Stonington ― Just across the street from the two cannons that residents used to fight off an attack by British ships, local history buffs and art lovers gathered at the La Grua Center on Thursday for the unveiling of a painting that captures a single moment at 10 in the morning, 209 years ago.
“When I was researching the battle, which happened over the course of three or four days, I thought that the most interesting part of the battle was that point where the villagers were firing back,” said award-winning maritime artist Patrick O’Brien of his newly completed 20- by 36- inch oil painting.
O’Brien, who has been commissioned to paint by the United States Coast Guard, ExxonMobil and Lockheed Martin among others, completed his latest work, “The Battle of Stonington, August 10, 1814,” just five days prior to the unveiling, and shared his process and methods with guests on the 209th anniversary of the battle.
The author and illustrator of a dozen children’s books, the 63-year-old Baltimore resident began his career as an artist in the 1980s. He is a part-time faculty member at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and his work has been exhibited widely including at the United States Naval Academy Museum and the National Academy of Sciences.
No stranger to the area, his work has appeared annually at the Mystic International Marine Art Exhibition since 2004, and the J. Russell Jinishian Gallery on Water Street carries his work. He is currently spending two weeks as the artist in residence at the Mystic Seaport Museum.
O’Brien said it took him both weeks and decades to create his latest work.
“It takes 25 years to be able to paint something like this in six weeks,” he said, referring to the years he spent perfecting his craft in order to produce a finished painting in just six weeks.
Over the course of an hour, O’Brien engaged the audience by detailing his exhaustive research and painting process, answering questions and explaining the nuances of maritime battles.
He held the audience rapt when he told the story of their own history and the battle which ended in an unlikely victory over the British.
Lots and lots of research
“It all begins with research— lots and lots of research. Most people don’t realize that the time to do the research is more than the painting, itself,” O’Brien said.
He said his research included historical accounts and modern texts, rigging diagrams, masts, weapons, period clothing, what everyday items like shovels looked like, and many color studies to determine the right colors to give the painting the feeling of authenticity.
He hung an American flag before a fan to study how the stripes lay upon one another as it waved in the breeze, and each man in the painting is based on video he took of himself posing in the positions he envisioned for the finished painting.
“Every one of those people, in a sense, are me. That’s how I won the Battle of Stonington all by myself,” he joked.
O’Brien credited author James DeKay’s book, “The Battle of Stonington,” and Jim Geary as valuable sources to accurately portray the battle which has become part of the local identity.
Geary, an engineer by trade who teaches a class on the battle annually at Stonington High School, has broken down the timeline of the battle into 15-minute increments and provided the basis for much of the detail in the painting.
The Battle of Stonington
Five British ships sailed up Long Island Sound under the command of Capt. Thomas Hardy on August 9, 1814. Four of the ships anchored off what was then known as Windmill Point, now Stonington Point, and began bombarding the village.
The British had 160 cannons, almost 1,300 men, and a massive supply of munitions, including Congreve rockets, mortars and cannonballs that tore through homes throughout the borough.
The defenders had three cannons, one large American flag and a memory of defeating the British once before in the Revolutionary War.
The fighting began at the point, where volunteers came under heavy fire and were forced to abandon one of the cannons. A second was later abandoned, leaving the men with just one cannon at the moment depicted in O’Brien’s painting.
Despite what would seem a decidedly one-sided battle, the British sailed away on August 12 in defeat. Geary noted it was the only battle Hardy ever lost.
A broken flagpole is one of many small but significant details O’Brien incorporated in his painting.
O’Brien said during the battle, the pole holding the rare flag with 16 stars and 16 stripes was shot away, and the men nailed the flag back onto the broken pole.
“In those days, that’s how you surrendered, lowering the flag, so if you nail your flag to the pole, that means ‘we’re not surrendering,’” he said.
One of the men in the painting stands upon the earthen berm that comprised Grasshopper Fort as an insult, insinuating he had no fear in the face of the superior British firepower that was in “shouting distance” of shore. The fort was located south of Stonington Commons. A plaque on the wall of the condominium complex marks the approximate location of the fort.
O’Brien explained the HMS Dispatch was close enough that the defenders on shore could trade insults British sailors by shouting.
The painting depicts the significant damage the Dispatch took, including holes in the sails and hull of the ship.
Shortly thereafter, the Dispatch cut its anchor loose and moved out of firing range. The other boats followed suit, moving farther from shore, continuing to bombard the village from a safe distance.
On Aug. 12, for unexplained reasons, the ships sailed away.
None of the men on the American side were killed during the battle, though Frederick Denison, wounded in the fighting, died later after his wounds became infected.
The British casualties are unclear, though it was upward of 20, and three or four bodies were found near the point. British midshipman Thomas Powers is buried in Stonington Cemetery.
Future plans for the painting were not disclosed, though one audience member had an idea.
“Now we’ve got to get together and buy it,” he said.
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