PROPERTY FROM THE FIRE COLLECTION OF FREDERIC C. CHURCH, SR.
John Hilling, a native of England, came to the United States in the early 1840's. He eventually settled in Bath, Maine. He married his first wife, Jane, before 1844, and fathered at least three children, two of whom died in early childhood. Hilling lived in Bath until he enlisted as a private in the Civil War infantry on March 11, 1864. He soon rose to sergeant; however, due to an injury he received to his spine, he was honorably discharged on December 12 of the same year. Unfortunately, he suffered from spinal disease for the rest of his life.
After his military service, Hilling returned to Bath and advertised as a, "house, sign, and fancy painter, grainer and paper hanger." Sometime prior to his wife's death on December 1, 1873 Hilling moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts and the following April married Annie Hubbard, widow of Oliver Hubbard. He is listed in the Boston directories as a Charlestown decorative painter from 1874 to 1877. Sometime in the following few years, he returned to the Maine shore and settled in Wells. Despite the fact that Hilling left Bath after the war, he continued to regard it as his home and took a special interest in the town's historic events.
His work as an artist is recorded only in contemporary articles praising his paintings for the demolition of the burning of Bath's Old South Church. Though no signed paintings have been found by Hilling the attribution of The Burning of Old South Church, Bath, Maine to John Hilling is based on two nineteen-century sources which state that Hilling painted this unusual subject. The first document is a obituary in the Bath Daily Times published August 15, 1894 the second, a description of the church in the Weekly Mirror published May 18, 1855. The latter quotes as follows:
"Mr. John Hilling of the city, has painted two representation of the Old South, one as it was previous to the fire, and the other as it was at the time of the fire. They are perfect representations of the house and its destruction."
There are six known sets (pairs) of paintings known to be done by Hilling which illustrate the burning of Old South Church. The fact that Hilling painted two sequential scenes of the building's ruin is of particular interest. Each pair consists of one painting showing the church assaulted by a mob and the other with a building ablaze are known to exist. Because no representation of this event by any other hand is recorded, it is reasonable to assume that Hilling painted the group. In addition, the multiple versions suggest a lively market for this theme.
Old South Church, a traditional Catholic house of worship, was burned by a mob "agitated by a speaker from the movement of the "Know-Nothing-Party.' The Know Nothing, or American Party, was formed in 1849 as a reaction against the wave of immigrants which where entering the United States. The party proposed literacy tests for voting, prohibiting aliens from holding offices, and a twenty-one year probationary period for naturalization. On June 5, 1854 a large crowd gathered to hear a Know-Nothing speak. The following evening, with attendance nearly doubled from the previous evening, a carriage passing through the crowd was interpreted as an attempt to break up the meeting. As a result, and angry mob stormed the building crying "to the Old South Church!" After breaking doors, and windows, and hanging the American flag from the clock tower, the group set the church a flame.
With the development of illustrated journalism visual records of fires, usually in the form of prints, became increasingly popular in the nineteenth century. Roswell Park's watercolor A View of the Conflagration of Part of the U.S Armory, Springfield Mass., March 2 AD. 1824 is among the earliest known fire depictions. By 1845 the number of such views escalated due to the circulation of lithographs of fires by the firm N. Currier, such as the Great Conflagration at Pittsburg, PA.: April 10th 1845 and the View of the Conflagration at New York July 19th 1845: From Cor. Broad and Stone St. By the 1850's the subjects popularity peaked with the success of romanticized portrayals of firefighters at work, for example Currier and Ives' series "The Life of a Fireman," from 1854. In contrast to prints, which could be produced in large numbers, paintings of topical subjects such as fires are much more rare.
Though Hilling paintings are not indebted to traditional fire prints in composition and style they share a similar emphasis on attention to detail and excitement within the subject. Other examples of his work are in the following locations: Maine Historical Society, Portland, ME; United Congregational Church, Bath, ME; Patten Free Library, Bath, ME; Jay Johnson, American's Folk Heritage Gallery, New York. The location of the final pair unknown. They were sold at Sotheby's, New York, Selections from the American Folk Art Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Robert P. Marcus, October 14, 1989, sale 5906, lot 25.
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