Decorative painting: It’s all in the details

 As a restoration artist and author, Ann Eckert Brown has traveled around the country and abroad researching interior decorative painting. Turns out, there’s plenty to study right here at home.

Over the course of working on her first two books – one on American painted floors and the other on wall stenciling before 1840 – the Warwick author said she realized that Rhode Island is a “true microcosm of American interior architectural painting.”

“We went to England, Canada, all over, and what we saw in all of those places, we had seen similar work right here in our home state,” Eckert Brown said.

That drove Eckert Brown to pen her latest work, “Painted Rooms of Rhode Island: Colonial and Federal.” It’s a coffee-table-book-

meets-scholarly-work, with colorful, glossy photographs, as well as detailed historical information and archival photographs.

“This was an attempt to get all of my knowledge on Rhode Island decorative painting [before 1840] in one spot,” she said. “It’s a very interesting aspect of our history that many people don’t know much about.”

Eckert Brown said the work is a culmination of decades of research, which began when she was working full-time as a restoration painter and teacher.

The book includes examples of murals, stenciling, floor painting, graining and other techniques found in homes and public buildings in Rhode Island’s five counties. The Colonial-era examples are generally restricted to public buildings and homes built by the wealthiest members of society. During the Federalist period, however, the world of interior decorative painting became more accessible.

“All of a sudden, the middle class had a chance to put up these houses and ornament them the way they used to in England,” she said. “Financially they could move up, and with that they could aspire to have painted walls.”

Many of the works featured in the book are in private homes. Luckily, Eckert Brown did not have to do much convincing to get the current owners to open their doors.

“You’d be surprised,” she said. “People with examples of painted decoration in their homes are kind of starved for people to show it to. And it’s a cozy little group, so they’re all very happy to tell you about the guy down the street who has it, too.”

Some of the more than 50 buildings featured hold stunning examples of interior painting – the Japanning technique developed to imitate imported Asian lacquer furniture found on the walls of Newport’s Vernon House (formerly the William Gibbs), for instance – while others are exceedingly simple, such as a polka dot wall decoration from the Walker House, in East Providence.

They are all important to Eckert Brown, who investigated every piece she could find. To her, it’s more than “eye candy.”

“On the surface, it’s a beautiful book, but there’s a serious motive: To raise public awareness that this is a very important segment of Rhode Island history and it has got to be saved,” she said.

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A book party with author Ann Eckert Brown will be held at the Providence Art Club, 11 Thomas St., Providence, Sunday, Jan. 6, from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. It is open to the public.

See for yourself

Most of the spaces featured in “Painted Rooms of Rhode Island” are located in private properties, but a few are open to the public, including:

Smith-Appleby House: Look for painted floor, re-created stencil wall. 220 Stillwater Rd., Smithfield. (401) 231-7363,

Hunter House: Look for faux marble columns, graining. 54 Washington St., Newport. (401) 847-1000, explore/hunter-house.

First Baptist Church: Look for gilded woodwork, floor stenciling fragments, trompe l’oeil faux marble plaques. 75 North Main St., Providence. (401) 454-3418,

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