By Karla Klein Albertson
WOODSTOCK, N.Y. — Between the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson River lies Woodstock, a town extensively documented for its late 1960s gathering of rock legends but less well-known as the site of an important artistic colony, which has survived the political and economic vicissitudes of a complete century. This year, the town will celebrate the centennial of the founding of the Byrdcliffe Art Colony. Through tours and exhibitions, The Woodstock Guild — now responsible for the preservation of the colony — hopes to share with the world the philosophy, fine art, furniture and decorative arts that have assured the community’s reputation among serious students of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Byrdcliffe’s founder Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead (1854-1929) was born in Yorkshire, England, and inherited wealth from his father, a successful mill owner. After studying with John Ruskin at Oxford, Whitehead joined the influential writer and art critic on his last trip to Italy. The young man also absorbed aesthetic ideals and socialist principles from William Morris, who advocated Arts and Crafts as an antidote to the mind-numbing activities of capitalism. Fortunately for both of them, Whitehead and Morris had enough money to preclude the necessity of a factory job.
While in Europe, Whitehead met Jane Byrd McCall, an American socialite whose father had been mayor of Philadelphia. Although not artistically talented himself, Whitehead had conceived the desire to found an Arts and Crafts colony based on the principles currently popular in England and the United States. In Jane McCall, a talented watercolorist and ceramist with formal training in art, he found an ideal companion. Although Whitehead was already married to an Austrian woman, he gained a divorce and married Jane in 1892.
The couple first settled on the West Coast in Santa Barbara, where they built a villa, “Arcady,” in the gentle climate so like their beloved Italy. A California twist was added to the Whiteheads’ mingled English and American aesthetic concepts, and they set up their first art school on the grounds of their home near the Pacific. While in Santa Barbara, the couple met writer Hervey White (1866-1944) and artist Bolton Brown (1864-1936). Brown had graduated from Syracuse University and then gone on to create an art department for Stanford University in Palo Alto. He was able to convince the Whiteheads that the Woodstock area of New York was the best setting for a permanent art colony.
After viewing the area, Ralph wrote to Jane in 1902, “We have found a country with a sky — such beauty of sky I have not seen except in France, I mean of Northern skies. Such a sky for any painter, a transparent blue with wonderful gradation towards the horizon and such beauty of cloud forms & of distant blue landscape as I never expected to see in N.Y. State…. Here is an atmosphere for you, dear, which I did not hope for and the beauty of the landscape is very great.” These words proved to be prophetic, for this beautiful landscape was to have a strong influence on the paintings, furniture and crafts made at the Woodstock community.
The — complete with 30 cottages, studios and workshop, a dairy barn and large reference library — opened in 1903. “Byrdcliffe” itself was a simple combination of Jane and Ralph’s middle names. The Whiteheads built White Pines, a 15-room country house in the Arts and Crafts style, to be their residence while in Woodstock and to serve as a meeting place for artists and visitors.
Bolton Brown, who had joined the Whiteheads at Byrdcliffe, left the colony when he was not appointed head of the summer art school, a post filled by landscape painter Hermann Dudley Murphy (1867-1945). The Whiteheads and various fine artists were soon joined by a group of active artisans in other disciplines including metalsmithing, printmaking, bookbinding and pottery.
Nancy E. Green of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University has helped organize this summer’s centennial exhibition on the history and artistic production at Byrdcliffe. She points out, “The Woodstock site is still hauntingly beautiful, and it must have been idyllic to go there for the summer and make art and be with companions you could talk to about what you were working on. Whitehead had a wonderful library for the residents to use. They organized dances and musical entertainments. They tried to make it a friendly, welcoming community.”
The Furniture Of Byrdcliffe
Byrdcliffe had a more complex mission than many other American Arts and Crafts communities. The Whiteheads wanted to offer classes in Arts and Crafts and maintain a utopian environment for the artists in the country on a working farm as well as create beautiful handmade objects whose sale they hoped would support the whole project. Quite logically, one of the first workshops set up undertook the manufacture of furniture. The artisans at Woodstock had as models the production lines of the Shaker religious communities and the success of Arts and Crafts products from the Roycroft Furniture Shop in East Aurora, N.Y., and Charles Rohlfs in Buffalo.
In 1904, Byrdcliffe made around 50 pieces of furniture, mostly from oak or poplar, which were marked with its lily trademark. Many of the colony’s artists were involved in the design or production including British painter Dawson Dawson-Watson (1864-1939), Giovanni Battista Trocolli (1882-1940), who taught crafts and woodcarving at Byrdcliffe, and art school head Herman Dudley Murphy. Zulma Steel (1881-1979) and Edna Walker (dates unknown), both graduates of the Pratt School of Design, played an important role in the design of the furniture and its ornamentation.
Among the forms produced were cabinets and chests of various shapes and sizes, tables and desks, and settles and other seating furniture. Certain pieces were produced for use in the newly constructed White Pines — for example, a dining table with side panels carved with fleur-de-lis and a set of chairs to go around it. When collectors claim to be able to instantly recognize a product of the Byrdcliffe furniture workshop, they are, however, referring not to the basic forms — which were similar to other products of the period — but to the carved and painted ornamentation that made the furniture so distinctive.
Although Ralph Whitehead had studied woodworking in Europe, he evidently had no hands-on involvement in the making of the furniture. Jane Whitehead was more interested in the pottery making that she had begun in a studio inside White Pines in 1903. Many scholars have credited the unique furniture panel designs to the influence of Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922), who taught at Pratt and sent students Steele and Walker to Byrdcliffe.
