History In House Paint

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On a warm summer day in 1926, in the little town of Marblehead, Massachusetts, a gray-haired old man walked from store to store distributing handbills. “Mr. J. O. J. Frost,” they read, “… has opened his new art building containing about eighty paintings depicting his life on the Grand Banks and in the town of Marblehead. There will be a charge of twenty-five cents to see these paintings …”

The painter, handbill distributor, and exhibitor were one and the same—Frost himself—and the “art building” was a simple structure he had built behind his house at No. 11, Pond Street. On opening day, having shined up the premises and decked himself out in an immaculate white suit, he sat down to await his first customer. No one came—on that day or the next or the next—and precious few quarters ever found their way into his little cardboard collection box. Disappointed, the old man was not deterred from his painting. When he died two years later, he left behind more than 100 scenes—executed in ordinary house paint on scraps of pine or wallboard and even on the walls of his kitchen—recording the long and illustrious history of his native town. It was an extraordinary body of work, begun only when Frost was nearing seventy and carried on without benefit of formal art training. Yet the simple directness and primitive charm of his pictures have since commanded handsome prices and brought to their humble creator a measure of posthumous fame. In the preparation of this article, AMERICAN HERITAGE gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Mrs. Albert L. Carpenter of Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, who furnished much of the material on the artist’s life and extended permission to reproduce from her collection several of his paintings.

Few men were better qualified, by background at least, to chronicle Marblehead’s past. John Orne Johnson Frost was born there in 1852, of a family that had put down roots in Massachusetts’ rocky soil in 1634. At sixteen he shipped out on a fishing schooner bound for the Banks. He might have continued in that hard, hazardous, and unrewarding calling except that upon returning from his first trip in 1868 he met and fell in love with Annie Lillibridge, a pretty, brown-haired teen-ager; at her urging, he quit the sea after one more voyage. For almost a quarter of a century following their marriage in 1873, John Frost ran a restaurant in Marblehead; afterward, as the town developed into a summer colony for wealthy families from nearby Boston, he and Annie gradually transformed her hobby, growing flowers, into their livelihood.

Not until alter Annie died in 1919 did Frost attempt his first painting; he took up a brush apparently in an effort to fill the void left by her passing. His son and daughter-in-law offered to keep house for him, but he preferred to live alone as he worked. “I know the compass I have steered by for almost half a century is not lost, but invisible,” he said, “and that is enough to sustain me in anything I undertake to do.” He had always been fascinated by Marblehead’s history, and he set out, using whatever materials came to hand, to record it all before he died. During his last years he suffered from severe anemia; his fingers would bleed, so that holding a brush was difficult. But he persisted, despite the apathy of Marbleheaders, often forgetting to eat and sometimes fainting at his work. He finished his last painting only three weeks before he died—on November 3, 1928.

—Robert L. Reynolds