05 June 2022

A 317 Year Old Business, an 85 Year Old Painting, and Three Families Part 2 of 2

But What About the Painting?

The historical preamble in part one sets up the connection between the inherited painting, the longest-operating business in the United States, and my family.

I was prompted to research this painting because of Bill Kahl’s comments about it when I was visiting with him in 2012. Bill described the painting to me as follows:

“It was painted by John Howard Benson, the grandfather of Nick Benson. It is a painting of Lawton’s Valley in Middletown . . . my last recollection is that it hung just off the kitchen in their [my grandparents’] house in Kingston [RI] . . . the painting is an oil painting of a woodland scene in a heavy gold frame.”    

At some point during the period of John Howard Benson’s tenure in Newport, he gave or sold this painting to Ned Burdick, quite likely around the time of the purchase of the John Stevens Shop. This dates the painting to approximately 1927, almost 100 years old.

Edwin “Ned” Spooner Burdick,
my great-great grandfather, circa 1905

Edwin Burdick left the painting to his niece, Elizabeth Kaull, Bill Kahl’s great-aunt (there are two different unrelated, yet similar surnames, Kaull and Kahl). Elizabeth left the painting to Bill, and he subsequently gave it to my grandmother, Barbara Dirlam, his mother’s cousin.

I reviewed my notes from the mid-1990s when my grandmother took me through the house to point out important furniture and artwork. I also looked over several assessments my grandparents had commissioned over the years of the valuables in the house and I reviewed a listing of assets compiled after they died. None of these records made mention of a Benson painting.

My private concern was they had sold it or donated it. They are famous in the family for selling a Jackson Pollack (which they bought direct from the artist) just a few years after acquiring it – we still think of the amazing heirloom it would be today. And they donated many family things to various historic societies and museums without consulting anyone else in the family. I feared that I would have to tell Bill that it was no longer in the family.

Soon thereafter, I spent a weekend with my mother and her sister, Daphne, the two of whom had seen to the distribution of most of the items in their parents’ estate. In discussing the painting, Daphne recalled that there was a painting that sounded familiar – it had hung in the dining room, just off the kitchen in the house in Kingston, RI.

Daphne believed that my cousin Tamala may have received the painting from the estate and called to ask her about it. Tamala took a photo of a painting she had that fit the description and sent it to me – and there it was, the Benson painting! I had originally intended to forward Bill the photograph to see if it was the same, but I could tell immediately that it was the one.

Lawton’s Valley, Middletown, RI
John Howard Benson, circa 1927

My cousin Tamala was the fifth in the family to own the painting, and it had been in the family for five generations, although not in generational order.

Bill’s proposal that it be given to Nick Benson wasn’t such a stretch as it might sound, as the families have had long-standing connections, even if those connections weren’t immediately self-evident, including some in the current day.

The Burdicks were connected to the Stevens family and The John Stevens Shop by marriage and to the Benson family at least by commerce with the sale of the shop, and later more personally.

Bill Kahl grew up in Newport and would have been around seven years old when his grandmother’s uncle sold the shop to John Howard Benson. Bill maintained his connection to Newport for his entire life, so it’s not a surprise that he and his wife commissioned their headstones from his grandson, Nick Benson. I was later to find that my aunt is slightly acquainted with Nick (not surprising, as she lives in Newport which really is a small town) and that my cousin Sophy attended Portsmouth Abbey academy with Nick’s first cousin.

I approached my cousin Tamala and she was amenable to gifting Nick the painting after 85 years or so in our family. On a rainy day in 2013, Bill and Mary Kahl, my aunt Daphne, my cousin Sophy (Tamala’s sister), and I met up with Nick in the famous John Stevens Shop and, on behalf of my cousin Tamala, presented him with his grandfather’s painting. Back in the Benson family after almost 100 years.

The painting has had quite a history and it carries with it the echos of the past through the Stevens family shop, the Bensons, the Burdicks, and the subsequent generations. Each person in the family who owned it appreciated it for its beauty as well as its history. It was a pleasure for our family to have it in our care for multiple generations and a pleasure to be able to restore it to the Benson family once again.

How the painting changed hands

Sources (parts 1 and 2):

Rhode Island and Aquidneck Island naming history: 


Two Newport photos: https://www.discovernewport.org/

About The John Stevens Shop: 

Richard Pelletier blog post: https://lucidcontent.medium.com/the-brush-the-mallet-the-chisel-the-letter-79446bf1254c

Boyd’s Newport City Directory 1985: Ancestry.com. U.S., City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.  https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2469/images/41199_1220706242_4329-00028

John Stevens Shop image and information: https://www.johnstevensshop.com/

The Stone Carvers Business, Three Centuries of Craft Tradition at The John Stevens Shop, pamphlet published by Salve Regina University Gallery, 2006

Edwin Burdick and Lawton’s Valley painting images from my personal collection

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