The Painted Past:  Unseen Objects from the Strawbery Banke Collection

Strawbery Banke has collected  objects since the early 1960s and has often had to keep them safely stored  because their story was not yet ready to be told. As paint can be applied to nearly any surface -- furniture, architectural elements, ceramics and other artworks -- there are many painted items from the past, some rarely or never seen, in the museum collection.  The Painted Past exhibition puts some of the best examples of those items on display in the Strawbery Banke Rowland Gallery.

Painted objects from the past include

  • a Federal period secretary, owned by Portsmouth merchant Elisha Hill, with gilded flower baskets painted on the glass doors
  • a period wall clock made by Thomas H. Tilden, a watch inspector for the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad
  • a tiny gold-framed portrait of Robert G. Mitchell, possibly created as a memorial as the date of his death is engraved with his name on the back
  • an early 1900s maple and pine chair from Portsmouth furniture maker John Gaines III, painted to mimic the graining of a dark exotic wood.

Items and newspaper ads help connect the collection to prior residents of Portsmouth: a fireboard  decorated with a painted urn full of flowers was painted by Georg Doig around 1800. In 1786 he advertised  the sale of water colors, “good English linseed oil” and paint brushes in a Portsmouth paper; and in 1813 announced that he continued to operate his shop on Jaffrey, now Court, Street, the northern border of Puddle Dock neighborhood.

Fire bucket belonging to Leonard Cotton (

Portsmouth cooper Leonard Cotton was one of Portsmouth’s most significant landowners, with more than forty properties in the city, including the two tenant houses at Strawbery Banke.  He was also a member of the Mechanic Fire Society, founded in 1811, whose distinctive fire buckets were painted by John Blunt with a large splayed eagle and a symbol of his trade in the center:  one of cooper Cotton’s barrels.

John Blunt, born in Portsmouth, operated a shop in the city for five years and painted some of the best documentation of Portsmouth’s changing landscape in the early 1800s as well as decorative items.  His portrait of the merchant ship the Sarah Parker hangs in the parlor in the Goodwin Mansion.

A painted cast iron bank from the Thomas Bailey Aldrich memorial. (

Author Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Strawbery Banke’s own “bad boy” author is represented in the exhibit with items collected by his widow Lillian for the shrine she built in his memory including a painted leather helmet from the Portsmouth Fire Department, a painted cast iron child’s bank and decorative arts including  a “Madonna and Child” painted on mother-of-pearl. Fellow writer and celebrated poet Celia Thaxter of Appledore Island, became known for the ceramics she painted for friends and island visitors. Some include a line or two of poetry like the vase painted for Mrs. Lillian Aldrich.

Some of the most intriguing decorative paintings at Strawbery Banke are in or part of the houses preserved by the museum.  In the c.1695 Sherburne House, red and gray circle were painted on the ceiling of the first floor east room.  In the Keyran Walsh House, the c. 1797 faux graining applied to the doors and the marbleized staircase and floor was reproduced by Walter Ketzler under the supervision of James Garvin, Strawbery Banke’s first curator when the house was restored in the 1970s.  

To bring The Painted Past into the present, Portsmouth artist Patrick Healey sets up an artist-in-residence studio in the exhibit gallery.

The Painted Past  is included with regular museum admission May 1 through October 31, 2017.