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The Lost WPA Murals of Gladys Brannigan




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.”  


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Friday, December 15, 2017 
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