Remembering John Wellington – by Gordon G. Swan

Written by Gordon Swan, grand-son of Mr Wellington, for the 1972 exhibition.


John Wellington played a number of roles during his 85 years in Cumberland, Maryland, but the role which he enjoyed best and which occupied most of his life was that of an artist-recording the beauty he saw everywhere around him in Western Maryland.

He was my grandfather. When my parents died in 1933, the year after I was born, he became the only father my brother Jerry and I can remember. By then he was in his middle 50′s, a modestly successful local banker whose thoughts and energies were always preoccupied with painting. Those were the days of the “great depression”, and I remember my grandmother Helen hoped someday he would sell enough paintings to pay the up­keep of this expensive avocation.

He never did, of course, but it didn’t matter because his joy was in the doing of it. He loved painting and he loved having his paintings surround him. Many pictures ended up as gifts to friends and relatives. That was his way of expressing his affection for them.

He did enjoy exhibiting his works and winning blue ribbons, but he wasn’t anxious to sell them. The pleasure that he would get from selling them was not the money, but the knowledge that others recognized the value of his work. Nevertheless, like many artists, he was his own severest critic and once had me burn a number of paintings in the back yard because he thought they were inferior. “Brush Strokes,” a Sunday newspaper column he wrote in later years, stressed the theme that anyone interested in painting should stop reading about it and get out and do it. He wanted to create beautiful things that people would enjoy-and he certainly did a lot of it.

One of my earliest childhood memories is helping my grand­father stretch the canvas over wooden frames for his oil paintings. I remember he had a fascinating tool for stretching the canvas tight which I would hold while he hammered the tacks. After his stroke, which occurred when I was seven, he did the stretching left-handed while I did the tacking. We were still stretching canvases that way almost 25 years later until he died.

The stroke, which partially paralyzed his entire right side, put an end to his banking career, but far more tragically apparently ended his artistic career. He was extremely depressed and in danger of “giving up” when my grandmother, along with fellow artists William Sparks and Dick Coffman, who had studied with him, conspired to rekindle his interest in painting.

They promoted an art class which he taught in our house each Tuesday night for many years. Sometimes when one of the high school girls who had been recruited as models for the class failed to appear, my brother and I were pressed into service. The art students, half a dozen or so housewives and businessmen, paid $2.00 a lesson, a sum which usually covered the model’s salary. But the real profit from this venture was immense, as John Wellington himself began painting again, this time with his left hand. Crudely at first, but with time he developed skill and new techniques for recording the beauty he still saw and felt.

At night, after the rest of the family was asleep, he started working, often painting and sketching until dawn. I remember while I was in high school it was impossible for me to “sneak in” late because “Dad” was always there working. We had some good conversations in those quiet hours. Perhaps that’s why we never had a generation gap.

Although he had a sentimental streak, as I think back, I can­not recall my grandfather ever outwardly displaying strong emotion. Occasionally, when he was “touched” by something, I might see a tear run down his cheek, but I think his way of communicating his inner feelings was through his art. Today when I look at one of his sketches or paintings, it’s as though he is saying, “Look for the beauty in this world, it’s all around you in these rocks and trees, the streams and buildings, and the people — everyday things and everyday people.” Because of him I believe I am able to see that beauty more easily and more clear­ly. That’s a legacy to be proud of and for which I am thankful.