Thursday, September 10, 2009

"Stimp": The Wall Stenciller of Bump Tavern

They are the most elusive folk artists, even though their output was prolific and widespread. I’m talking about the stencillers who decorated the plaster walls of homes, businesses, and public buildings in the early 19th century. Only a few have been identified, but if you have been to The Farmers’ Museum, you have probably seen the work of one of the most interesting and colorful of these characters.

Bump Tavern is very popular among the thousands of museum visitors that come to the museum each year, but few people realize that the wall decoration relates closely to a body of decorative work in Connecticut, where the Bump family came from. When the tavern was moved to the museum in the 1950s, workers discovered stenciling under wallpaper in three second floor rooms. The plaster was beyond restoration, so the museum decided to preserve one section of the original wall (viewable behind a hinged wallboard, above) and have the rest of the stenciling recreated by a member of the Historical Society of Early American Decoration.

Early scholars of American wall stenciling noticed the similarity of the original Bump Tavern stencil patterns with a number of homes in Litchfield County, Connecticut, including the Isaac Hartwell house in Washington. The stenciller is thought to have also worked in Northfield Farms, Massachusetts, where he decorated the Stratton Tavern (right and below left), and in Dover Plains, New York, where he stencilled the walls of the Perry House (above). Local tradition held that the stenciller of the Hartwell house was a man known only as “Stimp,” who drifted into town as an older traveling artist and decorated Mr. Hartwell’s parlor in the early 1830s. According to one local source’s childhood memory, Stimp went to his client’s home in 1834, “crazed with drink,” and tried to kill Hartwell. He was taken into custody, said to have been led to the village whipping post, and sent to the town jail. There is no other mention of his whereabouts after this incident.

In the late 1990s a local museum researched Stimp, and although the jail records were no help, they did find a Caleb H. Stimpson living in the area in the 1830s. There is no direct evidence to tell us that this was the Stimp in question, but it is interesting that there are also several Stimpsons, from Connecticut, who were among the early settlers of Windham and Ashland, New York, the original site of Bump Tavern. This research is summarized here.

So now when you wander through the second floor of Bump Tavern admiring the artist’s signature pinwheel and acorn borders, distinctive swag and tassel cornice patterns, and S-curved floral motifs, you can appreciate the New England ties of both the owner and the artist. You can also see how a 19th-century folk artist used his repertoire of images to decorate a complex space full of nooks and crannies. You can wonder why he left the job before it was complete (see below). And, lastly, you can imagine how an artist prone to drinking to excess managed to work day after day in a tavern with temptation stalking him in every corner.

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