Maine artist Harry Cochrane was 80-years-old when he completed twin, 17-foot oil paintings at his Monmouth studio. Depicting a jumble of colorful, odd symbols, men at altars and the Biblical Ark of the Covenant, they were his last majors works. The pictures were then whisked away to Portland and hung in a private downtown auditorium. That was in 1940. Since then, only members of a certain secretive fraternity have seen the towering images.
Until now, that is.
This summer, art conservationists have begun cleaning the paintings for the first time. They’re the first outsiders to ever get close to the massive canvases. Cochrane died in 1946 and nobody knows how many paintings he left behind or where they’re all located. But now, scholars can add these two recently-revealed canvases to Cochrane’s name.
Cochrane created the paintings for the Masons. For the better part of a century, they’ve hung in their temple on Congress Street. They grace a third-floor auditorium where the Scottish Rite performs its rituals and plays. The temple’s lower floors are sometimes open to the public but the auditorium is always off limits.
The Scottish Rite is internal Masonic order open only to Master Masons.
Earlier this year, Portland’s Scottish Rite Masons decided to let the world know what they had. They wanted to have Cochrane’s paintings restored and preserved for future generations. The images had grown dim under 77 years of accumulated dirt and yellowed varnish. Members used to smoke in the room, too.
“We were sitting here one day, looking at the paintings and thinking about what they meant and thought to ourselves, ‘I bet they’re different under that grime that’s on top of them,'” said James Edwards, a Scottish Rite Mason.
Without going into details, Edwards explained the paintings depict the Rite’s rituals and ceremonies.
“We knew we really wanted to have them for years to come and needed to do something to protect them,” said Edwards.
That’s when the Masons reached out to the Maine Project for Fine Art Conservation, or MEAC. It’s the only nonprofit art restoration outfit in the state.
Every Thursday this summer, MEAC’s conservators have worked on saving the paintings. They don safety harnesses and mount three stories of scaffolding to get to them. Once aloft, they gently attack decades of layered crud with cotton balls and distilled water.
“We try to conserve what is there. You can never bring it back to what it was, originally, because each painting is different and it’s had a life of its own,” said MEAC conservator Bonnie Mattozzi, after coming down from the scaffolding.
Still, inch by inch, Mattozzi and her crew are revealing long-buried details. Lost colors are emerging from beneath coats of decrepit varnish and Masonic cigarette smoke. Cochrane’s art is coming back to life, and light, one cotton swab at a time.
It’s a very intimate process. They’re seeing things only Cochrane could have seen before.
“We are basically the only people, besides the artist, to get so close to the painting, to the texture, to the color,” said Domenico Mattozzi, Bonnie’s husband and another conservator on the team. “We get some kind of weird connection with the artist.”
Another Mainer with a connection to Cochrane is Monmouth historian Linda Johnston. Her father wrote a college thesis on Cochrane and she’s continued his research.
She explains Cochrane was born in Augusta in 1860 but his grandparents raised him in Monmouth. He grew up to be the town’s most famous son. He designed its famous Cumston Hall and created all the elaborate paintings inside. He’s buried just a few yards away in an adjoining cemetery.
Cochrane was an untrained artist.
“He taught himself to draw and paint,” said Johnston.
She said, as a boy, he’d cover his grandfather’s ledger books, obsessively drawing horses and human faces.
When he grew up, Cochrane made a living decorating churches. He’d execute decorative interior designs, stencils and pin striping as well as religious paintings. He designed fancy plaster moldings, stained glass and furniture, too.
The Rev. Martyn Summerbell of St. Paul’s Evangelical Church in New York City once wrote, “Mr. Cochrane’s designs are beautiful as well as artistic. In all our dealings with the artist we found him not only a master of his art, but a Christian gentleman.”
He also decorated schools, municipal offices and Masonic Temples.
Johnston reckons he adorned hundreds of buildings. He worked all over new England, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. But there’s no telling how many of his works are still out there. Two different fires at Cochrane’s home destroyed nearly all his business records. His true output is anybody’s guess.
“We don’t have a good, systematic record of what he did,” said Johnston.
Her father started a list, though. She and her sister have added to it and now it’s got more than a hundred confirmed entries.
A few other known Maine locations include: The Kora Temple and public library in Lewiston, Hebron Academy, Masonic lodges in Lisbon, Auburn and Monmouth, and churches in Rumford, Auburn and Monmouth.
That’s only scratching the surface of Cochrane’s suspected output. But now the two paintings in Portland are on Johnston’s master list.
Edwards said the Scottish Rite Masons in Portland would someday like to open their upstairs hall to the public. But not just yet.
Until then, Cochrane’s restored paintings will shine in their downtown hiding place for a few eyes only.