In 1818 painter William Murray (1756-1828) created this watercolor for Joseph Fish, Sr., likely as a commemoration of Fish receiving the Mark Degree. A veteran of the Revolutionary War and a schoolteacher, Murray also painted colorful and charming family records and other works for friends and family in New York State. When he painted this work, Murray lived in Montgomery County, New York. In the 1980s, collectors and researchers Arthur and Sybil Kern identified fourteen paintings signed by Murray over the course of his career. The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library recently purchased this one, formerly part of the Kern collection. It joins a family record signed by Murray that has been in the Museum’s collection for many years.
The Mark Degree commemoration that Murray painted for Joseph Fish shares decorative and stylistic elements with other works done by the artist. Among these elements are borders of simple round flowers and of heart-shaped tulip-like flowers, different colored wavy lines, a field divided by lines and circular elements. In creating this work for Joseph Fish, Murray employed a palette of light brown, blue, red and yellow. He also, as befit the purpose of the work, included many Masonic symbols. At the top center of the drawing, Murray added an all-seeing eye. In the upper portion of the composition, at each corner, he drew a ladder, an ark, an urn and an anchor—all symbols used in Freemasonry. Within the circle at the center, Murray included several Masonic symbols, such as an arch with a keystone, a letter G, stars, a plumb, a mallet, the moon and a coffin with a scythe on top of it. Beneath the large circle at the center, between “Joseph” and “Fish,” Murray drew a circle that surrouned Fish’s own mark—a symbol that Fish selected to represent himself—within a border of the letters HTWSSTKS. This group of letters are a mnemonic associated with the Mark Degree. As his emblem, Fish chose a level. In Freemasonry this symbol represents equality and the lodge office of Senior Warden. Two other symbols in the watercolor related to lodge offices. Crossed keys indicate the lodge treasurer. A square and compasses with the sun at the center is an emblem found on many jewels given to lodge members who have served the lodge as Master.
In spite of these clues, little is known of Joseph Fish. The Kerns identified him as “a member of a Masonic lodge in Hoosick, NY.” The owner of this painting may have been the Joseph Fish noted, in 1795, as the Junior Deacon of Patriot Lodge No. 39 of Pittstown, New York, a town neighboring Hoosick. Masons established this lodge in 1794. Short-lived, the lodge closed by 1818. Though its establishment is not noted in the Proceedings of the Grand Chapter of New York, a mark lodge associated with Patriot Lodge No. 39--Patriot Mark Lodge--had two members representing it at a meeting of the Grand Chapter in 1806. Both Federal Mark Lodge No. 37 in Hoosick and Patriot Mark Lodge in Pittstown were recorded as delinquent for at least two years’ worth of dues in 1815, suggesting that neither lodge thrived. However, they may have been working long enough for Joseph Fish to have received the Mark Degree at one of them before 1818. Hopefully, further research will uncover more about Joseph Fish and about his connection to the artist William Murray. In the meantime, Murray's painting offers colorful evidence of Fish's participation in Freemasonry.
George Baker Anderson, Landmarks of Rensselaer County, New York, (Syracuse, NY: D. Mason & Company, 1897) 194.
Arthur B. and Sybil B. Kern, “Painters of Record: William Murray and His School,” The Clarion: America’s Folk Art Magazine (New York, NY: The Museum of American Folk Art, Winter, 1987) 28-35.
Arthur B. and Sybil B. Kern, “William Murray: Early New York State Painter,” and “New York State Painters of Family Records: The School of William Murray,” typescripts, 1985. Van Gorden-Williams Library & Archives, Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, Lexington, MA.
Proceedings of the Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons of the State of New York, Vol. 1, 1798-1858, (Buffalo, NY: the Grand Chapter, 1871) 54, 63, 124.
A. J. Weise, History of the Seventeen Towns of Rensselaer County, (Troy, NY: J. M. Francis & Tucker, 1880), 87.