Last summer, the Hingham Historical Society received the generous gift of a large (5.5’ x 7.5’) mural with a South Seas islands scene. It had been painted directly onto a horsehair plaster wall on the back porch of a home on Hingham’s Main Street. For decades it was hidden behind wall paneling until it was accidentally discovered during a 2011 house renovation undertaken by homeowners Frank and Patricia Hanrahan. The Hanrahans immediately understood this exciting find because they had traced the ownership of their home and knew that from 1931 to 1939 it had been owned by noted marine artist Frank Vining Smith and his wife Nella. Smith is considered one of America’s foremost marine artists and is especially well known for his romantic portrayal of clipper ships from the “Golden Age of Sail.” Although the mural doesn’t depict Smith’s typical subject, the painterly brushwork and color suggest Smith’s style.
The Hanrahans decided that this long hidden art work was a valuable part of the house’s history and hired Oliver Brothers of Boston, Fine Art Restoration and Conservation, to preserve and restore the damaged and fragile mural. Over several days the mural was painstakingly removed from the wall of the porch by applying a protective sealer to protect the painting while the crumbling horsehair plaster was shaved off the back. The painting you see is actually over a thin skin of plaster that is mounted to a metal panel which was re-installed at the Hanrahans’ home on the same back porch wall.
Although the large mural is an imagined Polynesian scene without a ship in sight, the unsigned work has hallmarks of Smith’s style: impressionistic painterly brushwork, dramatic color, and a romantic depiction of the sea. A further clue that the mural was most surely painted by Frank Vining Smith is similar tropical imagery and figures that can be seen in a watercolor sketch, “Del Rio Shipboard Mural,” in the collection of Heritage Museums & Gardens, Sandwich, MA. Frank Vining Smith’s long career included painting decorative mural commissions for interiors of private yachts and ships built by Bethlehem Steel at Fore River Shipyard.
Smith was born in Whitman and summered as a child on the Cape Cod seacoast in Bourne where he became an avid sailor and loved sketching nautical subjects. His natural talent led him to prepare for a career in art, initially as an illustrator. At the School of the Museum of Fine Arts his teachers were noted American Impressionists Edmund Tarbell and Frank Benson. They both strongly influenced Smith’s painterly style and his ability to depict figures. When Smith reached his mid-forties he had become successful enough to give up publishing work and devote himself entirely to painting. Having moved to Hingham in 1921, Smith perhaps knew fellow successful artists Franklin Whiting Rogers on Free Street and Louis and Beatrice Ruyl on Gardner Street.
The mural’s indigenous figures on a non-specific South Seas Islands beach may have been inspired by popular culture during the 1920-30s when the choice of a tropic idyll was perhaps a whim for a back porch used by family for relaxation and entertaining, open to sunlight through French doors to the garden beyond.
In New England there is a tradition of painted walls depicting far away harbor scenes as seen in homes of sea captains and wealthy Yankee shipowners. Could this scene be Frank Smith’s playful take on a seafarer’s tradition? He was a man known to like a good joke.
Why does this fanciful 20th century mural hang in the Kelly Gallery of the Hingham Heritage Museum, where its bold imagery contrasts sharply with the fine antiques, more formal paintings, and historic artifacts on display?
First, the mural is a stunning artwork painted by a recognized master of marine art. Much of Smith’s work is in private collections and museums so it is a privilege for the Hingham Heritage Museum to display an original work.
Second, the painting sparks discussion of its cultural context. In the mural, native islanders wear tropical sarongs and pursue traditional activities: a woman dries fish in the sun, another bears a wide woven market basket on her head. She gazes admiringly at the strapping young fisherman proudly presenting his catch while a companion tends to the humble outrigger boat. The idyllic scene is not typical of Smith’s work and may offer a glimpse of popular travel and tourist culture of the 1930s. The mural may also be explored within the sociological framework of “colonial imagination,” the stereotypes created about colonized people, to provide insight into how they may have marked a young artist coming of age at the height of American imperialism.
Finally, the mural tells a great story of stewardship and historic preservation. The Hanrahans’ research led to a vital connection: noted Hingham artist Frank Vining Smith once lived at their 640 Main Street home. He likely painted the porch wall for pleasure before he and wife Nella built a new home in Hingham at 64 High Street—where wall murals by Smith were also discovered behind dining room walls, including one that also depicted a South Seas view.
Hingham is a town of antique homes. New home owners often renovate old houses, sometimes at a loss of valuable historical assets for Hingham. Fortunately Frank Vining Smith’s captivating Polynesian mural was not destroyed, only covered up. The Hanrahans’ stewardship and gift contributes to the many varied stories that make up Hingham’s history.
[Want to learn more? Video of a June 2021 gallery talk by Joan Brancale on this painting can be found here.]