George Washington Mark Treasure Surfaces

Greenfield tradesman and folk artist George Washington Mark was well-known about town and in surrounding communities as an eccentric house, sign, furniture, carriage, and sleigh painter, not to mention a flamboyant downtown character, between 1817 and 1879, when he died in his 84th year.

Born in 1795 in Charlestown, New Hampshire, Mark was said to have spent time on a schooner before arriving in Greenfield at the age of 22 and liberally using the newspaper to advertise his painting skills.

Soon he wed Mary Ann Skinner (1798-1860) of Gill, about whom little is known. The marriage date was Dec. 10, 1818, in Mark’s hometown of Charlestown. Her February 15, 1860 cancer death must have been a long, exhausting ordeal. When it was over, her appreciative husband thanked community assistance in a newspaper posting that began: “To the Ladies of all the Religious Societies in this place, I owe a debt of gratitude which can only be repaid to you in God’s Heavenly Kingdom. For the long and constant kindness you have bestowed on us in the last distressing sickness of my partner.”

Otherwise, Mary Ann (Skinner) Mark’s passing went without public notice in the local newspaper. No death notice or obituary.

Mark remarried some five months later, taking as his second and final wife the widow Mary Diana (Torrey) Ball, whose second husband, Frederick Augustus Ball, had passed in 1856. Her first husband, Amos Temple, died in 1849. She outlived Mark by seven years, died in Sunderland, and is buried at Deerfield’s Laurel Hill Cemetery.

I first learned of Mark in 1997, soon after moving into my current upper Greenfield Meadows home – a National Register of Historic Places dwelling with outbuildings and a rich stagecoach-tavern history. The introduction came from an impeccable source: now-retired Historic Deerfield architectural conservator William Flynt. Pointing out the grain-painted doors gracing many rooms, but particularly the figured-maple examples in the formal upstairs bedrooms, Flynt identified them as the work of Mark and cautioned me to take special care not to ding them with furniture, vacuums, brooms, or luggage. They were, he said, rare examples of masterful Mark’s finest faux-painting.

Now, due to an exciting recent development, the story gets better. Much better.

In this, my 26th year at Old Tavern Farm, a dark, oil-on-canvas, sporting-art portrait of an alert hound resting on a hunting jacket and chaps was brought to my attention. The dog’s front paws cover a double-barreled shotgun’s receiver and hammers as the gun lays across in front, with a tunneling background framed by pines. I was immediately attracted to the 19th-century painting, recognizing it as primitive or folk art.

A local woman brought the painting to my attention because, she said, it had come to her father in 1948 as a gift from a well-known spinster who then owned my home. Helen Gerrett – known by neighbors as the “Mayor of the Meadows” because of her bossy, protective neighborhood ways – told the recipient, a bank colleague, that the painting was hanging in the old tavern when her grandfather, Elijah Worthington Smith, bought the place in 1857. She wanted her friend, an avid bird hunter and outdoorsman, to have the sporting art for his recently purchased Halifax, Vermont hunting camp.

The Greenfield man accepted his unsigned, unframed gift and promptly hung it above the camp fireplace, where it remained for more than 30 years. In 1980, getting old, he passed it on to a daughter who died recently and passed it on to her only sibling, the sister who brought it to my attention. The viewing ignited an exciting discovery mission for me, concluding with what I am confident is a near-certain George Washington Mark attribution.

The first suggestion that G.W. Mark may have been the artist came from a friend and neighbor who is a sophisticated Americana collector. He was vaguely familiar with Greenfield’s only primitive painter after flying cross-country from San Francisco to attend the 1990 Williams College art exhibit, Between the Rivers: Itinerant Painters from the Connecticut to the Hudson. There, at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, he got a close look at the famous Mark painting Chasing the Squirrel, which embedded the Greenfield artist in memory.

“Maybe that Greenfield folk artist who rarely signed his work painted it,” my friend speculated upon viewing the sporting canvas.

When I was stymied by the reference, he insisted that I knew who he was talking about. “The same guy who painted the doors in your house.”

