Rufus Porter (1792-1884) was an American painter, inventor and founder of Scientific American magazine. The extensive murals in the upstairs ballroom of the Damon Tavern have been attributed to him by Jean Lipman. Ms. Lipman’s 1968 book: Rufus Porter Yankee Pioneer, reprinted in 1980 as Rufus Porter Rediscovered, was part of a special exhibition of the Hudson River Museum on nineteenth-century art. The murals from the Damon Tavern appear on page 137 in Rufus Porter Rediscovered. Lipman states that Porter decorated the Tavern’s ballroom circa 1835-1840.
Circa 1958 the Town of North Reading purchased the Damon Tavern building from the Whitcomb Family for use as a public library using funds bequeathed by William W. Weeks. The murals were discovered a short time afterward behind room partitions and layers of wallpaper. By the 1980’s the building had fallen into condemnable disrepair. According to a 1983 article in MassBay Antiques, the murals were authenticated by Nina Fletcher Little of Boston. The Damon Tavern is listed on the Massachusetts Register of Historic Places. In October 1996 North Reading Town Meeting approved $627,000 for renovation of the Damon Tavern building. There was a $90,000 matching grant from the Massachusetts Preservation Project Fund.1
In 1819 Rufus Porter traveled extensively by coach and on foot, painting portraits throughout New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia. Around 1824, Porter’s interest shifted from portraits to landscapes and then to painting murals. He traveled throughout New England creating mural landscapes for houses and taverns. His wall paintings were less costly for home owners than expensive imported wallpaper of the time. He became a prolific muralist between 1825 and 1845, decorating some 160 houses and inns in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and as far south as Virginia.
Porter generally created murals in a large scale on dry plaster walls by a combination of freehand painting and stenciling. He incorporated simple silhouettes into scenes of entire towns or harbors. Some murals were in full color while others were painted in monochrome. He sometimes stamped foliage with a cork stopper instead of painting it with a brush. Often Porter would do portraits of the principal household members where he was doing the murals.
Many Rufus Porter murals have been destroyed throughout the years. The few that remain are most often found in private residences and local historical societies. However, you can actually stay in a suite decorated by Rufus Porter at the Hancock Inn in Hancock, NH. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston houses Porter’s mural of Boston Harbor, painted circa 1824. The Rufus Porter Museum and Cultural Heritage Center in Bridgton, Maine possesses original murals and information.
Rufus Porter and I are descendants of John and Mary Porter who came from Dorset, England to Salem Massachusetts in the early seventeenth century. At the time of John Porter’s death in 1676, he was the largest landowner in Salem Village, his lands lying in what is now Salem, Danvers, Wenham, Beverly, Topsfield and Boxford. John Porter was Rufus’ 4th great grandfather and my 9th great grandfather.
The Rufus Porter murals in the ballroom of the Damon Tavern have been inaccessible to the public since the 1980’s. During the renovation, the rest of the Tavern had a water sprinkler system installed. However, this system was not installed in the ballroom over concern that any discharge of water would damage the murals. Solutions continue to be sought to once again make the murals available for public viewing.
1. North Reading Transcript Vol. XLII No.11, July 17, 1997
Lipman, Jean. Rufus Porter, Rediscovered. Clarkson N. Potter Press 1980
Mayer, Kaye, MassBay Antiques Magazine. January 1983. Pg. 10
Flint Memorial Library, North Reading, MA http://www.flintmemoriallibrary.org/libraryhistory.html
Rufus Porter Museum and Cultural Heritage Center in Bridgton, Maine http://www.rufusportermuseum.org/
Hancock Inn in Hancock, NH.
Townsend Historical Society, Townsend, MA.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA