J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Mildred G. Burrage’s “Attack on Bunker Hill”

This map of the Charlestown peninsula in 1775 and the Battle of Bunker Hill comes from the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, courtesy of the Digital Commonwealth. It is made of “Painted gesso plaster, with land features shown in relief.”

The creator was Mildred G. Burrage (1890-1983) of Maine. Last year the University of New England Art Gallery in Portland had an exhibit on Burrage’s seventy-year career, which extended from studying Impressionist in Paris as a teenager to pursuing Abstract Expressionism between the world wars in the form of “mica paintings,” incorporating local minerals into her pictures, to promoting artist networks and historic preservation in her later decades.

Regional history was a big subject for Burrage. She recalled receiving drawing lessons from “a lady descended from John Hancock who had me draw one of his chairs, and cut off a piece of the red brocade to go with my drawing!” When Burrage was seventeen, her father, formerly a newspaper editor and minister, became Maine’s state historian. Later she “made recruiting posters for World War I and worked in the shipyards of South Portland during World War II,” the Portland Press Herald reported.

That newspaper article said:
The mica paintings may be the most unique work Burrage attempted, but they are not the most remarkable elements of the show. That distinction belongs to a small series of highly detailed and beautifully crafted maps that Burrage copied and displayed, rather successfully, as artwork. She began making maps after her return to Maine from Paris, and continued doing so among her other art projects into the 1930s.

They are the earliest examples in the exhibition of Burrage’s self-reinvention, [curator Earle G.] Shettleworth said. The maps spoke to both her interest in art and history, he said.

With its detail and near-perfect rendering, the most interesting of the maps is a watercolor copy of Samuel de Champlain’s engraving of “New France,” published in 1613. It includes what is now Maine and Canada. There also are copies of maps of old Portland, Cape Ann and Washington, D.C.
This map of Bunker Hill, which the library dates the sesquicentennial of American independence in 1926, is likewise based on older images. But the gesso plaster seems to be one of Burrage’s many artistic experiments, pushing her work into new areas.

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