As it turned out, prior owner Harold Davis, who was listed on the chart, was living in World’s End at the time. (He was the next resident to live in the house after the Smiths, who occupied it from about 1931-1939.)
“We returned the chart to him and his family, and in the process of our research obtained a list of other past owners,” Hanrahan recalled. “One of them was named Nella Smith.” But it took years to learn the full story.
Last November, the Hanrahans purchased a Smith painting depicting a majestic ship at an international fine arts show in Boston years after hearing a rumor that Smith had once lived in their Main Street house. “We brought it home, hung it up, and said, ‘Welcome home, Frank,” Hanrahan quipped.
Along with the painting, the Hanrahans received a copy of Jim Craig’s “Frank Vining Smith – Maritime Painting in the 20th Century” biography containing reproductions of some of his marine paintings and other artwork.
“The book states that once Smith became a well-known artist and got enough money together, he decided to have a house built to his specifications and moved from Main Street to High Street,” Hanrahan said.
The book also mentions Smith’s second wife, Nella. “I referred back to my 32-year-old handwritten records and started putting two and two together,” she said. Hanrahan’s old notes indicated that Nella took ownership of the house around 1931, according to town records.
As further affirmation, the Hanrahans came across a circa 1930 photo in the book of Nella standing in front of their Main Street garage.
All the information started coming together at that point. “The rumor — now substantiated — was that Smith had lived here and we had believed it, although there was no actual proof at the time. I knew in my heart that he had lived here. But even a well-known town historian hadn’t picked up on that fact, because the house was owned by his wife.”
Last March, much to their surprise, one of Smith’s 5-1/2 by 7-1/2-foot murals depicting a South Sea island scene was discovered under a wall panel in their home by a contractor during a renovation project. This left the Hanrahans awestruck.
“We stood there in disbelief,” Hanrahan said. Smith is thought to have painted the mural in the early 1930s, since that’s the time period in which he traveled to that part of the world.
Hanrahan explained how the mural was found: “The contractor was having difficulty cutting a hole in the wall to install a light switch. There was a piece of paneling that had been painted over, and once he popped it off, you could see the mural underneath! It had remained covered for decades.” She isn’t sure at what point the painting was obscured or why.
‘His brush strokes’
Although unsigned, the Hanrahans are convinced it’s an original Smith work of art. “It’s definitely his style and brush strokes,” she said. “An expert agreed.”
In what’s expected to be a two or three-day process starting this week, Oliver Brothers, experts in fine art restoration and art conservation services, will painstakingly remove the painting and prepare it for the trip to their Beverly, Mass. studio, where it will be repaired and restored.
Because the oil painting was done on horsehair plaster, the process involves removing the surrounding woodwork after applying a protective coating to the art and then shaving the painting off of the wall, Hanrahan explained.
“We don’t want to lose the mural. It’s part of the history of the house,” she said. “Once it’s restored, we plan to put it back in the same room where it was discovered; there’s nowhere else to put it because it’s so large!”
Hingham Historical Society Director Suzanne Buchanan recommended Oliver Brothers when the Hanrahans sought her advice.
“Pat’s detective work in finding out the history of her house and its connection with Frank Vining Smith makes a great historic preservation story,” Buchanan said. “And her enthusiastic preservation of Smith’s South Seas mural is a small victory for the mindset that loves Hingham’s old houses. More often than not, I hear about beautiful old murals being covered up by homeowners because they don’t match their modern, off-the-shelf décor, so it’s very gratifying when a homeowner is creative about preserving and keeping the history of their old home alive.”
Buchanan called the mural “a great piece of Americana and a wonderfully quirky addition to Hingham’s Main Street charms. It will be great to see it again when it has been conserved and restored to its original place,” she said.“Frank Vining Smith has recently undergone a thorough re-assessment by author James Craig, who has situated him strongly in the tradition of English and American marine painters. By doing a little bit of research, and having a good eye, Pat has made herself the lucky owner of a fine piece of art by an important American painter.”