About the Murals
By Carol A. MarelliConnecticut Society of Decorative Painters
Volunteers from the Connecticut Society of Decorative Painters (CSDP) designed and painted the House murals in the style of Rufus Porter, an itinerant painter of the early 19th century. Wall murals such as these were used as a substitute for the more expensive imported wallpapers. These murals are meant to show visitors a decorative style that was available in the mid 19th century and not meant to be exactly what was in this house at that time.
CSDP is a local chapter of the Society of Decorative Painters which has a worldwide membership. The chapter is made of up painters of all skill levels and hobby painters as well as those who make a living from the art.Rufus Porter (1792-1884)
Rufus Porter, known as a jack-of-all-trades, had numerous careers in the arts and sciences. He was everything from “Professor Porter Dancing Master” to designer and builder of the first working model of a machine-driven airship. He received only six months of formal schooling at the age of twelve and then went to work on the family farm.
Porter married Eunice Twombly of Portland, Maine in 1815. From 1816 to 1834 they had ten children. However, this did not mean that Porter had settled down. His roving life seemed to have accelerated from that date. He headed south within a year of his marriage, spending some time in New Haven where he worked as a portrait painter and eventually opened a dance studio. The dancing school lasted less than a year. He headed home again to visit his wife, and then left on a yearlong voyage to Hawaii, where he earned his way with his artistic talents. On his return he started traveling southward as an itinerant portrait painter and silhouette cutter. Once he reached Virginia, he again returned home and began landscape painting.
In 1824 he began painting murals. At first he traveled with his nephew and student Jonathan D. Poor, and later with stenciler Moses Eaton Jr. Porter did most of his early work in the homes of Sebec, Maine but eventually traveled throughout the Connecticut River valley. Influences from his previous travels were represented in his work. Everything from palm trees to the Portland harbor were reproduced in various homes throughout New England.
Rufus Porter began writing instructions on his style of painting in 1825. By 1845 he had turned almost entirely to publishing and had founded the Scientific American. Porter serialized articles on the various decorative arts he practice. The instructions on mural painting were the most involved of all of his topics and covered several issues. He felt that with his instructions anyone could be a “Sunday Painter” and decorate a room with murals instead of paper.The Smith-Harris House Walls
Rufus Porter often included the host house and local landmarks in his murals. He also repeated his own favorite buildings over and over as he traveled the countryside. Throughout the Smith-Harris House murals you will see rolling hills, stylized trees, orchards, water and assorted repeated building styles. These were typical of Porter’s work, and many are copies of his exact stencils. The topography of East Lyme and some landmarks from 1845 are represented (with artistic license) in the murals.Downstairs Murals
The host house, as it might have looked when Thomas Avery built it in 1845, has a place of prominence on the wall outside the parlor and near the front door. We know, from tax records, that Avery had cows, horses, pigs and sheep, so they are included. The red house was built in 1720 . Across the road from this house stood the Old Stone Church, which the Second Ecclesiastical Society of Lyme built between 1831 and 1833. The church bell can still be found at the end of a path on the site.
The walls below the stairs feature a mill to represent the many mills that were active throughout the town. The wall to the right of the parlor door is decorated with hills and generic houses, as Porter would have done if furniture were to block his work. Small spaces between doors and windows were usually filled with a tree, as is done beside the sitting room door. The rising sun over that door represents knowledge, which Porter often used over his depiction of Dartmouth College.
As you go up the stairs, the large tree that rises the full height of the wall is another Porter trademark. He used this to help the transition from one floor to the other. The broken tree tops, which can be seen beside several doors, are also Porter favorites.Upstairs Murals
Over the stairway you see a rendition of the Niantic Bay, complete with Wigwam Rock, and the Niantic River going off to the left. The area, which is now McCook Point Park, is represented to the right with a large white house to depict the McCook House, which once stood on the bluff. Also, on the right are the Thomas Lee House built in 1660, and the Little Boston School House, established in 1734, which once stood across the road from the Lee house, and now stands next to it on the property of the East Lyme Historical Society.
The sailing ship in the Bay is an interpretation of the J. R. Mundell, which was built in Niantic. The Mondell was built after the Civil War, so it is a bit young, but it is there to represent the fishing fleet and shipbuilding industry which flourished in East Lyme.
Left of center is a small cluster of buildings and a large stone house. This stone house still stands in Saunders Point. William H. H. Smith lived in the stone house as a child, and bought this house from William Avery’s widow, Lockie Avery, in 1877. There were windmills in Black Point, thus we show one in the distance to the right. There was a tower in Pine Grove, so we show an often-repeated observatory of Porter’s. The observatory, copied after on in Portland Maine, was used to alert the townspeople of a returning ship by flying its flag. The little sailboat with a man in it is also a Porter trademark.
As the mural turns the corner to the left, we can imagine this area as “the head of the river”. On the hillside sits a fenced in yellow house inspired by one on Gurley Road. The house is believed to have been built by Moses Warren about 1830. The gambrel roofed yellow building represents Caulkins Tavern, built in the early 1700’s at the north-east corner of the Chesterfield Road and Boston Post Road. General George Washington lunched there with Lafayette. The Tavern was dismantled and taken out of town, a real loss for East Lyme.
The opposite wall, over the stairway, is a typical Porter scene, and one that is still intact in a home in Hanover, New Hampshire.
On the wall to the right of the master bedroom, the Flanders Baptist and Community Church is featured. The first Town Meetings were held in the church basement in the early 1800’s. The original Baptist Meeting House of Flanders was on Meetinghouse Hill, in the area where Boston Post Road and Bride Brook Road meet. It was there, on June 10, 1839, that the newly chartered Town of East Lyme held its first Election of Officers. The church moved to its present location in 1843 in order to be closer to the parishioners who were settling along the river and in Niantic.