from his Portsmouth.  “Today, anything goes.”  

Carlisle was among the group of artists who created a four-story mural on plywood in downtown Portsmouth in the 1980s. The gigantic painting covered up the renovation of a building in Market Square. The mural artists created a “time warp” depicting the building as it might have looked 100 years earlier. 

Although he never saw Brannigan’s work, Carlisle says he feels an immediate kinship to her. He is fascinated with the idea of using history as a mirror to modern times. While Brannigan’s figures were lifeless and two-dimensional, Carlisle’s life-sized characters often appear to leap off the wall. He describes himself as a “painterly realist” and, like Brannigan, his work often references historical events, real or allegorical figures, and famous works of art.  

Carlisle’s murals can be seen in diverse sites from St. Peter’s Church in Portland, Maine to Bob’s Clam Hut in Kittery. His jobs often come from “Percent for Art” programs. This legislation – it varies from state to state -- requires the owners of new public buildings to set aside a small portion of the funds for art. The successful muralist, Carlisle says, is constantly filling out application forms, writing proposals, and competing for commissions.   

“She [Brannigan] was a working artist trying to make a living – and she got jobs,” Carlisle says. “It’s hard to get paid. It’s often a battle. A muralist is working for a client. It’s public art. It’s a bargain you reach with the hiring organization. You’re not doing it for yourself. It’s about the client.”

Art with a purpose  

In the 1930s federally-funded art had political, as well as fiscal, educational, and cultural goals. Portsmouth superintendent of schools, H.L. Moore, told those who attended the 1936 dedication that the new murals should give students a “keener appreciation of their heritage.” Many of the children at the Middle School then were descendants of old Portsmouth families. 

Students, Moore said, needed to keep Portsmouth “strong and enduring.” This was especially important in the desperate times of the Great Depression. The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, the city’s primary employer, was practically at a standstill. Middle-schoolers, Moore said, should discover “a sense of their obligation to sustain the ideals and honor the sacrifices that made this city and this nation possible.” And they did just that. These kids went on to become the Greatest Generation, graduating from high school directly into World War II. 

Superintendent Moore also understood the power of art for its own sake. He concluded the unveiling ceremony for Gladys Branigan’s lost murals with a statement that still rings true. He said, “Let these murals be dedicated to the spirit of art in our city as an outstanding evidence that beauty of form and color is still recognized and finds a rightful place in our modern living.” 

 By J. Dennis Robinson

SOURCES: The author wants to thank the following for research assistance on this article: Nicole Cloutier, Ellen Fineberg, Mary Ann List, Jane James, Dale Velena, Robin Silva, Tom Hardiman, Richard Candee, and Maryellen Burke.   

Copyright © 2010 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson is editor and owner of the Web site His history column appears here every other Monday and online at his site.

Artist Gladys_Brannigan (1882-1944)


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