BRIDGTON, Maine -- The little red house that is home to the Rufus Porter Museum and Cultural Heritage Center hid its secret for years. Only an art historian with a dedication to old houses suspected it.
Under the layers of wallpaper in the parlor lay murals Porter had painted as a young man in the 1820s. An artist, teacher, inventor, and founder in 1845 of Scientific American magazine, Porter (1792-1884) painted watercolors and later traveled from one New England town to another, painting blithe landscapes on the plaster walls of well-to-do homes.
At the museum, his green trees and hills fill the walls of the front parlor, and on the mural's calm water floats his signature sailor, a man in a top hat steering a sailboat.
The building, a former parsonage, was saved and moved by a former Bridgton resident, Tom Johnson, the curator of the Old York Historical Society and a student of Porter's itinerant art . Johnson had learned that the few remaining murals in the area were in houses that had been owned by Porter's relatives and that one relation had owned the parsonage.
The Porter murals on display, and photographs of later, more detailed murals by Francis Howe taken from a house in Westford, Mass., and stored here, share an Early American style mixing awkward perspectives with exuberant charm. Trees are dark on one vertical half, and light on the side toward the room's source of light. Ships glide in full sail and in opposite directions, without a branch moving.
Johnson believes Porter's early mural painting was something his family supported, and it didn't come cheap. ``It was as expensive as French wallpaper," Johnson said.
In his later years, Porter turned to invention. He sold his revolving bullet chamber idea to Samuel Colt for $100, losing out on a fortune when it revolutionized the industry. His innovations in developing churns, corn shuckers, and many other items enhanced the mechanical world, if not his pockets. Johnson owns one of Porter's patented levels, a thin square box with a compass-like needle that points up when the box sits on a level surface.
The culmination of Porter's inventions, a flying machine, was demonstrated in New York with a little model that flew in a full circle over the heads of the audience, but a full-scale model was never built.
Johnson sold the building in 2004 to present owners Julie and Carl Lindberg, who have assembled a group of volunteers now working to buy the building and form a nonprofit organization devoted to Porter and Early American arts.
In another room of the year-old museum this summer is an exhibit of five children's portraits painted by other artists between 1792 and 1850, around the time the murals were painted (1828) and the house was built (between 1790 and 1810).
The best portrait, according to museum president Beth Cossey, is one by M.W. Hopkins of a girl in a red dress, painted in 1830. Her lace pantaloons are painted with exacting delicacy. With her little basket of small red roses and her exquisite face, she could be an emblem of the economic upswing in New England at the time that offered Porter and others like him a chance to make a living from art.
Arts of the time, including mural painting, will be taught Monday through Friday of this week during the Cultural Heritage Center's inaugural Series of Workshops, which includes a lecture by Sumpter Priddy III, a specialist in American decorative arts. Tatting, a way of making lace with knots, dying wool for rugs, and painting traditional floor clothes are among the classes offered.
Contact Nancy English, a freelance writer in Portland, at firstname.lastname@example.org.