From Nature or Fancy: New England Decorated Woodwork

Despite the white and cream colors promoted by advocates of the Colonial Revival, eighteenth-century interiors were not nearly as stark in their choices of color.  For those who could afford it, fanciful decoration such as graining and marbling was not uncommon, turning interior woodwork and paneling into remarkable pieces of art.  Unfortunately, everyday wear and changes in taste led to the loss of many examples of eighteenth-century painted decoration.  While some has been preserved in historic house museums and other cultural institutions, there is undoubtedly much more that has been painted over and completely forgotten.

To see examples of eighteenth-century painted woodwork, mapped out according to its original location, see this map.

Among those examples now found in museums are two grained and marbled end-walls located at the Winterthur Museum, both of which came from New England.  The earlier of these two examples is found in a second floor space formerly known as the William and Mary Parlor, while the later example is the focal point of a sixth floor bedroom setting called the Williams Room.

The paneling in the former William and Mary Parlor comes from the now-destroyed Goble-Farrar house in Lincoln, Massachusetts, which was built around 1692.  The house was enlarged sometime around 1720, when it is believed that the paneling in the original bedchamber was updated and decorated following modern trends.

William and Mary Parlor  002

The William and Mary Parlor, photo courtesy of the Winterthur Museum

The painted paneling in the Williams Room originates from the parlor chamber of the Welles-Williams house, which still stands in Lebanon, Connecticut.  According to Williams family lore, this paneling was original to the 1712 construction of the house, though some have suggested that the paneling and/or its decoration is the product of a later renovation that took place between 1740 and 1760.  Given other examples of similar decoration from central Connecticut, it seems likely that the painted decoration dates to this later time frame.


Paneling from the Welles-Williams House as installed in the Williams Room at Winterthur

In addition to its marbled rails and stiles, and vibrant cedar-grained panels, the end-wall from the Welles-Williams house has a very large (27”x62”) overmantel painting, depicting a bucolic country scene.  While a number of New England overmantel paintings exist in public collections today, this is the only known example with applied elements.  Both the waterwheel and the blades of the windmill are applied pieces that move!

1969.1987 Painting

Overmantel painting in Williams Room (acc. no. 1969.1987), photo courtesy of the Winterthur Museum


Williams Room overmantel, detail showing applied windmill blades

Many surviving overmantel paintings have been found to draw inspiration from European prints, and the Williams Room overmantel is no exception.  European books like the Georgica Curiosa (1682) feature numerous images, some of which bear remarkable similarities to the Williams Room overmantel.

Georgica Curiosa 1682 - Noble Land + Country Life b

Engraving found on page 70 of the Georgica Curiosa.

Although reversed in orientation, many of the elements seen in this engraving are also seen in the overmantel itself.  For more on the Georgica Curiosa, including a link to a fully digitized version, click here.

Unfortunately, the Colonial Revival proved fatal for many examples of painted decoration.  Countless grained and marbled end-walls were covered with thick coats of white paint, and numerous overmantel paintings were removed from their architectural settings and sold as quaint examples of Colonial folk art.  Luckily, several overmantel paintings have since ended up in public collections such as the Worcester Art Museum and the Wadsworth Atheneum .

Thomas Robinson House SE Bedroom

Some of the decorated paneling in Thomas Robinson House in Newport was covered in white paint according to changes in taste.
Photo courtesy of the Historic American Buildings Survey.

As interest in America’s history and its accurate representation increased during the twentieth century, several of examples of painted decoration were uncovered beneath layers of later paint.  At the Joseph Webb House in Wethersfield, Connecticut, eighteenth-century graining has been recreated based on physical evidence, providing a more accurate interpretation of the house as it appeared  in 1781, when it served as Washington’s headquarters.  (For more on the recreation of the graining in the Washington Bedroom click here.

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 11.51.04 PM

Washington Bedroom in the Joseph Webb house after restoration of the cedar graining in 2005.

The two examples of eighteenth-century decorated end-walls within the Winterthur’s collection are rare survivors of this playful and artistic form of decoration and provide an interesting insight into interior decoration in Colonial America. To see additional examples of early American decoration in New England, see this map.


By Willie Granston, WPAMC class of 2016



For more information on painted decoration in the eighteenth century, the following publications may be of interest:

Nina Fletcher Little. American Decorative Painting 1700-1850 (New Enlarged Edition). New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1972.

Anna O’Day Marley. “Rooms with a View: Landscape Representation in the Early National and Colonial Domestic Interior.” (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Delaware, 2009).

Ann Eckert Brown. Painted Rooms of Rhode Island: Colonial and Federal. Warwick: Spring Green Books, 2012.

One response to “From Nature or Fancy: New England Decorated Woodwork”

  1. Carolyn Samko says:

    This site is fantastic. I wish we had this information earlier. We just finished restoring an early 19th century grained finish which looks so much like some of these. The owners were United Empire Loyalist and came from the eastern seaboard. Thank you for the publication.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *