Saturday, August 7, 2010

Taverns Signs: When Good Enough is a Masterpiece

One of the most frequent demands of artisan painters in the late 18th and early 19th century was for all manner of signs for the varied business enterprises that were sprouting up in cities, towns, and rural villages across the northeast. As was the case with portraiture, painters of all levels of ability and training answered the call for these very practical art forms.

There were no standards of design; shopkeepers put these signs up wherever they could. Over doorways, projecting out from their buildings suspended from wrought iron brackets, at the top of poles. It was especially important for innkeepers to have signs that were prominent from a distance, in order to attract attention from travelers. That is why tavern signs were often hung high up on a pole, much like gas station signs on the interstate highways of today.

Being utilitarian items that lived their lives in the elements, tavern signs are rare survivals with interesting histories. They were frequently painted over, and if you look closely at the lettering you can often find traces of a previous business name underneath.

We have on view in the folk art gallery at the Fenimore Art Museum an exceptional example of an early New England tavern sign, about 42” x 23 ¾”. It advertises the inn of an R. Chadwick, presumably of Rhode Island, where the sign was found. The images on the sign are in terrific condition and are fascinating in their detail. One side shows the inn itself, a two and a half storey structure with eight-over-eight windows and a prominent wide doorway. A large tree at the right provides shade to the building. The other side shows a tethered horse, obviously to advertise the inn’s stabling facilities.

The lettering is fascinating and perplexing at the same time, and shows how quickly these signs were done and how easily the proprietors were pleased. One the side with the horse, which I’m guessing was painted first, the artist got to the “D” in “Chadwick” before he realized that he was running out of room. The solution was simple: he just made the rest of the name smaller.

What is truly perplexing is that he had a second chance to get it right on the other side. He did better, getting all the way to the “I” before having to resort to the tiny letters. Wouldn’t you think he might have measured before starting?

We are not aware of any other signs attributable to this same hand, but one can only hope that on the third try, he finally got it right. In the meantime, his masterpiece was plenty good enough for R. Chadwick.

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