By Rita Christopher
Photography by Jody Dole
Tom Rose does not live on the Connecticut River, but he lives surrounded by a panoramic River view. His view is not obstructed by buildings, by trees or by traffic-laden roads because he created it himself.
Rose, an artist, painted a large mural of the River along a wall of his antique shop, Black Whale Antiques at Rattleberry Farm in Hadlyme, CT. The mural depicts the River as it might have looked in the mid-19th century at the site of the Chester Ferry. The ferry landing itself is just over a mile from Rose’s shop. The mural includes boats, both steam and sail, among them the most famous steamboat on the Connecticut River in the 19th century, The City of Hartford. It came into service in 1852, though it is best known for a spectacular accident in 1876. On a run from Hartford to New York City, the steamboat plowed into a railroad drawbridge at Middletown. The City of Hartford remained immobilized for four days while wreckers separated the steamboat from the debris of the bridge but it was not the end of the City of Hartford. Renamed Capitol City, the steamboat continued travelling the River for ten years after the accident until 1886.
Rose painted the mural about a year and a half ago, and since then has done at least ten more for various clients, sometimes including boats belonging to the people who commissioned the painting.
“I like what a mural does to a room,” Rose said. “It adds depth of interest.”
Rose, who displays his own paintings along with the antiques in his shop, also does maritime scenes, which he describes as done in the manner of 19th century English artist James Buttersworth, who lived for many years in the United States. Some of his most famous works, in fact, are of early America’s Cup races.
Rose said his own maritime scenes are larger than Buttersworth’s. “I paint in Buttersworth’s style, but I blow him up,” Rose said. Size is not the only difference between the two artists. “Buttersworth will cost you a couple of hundred thousand dollars, at least. You can get mine for a lot less,” Rose said.
Rose’s art encompasses another completely different genre, humanized animals that combine realism and whimsy to notable effect. The first animal portrait he did was a Jack Russell terrier dressed in a naval uniform; the dog is now known as Admiral Jack. Another of Rose’s creations is a clumber spaniel, a breed with a sturdy and substantial build, dressed as a solidly respectable English gentleman.
Rose sometimes paints animals as canine versions of famous portraits. John Singer Sargent’s well-known portrait of Madame X, a long-necked beauty in a black dress, is transformed into the graceful lines of a whippet shown in the very same black evening gown, and a snub-nosed pug with a pearl in its ear is the canine version of Vermeer’s famous Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Rose sometimes works from pictures taken by the pets’ owners. “I tell them to get down to the dog’s level and photograph eye to eye,” he explained. Because Rose has done the anthropomorphic canines for so many years, he has had time to observe both the pets and their owners. “It’s amazing how much dogs can look like people,” he said.
When Rose bought Rattleberry Farm for his shop and studio, friends advised against it. “They told me it was the middle of nowhere, but I bit the bullet and it has worked out well for me,” he said. Now, however, the complex is for sale, and Rose would like to move back to the Farmington area where he grew up. But he doesn’t have to abandon his view of the Connecticut River. He can always paint the mural again on another wall.
Rita Christopher is a free-lance writer who has lived in Connecticut near the mouth of the Connecticut River for 40 years.