2018-04-26 / News

Island man brings Gilbert Stuart to life

Famed painter’s birthplace opens for season Sunday

Tour guide Richard Chellis dresses in Colonial garb during a spring fair at the Gilbert Stuart Birthplace & Museum in Saunderstown. The annual event, which is Sunday, acts as opening day for the landmark. Tour guide Richard Chellis dresses in Colonial garb during a spring fair at the Gilbert Stuart Birthplace & Museum in Saunderstown. The annual event, which is Sunday, acts as opening day for the landmark. When the birthplace of iconic portraitist Gilbert Stuart opens for the season Sunday, visitors will learn about the Colonial Rhode Islander from a Jamestown man with a colorful history of his own.

Columbia Avenue’s Richard Chellis has been a docent and tour guide at the Saunderstown museum for 12 years. The son of a former Beavertail Lighthouse keeper, teaching visitors about Stuart’s life and “his significance to our national heritage” is not only a profession, but a passion.

“That period of history in the United States interests me,” he said. “I always liked the Colonial aspect of it. I’ve always been interested in their way of living.”

The annual spring fair is from 1-4 p.m. Sunday at the museum, 815 Gilbert Stuart Road. Highlighted by an art exhibition from Wickford resident Norman Isham, an expert on bygone architecture, the celebration also will include an underwater camera capturing the return of the river herring, milling demonstrations in the gristmill, freshly fried johnnycakes and live music.

Blast from the past

Chellis, lifelong history buff, leads a 45-minute tour every Thursday from May through October, although his pursuits are not confined to Saunderstown. He’s also worked as a Civil War reenactor, a docent at Smith’s Castle in Wickford, and as a volunteer at the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum. His role at the Gilbert Stuart Birthplace, however, draws on his particular fascination with the Revolutionary War era.

“We explain everything soup to nuts,” he said. “The people, the times.”

Chellis starts his tour in the gristmill, which was built in the mid-1600s to grind corn into fine meal. The mill, which is named after the Hammond family that once owned the building, is unconnected to Stuart aside from the proximity to his museum.

The tour then moves to the home where Stuart was born in 1755. That’s when Chellis details the artist’s life and work, noting that Stuart only lived in the house until he was 6 years old, which is when his family moved to Newport. The home, which was restored in 1930 by Isham and became a museum a year later, was occupied by unrelated families and businesses in the interim.

Stuart is known for his portraits of George Washington, particularly the unfinished 1796 “Athenaeum” painting that graces the $1 bill. Each room in the museum is fitted with reproductions of Stuart’s most famous portraits, including seven original paintings.

“I don’t know if the Smithsonian or any of the other museums in the United States contains that many in one particular area,” Chellis said. “People interested in art, and people interested in that period, can find it right there.”

Although Stuart was a celebrated artist in his lifetime, he was in debt when he died in 1828. He was buried in a pauper’s grave in Boston.

The birthplace property also includes a snuff mill, which was once used to grind tobacco into an inhalable powder. The mill currently is an operational reproduction of the one originally used by Stuart’s father.

“It was the only one in the Colonies at the time,” Chellis said. “We don’t grind tobacco anymore, but it’s a functioning snuff mill.”

Although the snuff mill no longer makes tobacco, the Hammond gristmill continues to operate. According to Chellis, this is one of the fascinating centerpieces of Sunday’s fair. Workers will be selling johnnycakes from corn ground at the mill, just like they did two centuries ago.

Unlike his weekly tours, when he wears a T-shirt and hat, Chellis will don period clothing Sunday while answering questions about Stuart and early America. He will be joined by a Stuart impersonator. Chellis’ goal is to teach visitors about the painter’s life aside from his connection to their wallet. While that portrait is one of the most recognizable paintings in U.S. history, some visitors are not even aware a Rhode Islander is responsible for it.

“A lot of people don’t even know who he was,” Chellis said.

Hometown history

Chellis has lived in Jamestown for most of his life. His father, Carl, was the keeper of the Beavertail Lighthouse from 1938-45. Chellis is the youngest and last surviving of his four siblings.

His 7-year-old sister, Marion, was one of seven children killed during the Great Hurricane of 1938 when their school bus was swept into Mackerel Cove by a storm surge. His brother, Clayton, was the only survivor of the accident aside from the bus driver. He died, however, while serving in the U.S. Navy in 1947. His other brother, William, died in 2008.

Before he started giving tours at Rhode Island landmarks, Chellis worked as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service from 1967 to 2001. He initially delivered the mail in Pawtucket, but after moving back to Jamestown in 1975, the commute necessitated a change in assignment to Warwick. Shortly after he retired from the post office, he began volunteering for Meals on Wheels.

While delivering food to South Kingstown senior citizens, he learned about the job opening at Gilbert Stuart’s birthplace. He was hired in 2006, and the rest is history.

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