CHARLESTOWN — Two murals that languished for centuries behind the walls of the Card Farmhouse on Old Coach Road will be restored and displayed in the council chambers at Charlestown Town Hall. The funds for the painstaking restoration come from a $39,600 grant from the Champlin Foundation.
The farmhouse was built, most likely, by Job Card in 1732 and is currently owned by Thomas and Patricia Ready, who began to restore the house in 2002. It wasn’t until 2008 that the murals, known as wall stencils, were discovered in a wall in the parlor. One is a portrait of George Washington and the second depicts William Henry Harrison, the ninth President, who served for just 30 days before dying of pneumonia. The artist who painted them is unknown, and no signature has been found thus far.
Charlestown Historical Society President Pamela Lyons explained that as the work on the house progressed, several pieces of early American art were discovered, but nothing as significant as the two wall stencils, which the Readys donated to the historical society.
“In the process, they uncovered these two large murals and they were so unusual, they’d never seen anything like them before and they knew that they needed to connect with somebody, so their first stop was the Charlestown Historical Society,” she said. “We’re happy to say it was their last stop as well.”
The society began to reach out to historic preservation specialists who came to view the stencils and there was a consensus that they were both special and rare.
One of the things that distinguishes the murals from other early American artwork is their political message.
“It obviously was a political statement,” Lyons said. “We don’t know if it was Dr. Card or a Card family member who was wealthy enough to have this artwork done in his home. The statement was trying to show their support for whatever political figures he believed were doing the right thing for the country, something you don’t usually see painted inside a home.”
Simply removing the murals from the Card house was a challenge. Each panel measures approximately 4 ½ by 5 feet and weighs 250 pounds.
“The stencils were done on horsehair plaster,” Lyons said. “The horsehair plaster is affixed to lathe work, the old ribbing that they used in older homes, and the lathe is connected to chestnut beams — the actual outside structure of the house.”
The murals have been stored at an undisclosed location until the restoration work begins, hopefully in the spring. Three conservators, known nationally for their work at historic sites such as George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon will restore the stencils.
Overseeing the restoration will be art conservator Marylou Davis of Woodstock, Conn., who will clean the murals and restore the paint.
“I match the colors and add that kind of in-painting in a way that’s done now in art conservation,” she said. “You don’t see it as much in the United States, but you see it all through Europe, and that is to intentionally match it, tone it in a way that you can see all of the important content that the original mural has to offer, but you also see the new in-fills. You know exactly where the restoration begins and ends.”
Philadelphia-based Adam Jenkins, who specializes in restoring historic objects, will be responsible for stabilizing the murals; mounting them on panels and having shadow boxes built to protect them when they are on display.
The third conservator, RoryBrennan of BrattleboroVt., will fill in the missing plaster using what is known as “in kind” or historically-appropriate plaster and remove all modern hardware from the panels.
Davis praised the historical society for recognizing the discovery as special and taking the appropriate measures to restore and protect the murals.
“These things don’t happen unless you have people that are very astute and do all their own research, [and] know how to conduct a project as important as this one,” she said. “It’s just really remarkable in terms of how they’ve worked together… Obviously, nothing happens without funding and funding doesn’t happen unless the funders are very confident that everything has been done well.”
If the Champlin Foundation grant had not come through, Lyons said the murals would probably have ended up at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., but she is delighted that they will remain in Charlestown.
“We wanted to keep them here in Charlestown, because they represent the history of South County where they were done, because they represent the history of the area,” she said. “It’s so exciting and it’s what we love to do.”