Yes. Of course. George Washington Mark.

The chase was on.

I immediately searched the Internet for information about folk artist G.W. Mark, and discovered that still today little is known about the man, his wives, his grave or his art, much of which, whereabouts unknown, is indeed unsigned. Yet his work bears stylistic “signatures,” rudimentary details like trees and branches, fences and horse-drawn farm equipment, and tunneling landscapes, that are repeated in his few known works. The dog painting displays some of his  trademark characteristics.

My next question was, when did the painting come to my Meadows home? Most logical, I surmised, was around 1841, when Hollister B. Thayer opened his Upper Meadows tavern following five years of expensive “improvements” – including a Charlemont-flagstone-floored front porch, an upstairs spring-floor, vaulted-ceiling ballroom, a G.W. Mark tavern sign, and an assortment of Mark’s distinctive interior grain-painting. Perhaps Thayer was a hunter, I speculated, and Mark gifted him the painting as a housewarming gift.

Then close inspection of the painting’s stretchers suggested a date closer to 1860 than 1840. It wasn’t the patina that spoke loudest but, instead, the mitered corners. Had it been an 1840 canvas, an expert opined, the corners would most likely have been stacked.

Hmmm? Could it be that the tavern’s final keeper, blacksmith Henry A. Ewers, was the painting’s first owner? The tavern blacksmith bought the place from Thayer in 1849 and operated the tavern through challenging temperance times until 1857. Maybe he was a hunter and acquaintance of Mark’s.

Bingo! That inquiry bore fruit.

Yes, everything started to fall nicely into place, despite a few interesting pieces of the puzzle that may have lapsed beyond the point of reassembly. That said, we know Mark and Ewers knew each other as fellow Greenfield fence-viewers in the 1850s, and we also know that Mark’s first wife, Mary Ann Skinner, is buried in Ewers’ North Meadows Cemetery plot down the road from the tavern.

The reason Mark’s wife is buried next to Ewers’ mother, Lucy Gould Mark, in the Ewers family plot may never be ascertained. It could be related to the fact that Lucy Ewers and Mary Ann Mark, a generation younger, are both said to have come from Williamstown. Could it have been that young Mary Ann Skinner’s mother was Lucy’s relative or childhood friend, died young, and her teenage daughter was taken in by the Ewers farm family of Gill? Such “adoptions” were not uncommon back then. If so, she would have been Henry A. Ewers’ step-sister, and, seven years older, of a perfect age to keep an eye on young Henry.

Finally, get a load of this one. We now can say for certain that adult blacksmith/wheelwright/tavernkeeper Henry A. Ewers did indeed own a spirited hound dog in the 1850s. We know that because of a story that went viral nationally after it appeared in the Greenfield Gazette and Courier on July 27, 1857. The tale was still being told three years later in a Wisconsin newspaper! It went like this (including my own correction of Ewers’ misspelled Wisconsin destination):

A Fast Dog – Henry A. Ewers of this town left on Friday for Aztalan, Wis., where he has purchased a farm. He owned a small dog which he gave to Henry Briggs before he left. The dog followed Mr. Ewers to the depot in this town and upon the cars leaving followed on after, overtaking them at South Deerfield before they left that station. The distance run by the dog was eight miles and the time occupied 22 minutes, or over 20 miles per hour. Mr. Ewers concluded that such a faithful friend was not to be parted with lightly, and took the dog into the cars with him for Wisconsin.

Too bad the Greenfield scribe neglected to give the spirited pet’s name, which was undoubtedly known by many tavern guests and neighbors long before the days of dog licenses and leash laws. George Washington Mark knew the dog’s name, and the newspaper story about the animal he had painted a few years earlier probably didn’t surprise him one bit.

Ewers didn’t live out his life in Wisconsin, returning home to Greenfield some years later. He died in 1867 and is buried in the North Meadows Cemetery, next to his wife Sally, his mother Lucy, and Mary Ann (Skinner) Mark.


Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.
Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

Leave a Reply

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

Mad Meg theme designed by BrokenCrust for WordPress © | Top