The Story Behind the Restoration of Clifford Ashley's Mural
In 2011, Polly Duff Phipps, donated this exquisite mural, painted by Clifford Ashley, to the Mattapoisett Museum. This mural carries with it more than just the history of what it portrays. It encapsulates the history of who we are. It carries the story of Ashley and Gilbert Hinsdale's friendship and of the 90 years it spent in the home at 20 Water Street in Mattapoisett. It is the story of Polly Duff Phipps' devotion to seeing it preserved. It chronicles the story of Seth Mendell enduring the Mattapoisett Museum preserved it, and of the long and delicate process Gianfranco Pocobene took in carefully cleaning and restoring it. The Chart is a Mattapoisett treasure that will be preserved as well as admired, appreciated and cherished at the Mattapoisett Museum.
Clifford Ashley was born in 1881 in New Bedford, MA, where he spent his youth on the waterfront amidst what remained of the once flourishing whaling industry. After graduating from New Bedford High School, he attended the Eric Pape Art School in Boston. A talented seascape artist, Ashley became well known for his marine paintings. In 1904, he boarded the Bark Sunbeam on a 6-week whaling trip in order to gain experience for the article he was writing. There he witnessed the hunting and harpooning of several whales, as well as the flensing and trying-out processes. His article was called "The Blubber Hunters" and was published in Harper's Monthly. In 1926, he used his article as the first two chapters of his premier book, The Yankee Whaler, considered by many to be one of the most accurate and definitive portrayals of New England Whaling.
Few People had both the practical knowledge of whaling and the professional artistic training as Ashley, and he used these assets to produce works of literature and illustration that were respected and appreciated by the old sea dogs and historians alike. In 1929, he published The Whaleships of New Bedford and in 1944, The Ashley Book of Knots, which is renowned as the essential bible of knot tying with descriptions and illustrations of over 3,000 knots.
In addition to his career as an author, Ashley was also a renowned marine artist and produced hundreds of nautical oil paintings during his life. None however, are known to be of size or scope of the 16 by 6 foot mural, "A Chart of The Whale Coast of New England, c.1810." Ashley died in his home in Westport, MA in 1947.
Gilbert Hinsdale, a collector and designer of harpoons and harpoon guns, was fascinated by whaling. He was also a close friend of Clifford Ashley. In 1919, he commissioned Ashley to paint the mural. Hinsdale had it placed on the sloped ceiling of the office/sunroom in his harborfront home in Mattapoisett.
The house at 20 Water Street, which housed the mural for 90 years, was built in 1901 for Mr. William and his wife Sohia. The Means has two daughters: Mary who married Horace F. Field II and Martha who married Gilbert Hinsdale. When Martha and Gilbert were married, they moved into the house on Water Street, which then became known as the Hinsdale House and for a number of years "The Piers". Possession of the house remained in the family and the mural was to stay in that spot weathering four hurricanes: those of 1938 and 1944, Carol in 1954 and Bob in 1991. In 1938 the hurricane completely knocked off the side of the building and gutted the sunroom, submerging it in five feet of water. But, the mural was miraculously unharmed.
Mrs. Polly Field Duff Phipps is the granddaughter of Horace and Mary Means Field and the great-grandniece of Gilbert Hinsdale. A few years ago Mrs. Phipps decided to sell the family home at 20 Water Street. She knew the mural was special and worthy of preservation and she was concerned a new owner of the house might not feel the same way. She began the search for an organization that would recognize the mural for the historic gem it was.
Mrs. Phipps first approached the Whaling Museum of New Bedford. Her first husband, Peter Duff had been involved with the museum during his life and it seemed a fitting choice. Unfortunately, the Whaling Museum was undergoing restoration of the large Bourne Room and the 1/2 scale whaling ship, The Lagoda and was unable to accept the mural. During this time, it was also briefly held as a possibility that it might go to the museum at Mystic, CT, but it was soon decided that the mural belonged in Mattapoisett.
Mrs. Phipps called her cousin Seth Mendell, President of the Mattapoisett Historical Society, and asked him if he would be interested in taking the chart for the museum. When Mr. Mendell agreed, she invited him to come down and look at it. She had to go out on some errands, but left the door unlocked for him. He had never been in that room before, and on entering could not find the chart. It was not on any of the walls. Finally he looked up and realized that this "chart" his cousin had been referring to, was in fact a 16 X 6 foot mural on the ceiling!
The moment Mr. Mendell saw it he knew it was a one of a kind and needed to be preserved at all costs. He immediately went down to Rogers Gallery in Mattapoisett to see his friends, Nate Bekemeier and Ben Rogers, and said, "I've got a project and I need help!" At first, they didn't actually believe that it was a Clifford Ashley mural. No one knew of its existence. Mr. Mendell took the two skeptics back to the house to show them. When they saw the mural, they were just as excited as he was. In accepting this gift however, the Historical Society was faced with two immediate questions. "Where in the museum are we going to put this?" and, "How do we get it off the ceiling?"
Mr. Mendell knew that the only place in the museum it might fit was in the church building over the pulpit. So he and Mr. Bekemeier rushed there with a tape measure and climbed into the balconies to find out. The space above the pulpit measured 16' 6" across. The mural was 16' 2.5". Not much room for framing, but they knew it would work!
Next, they discovered that the mural's canvas was adhered to its own platform made of match boarding and held together by 10 iron straps, each six and a half feet long. A crew of ten men loosened the straps from the ceiling and the mural was released. With the platform and iron straps, the mural weighed 500 pounds. The team picked it up with great care, took it out of the building, and loaded it into a panel truck. It was so long that it hung out the back of the truck as they drove it the half mile to the museum on Church Street, where they carried it through the door and laid it flat on top of the pews on the west side of the church.
There were some portions of the chart that were in disrepair. Water leakage from the roof had loosened the canvas from its backing in some places, and 90 years of dust, grime and salt air in an unheated room had left it very dirty.
Now, two more challenges arose. The Historical Society needed funds to get the mural restored. They also needed to find a conservator who would undertake a project of this magnitude. After talking to five or six conservators who came to the museum to see the mural, they finally found Gianfranco Pocobene, a Boston area restorer who had worked on the murals of Boston's Trinity Church and Public Library They liked him immediately — he said there was no challenge too great, no mural too large! He took paint samples to be analyzed and gave the museum a reasonable price quote and timetable.
In the meantime, Mr. Mendell had been speaking to a number of potential donors and was able to find the benefactors needed to undertake the project. Currently, there are still a few bills to pay, but better to have the mural on the wall than on top of the pews! This whole process of fundraising and finding the right conservator took fourteen months, but finally on January 10, 2011, the mural left the museum with Mr. Pocobene.
In February 2011, Mr. Mendell and Mr. Bekemeier went up to Boston to review the progress. The surface of the mural had been cleaned and the difference was already unbelievable. All the vignettes and images stood out on the canvas and could be seen quite clearly After this initial cleaning, Mr. Pocobene had to separate the canvas from its platform. It had been attached with a paste, common to the early 20th century, made mostly of flour and water. The painstaking removal process was done very gently with plastic spatulas, lifting up a little bit at a time and actually rolling the canvas as it came off the backing.
Once removed, the chart was laid out facedown on a soft surface so that the back could be washed and stabilized. Next, the canvas was adhered to a piece of linen cloth and then a second, so closely that all together they appeared to be just one piece of material. Finally, these layers were stretched over a wooden frame or stretcher with the same measurements as the chart.
Over three to four weeks, the mural was slowly stretched using nearly a thousand pushpins around the edges. Every two or three days, the conservator would pull the canvas to the edge, further and further, tighter and tighter each time to remove any wrinkles. Using an unheated flatiron (over a protective layer of paper) to help smooth out the surface, the fabric was stretched until it was ready to be attached permanently to the frame.
On the 17th of June, just six months after it left, the mural arrived back in Mattapoisett. With its new frame it weighed just 120 pounds; 380 pounds less than when it left! 'l he museum had seen a few changes in those 6 months as well. 1he wall on which the mural was to be hung was repainted and fitted out with a long vertical cleat that corresponded to one on the back of the stretcher. The air conditioning system in the museum was also replaced in order to control the humidity and temperature for preservation purposes.
Gianfranco Pocobene personally oversaw the trucking of the restored Ashley chart from his studio at Fine Arts Enterprises in Boston to the Mattapoisett Museum. Once again, the mural was carried very carefully into the church building of the museum, down the center aisle, turned to face the entrance, and lifted up onto the scaffolding that had been prepared for its arrival. It was raised up and slipped down onto its cleat. It fit perfectly.
The Mattapoisett Museum is thrilled to be the recipients of this wonderful gift. They are deeply grateful to Polly Duff Phipps and her family, whose generosity and desire for others to know and appreciate the cultural history of this area are responsible for the new centerpiece of the Mattapoisett Historical Society Museum.
Ed. Note: The excerpt above is from the viewbook published by the historical society in 2011.
For a more in-depth look into this amazing mural, please visit our gift shop.
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