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A Name for a Scrollwork Artist…

By Linda Lefko Share:

Courtesy Historic New England Gift of Nina Fletcher

Plaster Bits


A Name for the Scrollwork Artist….

The March 2018 CPWP Plaster Bits posed a question for our readers, as to who the artist was who painted free hand decoration in the Ashford House in Ashford, CT. We thank Brian Ehrlich for his research and for sharing a possible artist’s name.

The name of Noah Graves is proposed, since similar work also has been attributed to his hand. As is often the case, without a solid, signed example, scholars take clues from circumstances and visual images to arrive at an attribution.

A 1977 Deerfield, Massachusetts, newspaper article featuring a local house with wall painting, researched by Historic Deerfield director Donald Friary and intern Patrick Stewart, attributes the decorative work to Noah Graves.  Friary quoted from a letter by Nina Fletcher Little, author of the 1952 American Decorative Wall Painting 1760-1850,discussing Graves as the “unknown itinerant” and “the most interesting and probably one of the earliest freehand wall painters”. In 1964 and 1991, Little had donated wall sections from the Oliver Williams Inn of Sunderland, MA, to Historic New England with one attribution “Painted by Noah Graves’. Yet, his name is not found in any edition of Little’s book.

Scroll work on a wall panel
Photos Courtesy Historic New England, Gift of Nina Fletcher Little
Photos Courtesy Historic New England, Gift of Nina Fletcher Little

However, the distinctive style identified as that of Noah Graves matches the two panels from Oliver Williams Inn, Sunderland, MA, owned by Historic New England, the Chapin House wood sheathed paint decorated wall in Chicopee, MA., as well as the Ashford House wood sheathing decorated wall in Ashford, CT.

This ochre ground dome-top box, which appears to be in Graves’ style (now privately owned. measuring 8″H x 20″ W x 10″ D), is similar to a box  referenced by N. F. Little in her 1980 book, Neat and Tidy, where she compares it to a wall section from the Oliver Williams Inn in Sunderland, MA by an “unknown” artist. Research on Noah Graves (1751-1819) reveals he was born in Sunderland.

Noah was one of nine children born to Reuben Graves (1724-1778) and Hannah Fuller (1721-1819) who married in Sunderland, MA in 1748 and lived at 207 N. Main St., very close proximity to what is likely Noah’s first commission, the Oliver Williams Inn at 225 N. Main St., Sunderland. Oliver and Zeriah Ballard Williams established the Inn, now gone, in 1781. It is possible Noah developed his skill as an artist in his hometown.

A potential attribution of the Ashford House painted wall to Noah Graves can be made not only through the singular style, but also through genealogical association. A link is documented since Hannah Fuller Graves’ extended family line lived in Ashford, CT, until at least 1848, owning several large tracts of land. Her great granduncles Nathaniel, Daniel and Thomas were proprietors of Ashford in 1718. The Ashford House painted wall is in the same style utilized by Graves. With this family connection, it would explain his presence in the area.

Noah Graves was a Painted Wall Artist
Noah Graves was a painted wall artist

In a 1985 article ‘The Great River: Art and Society of the Connecticut Valley, 1635-1820’,  p. 89, William Hosley discusses the Stratton Tavern and attributes wall paintings there to Noah Graves. However, Hosely cannot provide a source for this attribution.

All this information is promising, but for now it has to be accepted on face value that the name of Noah Graves has been known regionally for two centuries as an artist with an identifiable style. The attribution is plausible, and hopefully further research will confirm it as true. Certainly his distinctive style is easily identifiable with a known body of work long admired by historians.*

*    Timeline citing Noah Graves:

1952: American Decorative Wall Painting 1700-1850, first edition, by Nina Fletcher Little. There is actually no reference to Noah Graves or any wall painter with the “Graves” name.

1964, 1991: Nina Fletcher Little gifts two wall sections from the Williams Inn to (now) Historic New England, with an attribution to Noah Graves associated with the 1964 donation. However there is no definite indication that Little made the attribution at that time. The second paint-decorated wallboard gifted in 1991 has no attribution to any artist on Little’s attached “jelly label.”

1977: A newspaper article appears concerning a newly discovered house with painted wall(s) attributed to Noah Graves by researchers Donald Friary and intern Patrick Stewart.

1985: The Great River:  Art and Society of the Connecticut Valley, 1635-1820, p 89. William Hosley, in his discussion of the Stratton Tavern, attributes wall paintings there to Noah Graves. The reference is not footnoted. Hosley recently was uncertain where this attribution initially came from.

1986: Borders and Scrolls, Early American Brush-Stroke Wall Painting by Margaret Coffin. No name references to any itinerant wall painters.

1989: American Decorative Wall Painting 1700-1850, New Enlarged Edition, by Nina Fletcher Little. Expanded to an eleventh chapter, “More Examples of Varied Kind,” Little newly references the Williams Inn and includes representative pictorial samples. However, again there is no attribution to Noah Graves.

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