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The Warner House Murals

Native Americans in 1720 Warner House mural/ SeacoastNH.com
HISTORIC TOURS

The recent discovery of Victorian murals at the Portsmouth Music Hall reminds us of an another painting discovered in 1854. Back then, forgotten wall painting s were found at the Warner House in Portsmouth, NH. Among the oldest in the nation, these murals may date to as early as 1720.

 

 

SEE ALSO: Slaves at the Warner House

Imagine the surprise of two Portsmouth boys when they discovered a full-sized horse hiding beneath a bit of peeling wallpaper in their home. The horse was painted, of course, and bore a mysterious rider on its back. At first only a hoof was visible. When the wallpaper was removed, more ancient murals appeared. No one living in the house at the time could remember when the paintings had been made. That was in 1854.

Today the murals in the Warner House are the nation’s oldest colonial wall paintings still in their original place. They were completed, experts now believe, around 1720 and represented the height of home decorating fashion at the time. Another scene depicts the scriptural tale of Abraham offering up his son Isaac, probably copied from a Dutch bible. A third is a enigmatic allegory of images – a servant stops a flax wheel that she has been spinning. She is looking at a dog that is barking at an eagle carrying away a chicken.

The most famous painted figures stand at the head of the stairs on either side of a window. Here two famous Mohawk Indian chiefs guard the hall. They represent two of four Native Americans "kings" taken to visit Queen Anne in 1710 by New York governor Peter Schuyler.

"This was a fine PR stunt," says Warner House curator Joyce Volk. "Schuyler knew these Indians would be objects of huge curiosity – and they were."

The idea was to persuade the queen to fund military efforts to defend the British New England frontier from French and Indian invaders. The Queen was enthralled by the regal Natives and funding was obtained.

Volk points out that these are not sturdy frescoes, in which the paint is mixed with plaster, but oil paintings. They were carefully restored in 1988 and visitors can see them as part of the house museum tour.

And what an amazing house it is. It was completed in 1718 by Captain Archibald Macpheadris, a wealthy Portsmouth merchant. Mansions made of brick were rare indeed at that time. Having survived nearly 300 years, the Warner House is considered the finest brick residence of its period in New England. Volk says that as early as 1857, the Warner House and nearby St. John’s Church (formerly Queen Anne’s Chapel) were considered the two "must see" historic sites in downtown Portsmouth. Its famous image appears on a wide variety of early souvenirs. The house museum was created in 1930 when developers threatened to tear the historic building down and replace it with a gas station. Visitors get to see superb examples of locally-made furniture. Among its treasures are portraits of the Warner family by the well-known artist Joseph Blackburn.

Another historic wall painting project has captured the interest of curator Volk. The surface of the paint in the master bedroom was accented with "smalt" in 1760. In the elaborate smalting process, she says, painters "strew" wet paint with finely ground blue glass. The glass was then distributed evenly with a goose quill. When done, the mauve wall paint appeared to sparkle in the sunlight. That’s a seacoast decorating tip from the original owners of this old house – this very, very old house.

OUTSIDE LINK: The Warner House web site

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017 
 
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