April 04, 2020

Historic Find > Murals from Hampden farmhouse provide peek at decorative style of early 19th century New England

Creating art on walls goes way back in time. Stone Age men painted bold images of bison, deer, horses and cattle on the walls and ceilings of caves in southern France. Michelangelo adorned the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with frescoes of biblical scenes, such as the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Your kids probably have tested their Crayolas in their bedrooms.

For decades, in their Hampden home, Ada and John Senter awoke to a panoramic scene, of verdant meadows flowing down to a cerulean channel filled with gaff-rigged sailing ships, gracing the walls of their bedroom. Above the fireplace, another painted mural showed a lilylike flower, with whit, salmon and periwinkle-colored blossoms, blooming in a Grecian urn. On yet another wall, a gentleman farmer stood beside a white picket fence at the edge of a rolling pasture where a pair of horses grazed.

“It was a mystery then, and it’s always going to be,” recently mused David Senter, Ada and John Senter’s son, speaking of the murals in his childhood home, which was built in the 1790s. David lives with his 90-year-old father in the 200-year-old white clapboard house on Main Road South.

Last year, the Senter family donated the murals for their safekeeping and preservation to the Hampden Historical Society. The society hired a professional conservator from Portland who painstakingly removed the wallpaper paintings from the Senter residence. Four framed sections can be viewed from 2 to 4 p.m. or from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 7, at an open house being held by the society at its Kinsley House headquarters on Main Road.

“This mural is a big part of Hampden history,” Betty Millner, the Hampden Historical Society’s collections chairperson, said of the Senter family’s gift. “It is important to save things from the past and preserve them.”

Earle Shettleworth, director the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, is familiar with the Hampden mural painted by an unknown artist.

“Some artists had books with illustrations of American and European landscapes” that they used as models for their own work, Shettleworth said. “There are still houses in Maine where their work has survived, but in many other cases, the scenes didn’t survive. They were either painted or plastered over. Sometimes, wallpaper actually preserved the murals, but it could also destroy them.”

“It was a popular practice from 1800 to 1850 for an artist to ornament people’s walls. The painter Rufus Porter was famous for such works in Maine and other New England states,” Shettleworth said. “The artwork could be confined to one room, but often extended into an adjoining hallway. Other well-known painters of the period were Jonathan Poor and Moses Eaton. But it’s quite rare where these artists signed their work.”

No one knows the exact origin of the mural adorning the Senter residence’s west bedroom. One legend has it a British soldier painted the scenes while staying in the house during the Battle of Hampden in 1814. Another story goes that a tramp artist created the wall art in exchange for food and lodgings. Still, others believe a woman, living in the house during the 18th century, did the paintings.

John and Ada Senter discovered the wall art when they took up residence in the Hampden around 1940. Coincidentally, at that same time, a boy stumbled upon the cave paintings in Lascaux, France, while searching for his lost dog. The cavemen’s art was in good condition, having been sheltered from the elements. The Senter residence murals, however, did not fare so well, having been exposed to light, fireplace smoke and soot over the years.

In the spring of 1999, Jim Farley, a private investigator, historian and member of the Hampden Historical Society, learned of the murals. Inquisitive by nature and vocation, he contacted the Senters and went to see the wall art. He recognized the paintings’ historical significance and eventually he and Millner offered to have the Colonial artwork preserved in exchange for showcasing the pieces at the society.

The Senters agreed, asking to retain a segment of the mural depicting a castle as a memento of the wall paintings that have been a constant in their lives for so many years.

“If this mural is taken from this house, it will be preserved for your own kids to see,” David Senter told his son, Joseph Senter.

Last summer, Portland conservator Nina Rayer spent several days removing 24-inch-wide strips from the bedroom walls. She used a tool resembling a nail file. She managed to salvage four pieces of the wallpaper ranging in size from four feet to six feet in width. She said the scenes were hand-painted, likely with tempera or oil paint, on individual strips of paper.

Ardeana Hamlin, a Hampden resident, author and researcher, said the use of plain wallpaper became popular in the late 1780s and early 1790s. She said wallpaper was favored over paint because it hid cracks in plastered walls.

John Nye, manager of Hussey’s Paint & Decorating Center in Hampden, framed and touched up the four pieces. It took him about six weeks to get the first panel, featuring a dapper gent in a black tp hat and pinstriped pants tucked into riding boots, to fit the frame. His favorite panel is of a scene depicting a windmill – which historians say once existed in Hampden – flanked by dark feathery trees beneath a sepia sky.

“I think this [mural] is 200 years old or better,” Nye speculated, adding the artist likely made pigment by blending linseed oil with ashes from the fire. “The paint is definitely oil.”

Nye took care to use acid-free backing and foam core to protect the porous paintings underneath while museum glass shields the works from ultraviolet rays.

Millner said the public is invited to attend the open house and view the society’s “newest treasure” at the Kinsley House.

For more information about the historical project, call 862-2027.

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