Four murals that may be America's oldest wall paintings have been restored after years hidden under paint and varnish and went on display this week, showing a whimsical side to colonial New England life.
The three walls surrounding the central stairway of Portsmouth's Warner House are thought to have been painted around 1716 when the mansion, now a National Historic Landmark, was built for a ship captain.The first scene, at the foot of the stairway, shows a woman working at a spinning wheel, a standard symbol of hearth and home, said conservationist Christy Cunningham, who supervised the restoration.
But the coziness ends quickly.
Next to the woman, a dog barks at an eagle that has just swooped down to snatch a dead, bleeding chicken in its claws. Up the stairs, in a biblical scene, Abraham raises a sword over his head to kill his son Isaac. And guarding the landing are two formally dressed Indian chiefs - the king of the Mohawk Wolf tribe and Prince of the Rivers - invited to England in 1710 to discuss an alliance against French colonists in Canada.
Only at the top of the stairs is there a gentleman on horseback, perhaps a military officer, whose red coat, three-cornered hat and white wig restore the image of stately, puritanical New England.
What the 500 square feet of paintings mean, who painted them and why the scenes were put together as they were are mysteries. But Cunningham says their theatrical qualities indicate a freer colonial lifestyle than is generally acknowledged.
"It's not what often comes to mind," she said. "The dainty people, their tea parties, can you imagine them living with this stuff roaring at them every day?"
"This is so bold and playful, it's hard to understand right away, but in fact these should help us understand better the way people lived. It's not the dainty people rustling around with pursed lips. They were wild people. They wore pink skirts and wigs and they were playful."
Whether the murals are the oldest of their kind depends on whether the man on the horse is Alexander MacPhaedris, the home's original owner, said Mary Black, a former curator and director of folk art museums in New York and Williamburg, Va. She believes the man is MacPhaedris.
"As far as I know, they are the earliest extant interior wall paintings in the 13 colonies," she said.
Cunningham's work at Warner House included stripping away damage by earlier restorers.
Two walls had been concealed under wallpaper. The most recent restoration attempt was in the early 1950s, when a colored varnish was added to cover imperfections and make the paintings look antique, she said.
Cunningham and several assistants started work Feb. 1. They used techniques learned working on wall paintings from ancient Rome, the only other society that decorated ordinary homes in such a way.
After the old paint was stripped and the chipping paint stabilized, they filled cracks with "gesso," an ancient mix of natural Italian calcium carbonate and rabbit-skin glue.
Cunningham did not do fresh painting.
"These are old paintings and they've been through a lot, and I'm not going to push them with a lot of make-up and make them look new," she said. "Let it be old."
The project was paid for by the non-profit Warner House Association, which raised $100,000 from residents and foundations.
The home was a private residence until the 1930s.