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Visit “By the Fireside” and Discover Rare Overmantel Paintings, Fireboards, and More

An Interview with Tom Kelleher, Curator at Old Sturbridge Village, Part II

Overmantel Oil Painting, Old Sturbridge Village

Overmantel oil on wood panel, c. 1755, Old Sturbridge Village, "By the Fireside" exhibit

A new exhibit at Old Sturbridge Village, “By the Fireside,” opens this weekend on September 10, 2011 to display a strong collection of overmantel paintings, fireboards, andirons, and more. For a look back in time at daily life around a 19th century hearth, read Part I of the interview. In this post, we’ll take a look at some of the exhibit highlights.

What is your favorite story behind a piece in the exhibit?

We have an overmantel painting and a fireboard that came together from the Bannister house in Brookfield, MA. That house no longer stands, but it was documented by the historic American building survey in the 1930s, so we have a black and white photograph of the house still standing. These pieces were collected by the noted late antiquarian and scholar Nina Fletcher Little, who donated them to Old Sturbridge Village when she passed on.

The pieces are beautiful in their own right, but what makes this a neat story is that before we owned the overmantel painting, it  was the inspiration for us to build part of our Salem town house exhibit. When you visit the village, look for a big yellow barn and oversheds with open bays. That barn and those bays were built in the 1950s and 60s, based on this overmantel painting. You can see the painting and the buildings in this video.

What are some other great examples of overmantel paintings in the exhibit?

There is one from the Moses Marcy house showing a man with a tricorner hat and a wine glass in his hand. The Smithsonian has borrowed that one for a few different exhibits. It’s a particularly fine example of an overmantel painting because it has all of the elements you expect.  Most overmantels are landscape paintings, and a lot of them include a home, but this one also has a person and a sailing ship, too.

Another great overmantel painting that we have is from a tavern in Walpole, NH. It’s rare because it has an American eagle on it. Patriotic themes, especially eagles, are not very common in domestic architectural decoration.

Overmantel Painting, Old Sturbridge Village

Overmantel oil on wood, Exeter, NH, c. 1800, Old Sturbridge Village, "By the Fireside" exhibit

Fireboards are also a strength of the collection. How were these used in the 19th century?

Fireboards were coverings for the hearth that people would use in the summer to keep birds, dust, bugs and squirrels from getting in the house. Some families would sweep out the hearth, make it all nice and clean, then take an urn or a vase and fill it with greens or flowers to put in the opening. But that was a lot of work to maintain. Increasingly people would place a board over the opening and sometimes paint that urn of flowers or greens right on the board. Other times, they’d paint the fireboard so it looked three-dimensional, like a trick of the eye, a trompe l’oeil.

What were some other common hearth decorations?

In the 1700s, wooden panels served as a common decorating technique. These looked like a paneled door, but sometimes took up the whole wall or a big part of it. The more prosperous families would sometimes have one of those panels painted, usually as a landscape.

In the exhibit, we have a very nice chimney breast, which is a mantle from a tavern in Connecticut that dates to the 1760s. It’s the entire paneled wall with an opening in it for the hearth. We were able to save it when the Ben Grovesner Inn in Pomfret, CT was torn down in the mid 60s.

The exhibit sounds fabulous. We can’t wait to see it.

“By the Fireside” opens September 10th in conjunction with a Collector’s Forum. On September 11th, Stephen Fletcher, Director of American Furniture & Decorative Arts at Skinner, will present the event, “What Is It? And What Is It Worth?” For more information or tickets, go to www.osv.org/antiques or call 800.SEE.1830.


Images courtesy of Old Sturbridge Village, www.osv.org

One thought on “Visit “By the Fireside” and Discover Rare Overmantel Paintings, Fireboards, and More

  1. Pingback: Old Sturbridge Village | Interview with curator Tom Kelleher Part I

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