Some real gems hanging on region's public walls

TIM COOK/THE DAY The painting 'The Spirit of the Doughboy' hangs on the wall of honor at the Old Lyme town office building.
TIM COOK/THE DAY The painting "The Spirit of the Doughboy" hangs on the wall of honor at the Old Lyme town office building.

Towns throughout New London County are taking new interest in the art hanging on their walls. Paintings that hung for years in public chambers or hallways have been sent for cleaning or restoration. Art is being appraised, and its provenance carefully documented for posterity.

Old Lyme recently celebrated the return of "Spirit of the Doughboy," a magnificent pastel painting that was presented to the town as a memorial to World War I soldiers. Preston has sent its landscape by John D. Crocker to a professional restorer, after which it will go to the Slater Museum in Norwich on long-term loan. Waterford Public Library has an extensive collection of art in its main circulation area. And Groton is proud of the painting of its first town hall, presented to the town in 1924.

"I think it's very important for a town to maintain what it has," said Bonnie Reemsnyder, first selectwoman of Old Lyme. "People donated these paintings in good faith that we would do that."

Old Lyme maintains a fund each year to clean or repair its artwork on a rotating basis. The fund, about $3,000, is modest, but it ensures that the paintings get needed attention. "Spirit of the Doughboy," however, cost $17,000 to clean and restore, some of which came from a public improvement fund, Reemsnyder said. Old Lyme's renovation of Memorial Town Hall provided a good opportunity to send the painting out for restoration.

The results have been dramatic. Restoration removed decades of dirt from the glass and artwork itself, bringing out its vivid colors.

The Town Hall was intended as a World War I memorial, and artist Albert Herter's drawing depicts a soldier and a female figure - Lady Liberty, perhaps - holding the Stars and Stripes. Her gown is a vibrant orange set against the reds and blues of the flag.

Reemsnyder said people have remarked on it since the unveiling in April.

"They definitely notice the brilliance of the color now that it's been restored," she said. "It's such a large piece."

Preston's painting, "Forge Brook Pond - Poquetanuck," also absorbed dirt and smoke from its years in a public meeting room of Town Hall. But its primary problem is that an earlier restoration did not survive the test of time, according to Joseph Matteis Jr., a Clinton conservator who will be doing the work.

"This painting had serious, serious water damage," he said. "A large part of the upper painting had been replaced."

Although that earlier restoration was professional, the chemicals used were not stable and the colors eventually browned, Matteis said.

The painting was done by Crocker in 1894 and donated to the town, probably around 1961, by his granddaughter, Mira R. Gager. No one is completely sure of the painting's journey after that, but First Selectman Robert Congdon said he heard it was found in a potato barn on property the town acquired to build a public works garage.

The restoration will cost about $3,500 for the painting and another $3,000 for the frame, Congdon said. After that it will be loaned to Slater Museum in Norwich for 10 years, where it will join the museum's collection of more than 45 Crocker paintings.

Matteis is using ultraviolet light and infrared photography to assess the painting's condition. He will repaint the discolored areas and may have to replace the lining as well.

"Kudos to Bob Congdon and the town for realizing it's better off in a museum," said Vivian Zoe, director of the Slater Museum.

Officials in other communities have taken great pains to document their art collections.

At Waterford Public Library, director Roslyn Rubinstein is proud of the 16 American paintings and photographs in its collection. The library has had the works appraised by the Cooley Gallery in Old Lyme and appropriately labeled. Most of the works are in public view.

Just behind the circulation desk, she pointed out "our prized possessions" - a portrait from 1880, by John George Brown, flanked by landscapes by Robert Crannell Minor Jr. and Henry Cooke White. The library encourages people to walk behind the desk to examine the paintings if they are interested.

The portrait depicts Anna and Chapin Rumrill as children. The girl wears a white dress; she clutches flowers in her right hand while holding her dress pleat in her left, and her expression is serious. The boy holds a hoop in one hand and wears a straw boater, a black frock and high-button shoes. There's just a hint of mischief expressed by the jaunty tilt of his head.

The painting has particular significance because the Rumrills' daughter, Mrs. Edward C. Hammond, donated a house for the library's first home in 1928.

In Groton Town Hall you can find an historical image of the first Town Hall and artwork associated with Morton Plant - who paid for the present Town Hall on Fort Hill Road.

The first painting, which shows a colonial house on Fort Hill painted by Charles C. Lewey of Noank, was presented to the town in 1924 by Probate Judge Arthur P. Anderson. But it's the brooding image of Plant, the millionaire who built Branford House on what is now the UConn Avery Point campus, that dominates.

"There's very few photographs of Morton Plant," noted Town Clerk Betsy Moukawsher, whose husband, Thomas G. Moukawsher, painted the portrait from a photograph. The Town Hall also has a display of Morton photos and memorabilia, including his cane, on loan to the town.

But Moukawsher, wandering among the building's warren of offices, finds a number of paintings that may have little historical value but are nonetheless fun to consider.

Such as the "velvet Elvis" in the assessor's office.

"We loaned it to the library once," noted Mary Gardner, the town assessor. And when the office moved into a trailer during Town Hall renovations, Elvis left the building, too.

There may be even more treasures to be had. Because, Moukawsher said, there is an attic in Town Hall.

And she's never been up there.

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