The first thing that caught our eyes when we entered the Warner House in Portsmouth, NH was a mural that covered the staircase wall, winding its way up to the second floor. It didn’t hurt (relative to dog-crazy me) that the scene in the entry hall features a dog. “We’re not sure what it means,” said our guide, Sandra. “It could be the Odyssey, with Penelope at the spinning wheel and Odysseus as the eagle.” Odysseus’ dog is the one who recognizes Odysseus when he returns home after 20 years absence, so all the elements seem to fit.
The murals were painted not long after the house was built, around 1718. No one is sure, but experts posit that it was painted by Nehemiah Partridge (1683-1727), a Portsmouth artist whose father was a friend of Warner House builder Archibald Macpheadris.
One or two topics or themes generally peak my interest more than the others during a tour and those themes usually readily reveal themselves. I use them to edit the overwhelming amount of information I gather on a site so that I can describe my experience in about 500 words. Not so at the Warner House. Furniture, family, preservation efforts — it was all compelling. “What should I do?” I asked Kathie.
Her answer was almost immediate. “Write about the wall treatments,” she said.
And she was right. What grabbed both of us from the second we saw the dog on the stairway wall — what we’ll remember no matter how many other 18th century houses we’ll see — were the wall treatments. Three in particular were memorable.
The first was the murals. Besides the Odyssey scene, there’s Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac, two Mohawks copied from portraits done while they were in London meeting Queen Anne, and an unknown man on horseback. Jonathan Warner covered over all the murals except the Mohawks (I don’t remember why — if murals were out of fashion, why not cover the Mowhawks too?) when he took over the house in the late 1700s. The murals were uncovered in 1853. “The story goes,” said Sandra, “that a child pulled at some lose wall paper, and revealed part of a horse’s hoof.”
The second is the sitting room. When the last private resident of Warner House died in 1931, family members began taking away the furniture. One piece to go away was a large bookcase that had been in the same position since 1765. And removing it revealed a hand-painted wall, with paisley-esque borders outlining marbelized panels. A 1939 restoration brought the painted walls back to the entire room (and in 1980, the bookcase returned too).
The third is Jonathan Warner’s bedroom, which is a blue that seemed to … glow. “It’s smalt,” said Sandra.
“Smalt,” said Kathie. Of course she’d know. She was the one, you may remember, who recognized the chief archeologist of Historic Jamestown.
Sandra produced a small glass bottle of blue crystals. “It’s crushed cobalt blue glass. We spray it on with a glitter gun.”
Smalt was used as a decorative accent in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. So the Warner House staff was surprised when they did an analysis and found that all the walls of the room, plus the doors, plus the shutters, had been smalted. There aren’t any other examples of smalt-covered rooms in the US or England, so Jonathan may have been a man of unique vision. It sounds like you’d end up with a pebbly wall version of popcorn ceilings. But the glass is ground so fine that it’s hardly noticeable, even very close up, and it presents as a beautiful, restrained blue with a twinkle.
Kathie and I left the Warner House after two hours, with a million details bouncing around in our heads and a book on the Warner House to keep them all straight. We saw things that we — with several hundred historic houses visited between us — had never seen before. And while the regular public tour may not be as long and as thorough as the private one that we got, I feel pretty secure in saying that you’ll see things at the Warner House the like of which you’ve never seen before, too.
*Credit for the photos to Kathie. My camera hates me.