CHESTERTOWN—After a brief residency at the Custom House on the waterfront, the early painting “A View of Chestertown from White House Farm” is back in Bunting Hall. A re-dedication ceremony held in late September brought professor emeritus of art and art history Robert Janson-La Palme back to campus to recall the history and significance of the painting.
The intimate gathering at the rededication reception included local descendants of the man who commissioned the painting sometime in the 1790s, a well-to-do landowner named Simon Wilmer. They and other guests were able to examine the folk painting up close in the executive reception area; the clear plexiglass box that normally protects it was removed temporarily.
Cherished as the only known painting of Chestertown during the town’s boom as a busy port of call, it is also the only known painting of the College’s original building. A panoramic view of Wilmer’s farm on the outskirts of town, the scene shows the row of buildings along High Street in the background and, prominent on the horizon, the original three-and-a-half-story Washington College building that housed classrooms, faculty and students in the 1790s.
Simon Wilmer is shown in the foreground astride a black horse while his wife sits on the stoop of their simple brick home and slaves work the wheat fields. A servant pulls a baby carriage, and a three-masted ship plies the Chester River in the background.
Created with oil paint on wood and measuring about 64 by 26 inches, the artwork was originally installed over the mantel at White House Farm, now known as Stepney Farm. It was removed when the farmhouse underwent a major renovation in the 1850s. After being handed down from one generation of Wilmers to the next, it eventually ended up in the possession of the Rev. Dr. Richard Hooker Wilmer, a former dean of the Yale divinity school who had retired to Pittsburgh.
“He pulled it out of a closet for me,” recalls Janson-La Palme, who visited the Rev. Dr. Wilmer in Pittsburgh. The painting was covered in soot and two centuries of grime. Janson-La Palme worked with two presidents of Washington College—Douglass Cater and Charles Trout—in encouraging the Wilmer family to donate the painting to the College and working out the details of how it would be displayed. After 17 months of restoration work by an artisan in Baltimore, the painting was installed in Bunting in January 1993. “We promised it would be on permanent display in a central place on campus,” says Janson-La Palme.
The College-owned Custom House, the historic building where the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience and the Center for Environment & Society are based, now displays a canvas reproduction of the painting over the mantel of its first floor parlor.
Images, above: The restored 220-year-old over-mantel painting shows the College's original building high on its hill on the horizon. Professor emeritus of art and art history Robert Janson-La Palme worked with the Wilmer family to bring the painting back to Chestertown as a gift to Washington College.