September 18, 2014
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Last word on painted rooms

After three well received books on early American decoration, Ann Eckert Brown says she wrote her last book on the subject.

“After studying houses and working in houses all over the country for 50 years, it occurred to me that Rhode Island’s examples are a microcosm of what was going on all over the country at the time,” said Brown, with a slightly rueful air. “So, ‘Painted Rooms of Rhode Island’ allowed me to talk about the subject in general and I think it will be the last book. I’m looking for other things to do.”

But those other things will not be far outside of the subject of four walls and what you can do to dress them up. As an artist and restorer with a national reputation, it would be difficult to imagine Brown taking down the shingle completely. She will continue to train other people in the folk traditions of colonial and early federal America. Her museum-quality decorated furniture has prompted many people to take up the art as professionals or hobbyists. She will also consult to those people who, in the course of renovating an old building, come across strange and faded images under layers of paper and paint.

“I’m always so pleased when a young couple buys an old house, finds some old painting and decided to learn about it and preserve it,” she said. “That still happens and it always excites me.”

Brown frowns a bit when she’s asked how much of the folk art is still undiscovered and looks even less happy at the thought of it being destroyed in countless home improvement projects over the last couple of centuries. Fortunately for modern Americans, their ancestors most frequently decided to build out from an old house instead of tearing it down and starting from scratch.

The Smith-Appleby house in Smithfield is a near-perfect example of succeeding generations building on what is already there. An 1810 addition to the house, originally built in 1696, revealed a hidden historical treasure during its careful renovation in the late part of the last century.

“I visited in 1981, just after the wallpaper had been stripped and was able to discern stencil designs in four rooms on the first floor and in front hallways and the stairway from the first floor to the attic,” Brown writes in “Painted Rooms,” as she speaks of the detective work involved with old houses. “Many of the designs suggested work by the elusive J. Gleason, but it would require finding and studying many more walls over the next 15 years to attribute the stenciling in a group of Northwestern Rhode Island houses to J. Gleason.”

While much of the early decoration in Rhode Island rooms was done in response to the incredibly expensive wallpaper, tile and other building materials that prompted the art of faux tile, wood marble or any other means of making a house look more prosperous than it really was, there were people who could afford more lavish decoration. This often meant hiring people who could do a higher quality of faking. “Rhode Island Painted Rooms” provides many rich examples of the faux amenities done in the grander houses of the colonial and federal era, when the young country was establishing itself as a trading power in the Far East.

It’s fun to wonder what visitors from abroad made of all this artificially created wealth of building materials in the young United States. Did they look down on Yankee pretensions or did they marvel at their inventiveness?

It’s safe to say, from our distant point of view, these early examples to make a more pleasant domestic environment in even the humblest of homes says much about the aspirations of 18th and 19th century Rhode Islanders, and makes “Hope” such a natural motto for them.

Brown has been restoring and recreating the patterns of these early artisans for many buildings over the years. She restored the interior painting for a gothic revival chapel in Newport and the stenciling in the Daniel Angell Tavern, an old Smithfield building that was moved piece by piece to Glocester in 2002.

It was all those years and more that have given Brown the authoritative voice she brings to her books and her conversations about early decoration. She has presented programs on the subject at Old Sturbridge Village and numerous historical societies throughout the region. Her articles on the subject have appeared in publications from the American Folk Art Museum and the American Museum in Bath, England.

From decorating rooms and decorating the furniture that filled them for 50 years, you can safely say that Brown’s books will be the basis for any respectable reference library on early American decoration for years to come.

Although she does do lectures on the subject, she has been more or less on hold in that area while someone more in tune with the current state of technology puts together a PowerPoint program she can bring to more venues. With a new book to promote, and a more relaxed attitude about her work schedule, you can expect that Brown will be up and about and not chained to her research materials for a while.

It will also free her up for those occasional calls she so loves to get.

“I am always thrilled when some young couple calls me and says they found these strange markings while they were working on their house,” she said with a smile. “I can’t wait to see what they have found.”

Additional information on “Painted Rooms” is available on Brown’s website: anneckertbrown.com.


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