Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry (left) and Capt. James Lawrence, gracing opposites sides of our Bissell Tavern sign.
One of the more unique things visitors might notice as they step into our colonial Windsor history gallery is a very handsome tavern sign that bears the likeness of a dashing military man. What they cannot see is that there is a second and equally dashing portrait is on the reverse side.
This sign was donated to us in 1925 and has always held a special place in our collections. It has had its share of attention from others as well. The Connecticut Historical Society holds an impressive collection of Connecticut tavern signs and produced a traveling exhibition on them in 2000. They have asked if we would be willing to loan our Windsor sign for their exhibit, and we were pleased to share this treasure with them and with their many visitors.
Part of this venture was the research Connecticut Historical Society staff undertook to positively identify the men depicted on the sign. Rich Malley Assistant Director of Museum Collections, told us that:
…one side bears the image of Captain James Lawrence, commanding officer of the ill-fated frigate USS CHESAPEAKE in its battle with HMS SHANNON off Boston in June 1813. Lawrence was mortally wounded in the battle and his dying words, so the story goes, were “Don’t Give Up The Ship.” The sign portrait is undoubtedly based on an engraving issued after Lawrence’s death that, in turn, was based on an 1812 Gilbert Stuart portrait. The other figure turns out to be Oliver Hazard Perry, hero of the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie. Reportedly, Perry’s flagship at that battle flew a pennant with Lawrence’s last words on it. This portrait is also based on an engraving that was fashioned from a portrait.
CHS published a book to accompany their exhibit, titled Lions & Eagles & Bulls: Early American Tavern & Inn Signs, edited by Susan P. Schoelwer, and the Bissell Tavern sign graces the introduction. Our sign has also been featured in a book called The American School: Artists and Status in the Late Colonial and Early National Era, by Susan Rather, a professor of art and art history at the University of Texas, Austin. Rather notes that the image of Captain James Lawrence was “based on an engraving after Gilbert Stuart. Stuart ranked as America’s foremost portraitist when this sign was made, and a hint of his painterliness informs the work, which has been attributed to Nathaniel Wales, a [Litchfield, Connecticut-based] painter who specialized in both signs and portraits.” Gilbert Stuart is the artist behind the image of George Washington seen on all our one dollar bills.
1022 Palisado Avenue, as seen in 1990. WHS collections 2016.1.83.
The Bissell Tavern was located at 1022 Palisado Avenue, a house that is still standing in the Hayden Station section of town, and Ebenezer Fitch Bissell (1760-1838) was the proprietor. As was the custom of the day, he was a frugal man who didn’t believe in wasting a perfectly good tavern sign. If on looks closely at the “Bissell” name on the tavern sign, remnants of another name, “H. Sill,” can be seen beneath the top layer of paint. The H. Sill sign was simply painted over for Ebenezer Fitch Bissell’s use. This only adds to the sign’s Windsor significance as the Sill Tavern, established in 1816, once stood across the street from our museum on the site of the First Church in Windsor parking lot on Palisado Avenue. The sign, as with history, only gets more interesting as we look beneath the surface!
By Connie Thomas, Administrative Assistant, 2000, and updated by Michelle Tom, Librarian/Archivist, 2017.