The two women meticulously rendered the flora of the Woodstock area in signed drawings, which were then translated into wood by trained carvers such as Trocolli. Some carvings take the form of separate panels covered with stylized flowers or local leaf patterns that were inserted into the framing furniture. Other naturalistic carving appears on the surface of structural elements, such as the lilies — a popular motif at Byrdcliffe — that were carved on the legs of a chest.
While many cabinets and chest are decorated with the carved panels mentioned above, others incorporated actual paintings by the colony’s talented artists. One of the most famous of these is a low oak cabinet with two panels on the doors painted by Hermann Dudley Murphy that form a united nocturnal landscape. Murphy incidentally set up a workshop for making small frames that became one of the few profit-making ventures at Byrdcliffe. Dawson Dawson-Watson was another colony teacher involved in 1904’s furniture production.
Although the Byrdcliffe furniture was undeniably beautiful, the workshop was not successful as a commercial venture. The products were marketed through McCreery’s department store in New York City, but the costs of production and transport made the objects prohibitively expensive in competition with other Arts and Crafts pieces for sale at the time. While Greene and Greene and Frank Lloyd Wright were able to make expensive furniture to complete their architectural commissions, Byrdcliffe did not have this sort of patronage.
Mindful of the drain on his finances, Whitehead closed the furniture production down in 1905, only a year after it had begun. Much of the output remained unsold in family hands, although previously unknown examples occasionally turn up on the market, which must have left the colony sometime during its history. The short run of this brilliant experiment has made Byrdcliffe furniture rare and highly prized by collectors, many of whom are willing to pay six-figure prices for individual examples at auction.
Tom Wolf, professor of art history at nearby Bard College, who will contribute two essays to the catalog of next year’s traveling exhibition of Byrdcliffe work, notes, “The carved panel is already a kind of visual imagery, and then it is expanded into the painted landscapes, and that’s really the distinctive form of Byrdcliffe furniture. The expense of producing the work was prohibitive. Whitehead put a lot of his personal fortune into the colony, so when it proved difficult to sell the furniture, he withdrew. It wasn’t immediately successful and it was also undersold by Stickley and Roycroft, who were doing things comparable in quality more economically.”
Nancy Green concurs. “The high price seems to be the reason why the furniture didn’t sell well at the time. The furniture has a lot in common with the shape of a Stickley piece, but you could buy a Byrdcliffe piece with painted panels by Dawson-Watson. They also carved some of the panels, and that was an expensive process because it took longer. It definitely cost more than Stickley. And because it didn’t sell very well, much of it has remained in the family’s collection. When Peter White died in 1975 , there were still many, many pieces at Byrdcliffe. Very few pieces have come to my attention that weren’t part of the family’s collection.”
She concludes, “They tried to do everything. It wasn’t just furniture and metalwork. They did pottery and weaving as well, and they may have spread themselves too thin. And they were unique in some ways because they weren’t just an art community where you would come and make art, they also had a teaching component to the colony. They encouraged artists to come and take classes, and many of the craftsmen taught these classes. They were trying to be all things to all people at the time.”
The Woodstock Guild: Keepers of the Flame
The founded by Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead has survived to celebrate its centennial in 2003 because artists in the intervening century have cared deeply about its principles and purpose. The community experienced its first crucial turning point in 1929 when the founder died at the age of 74. Whitehead had been heartbroken over the death of his eldest son, Ralph, Jr, in a shipwreck the preceding year.
Jane Byrd McCall Whitehead, who had been his supportive companion in the project from its inception, sold off their Santa Barbara estate and part of the New York colony’s acreage, then devoted the remainder of her long life to running Byrdcliffe as an artistic refuge. After her death in 1955 at the age of 93, the Whiteheads’ surviving son Peter continued to live at White Pines until his death in 1975.
Peter Whitehead bequeathed most of the colony’s land and complex of 32 structures to The Woodstock Guild at that time, and the Byrdcliffe Historic District was listed on New York State’s National Register of Historic Places in 1979. The not-for-profit Guild had been formed in 1939 to foster the creative arts in that section of the Hudson Valley. Fanning the Byrdcliffe flame was added to the organization’s outreach activities — classes, concerts and exhibitions — that attract 12,000 people annually.
A major step was taken in 1998 when The Woodstock Guild was able to purchase White Pines, the founders’ home, which had remained in family hands after Peter Whitehead’s death. Recently stabilized, the house and its attached Loom Room will open to the public this summer for Sunday afternoon tours. Another colony structure not included in the 1975 bequest, Serenata cottage, was purchased by a Guild board member in 1994 and reintegrated into the complex as a residence and studio.
Carla T. Smith, executive director of The Woodstock Guild, emphasizes that the preparation of White Pines as a historic house museum is a continuing project. At first, she explains, “We’ll have the house open with text panels for people to read as they tour the structure. We’ll have some furniture die-cuts and some real furniture.” Future plans include an attached visitors’ center with educational exhibits.
Although Byrdcliffe art works and furniture have entered important museum collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum, and Winterthur, the Guild would like to gather more objects made in the colony back to their birthplace. Smith says, “We have been trying to reach out to collectors to unearth more of the existing pieces of Byrdcliffe art.” One success has been the recent acquisition of a collection of early work produced at the colony from Alf Evers, a 97-year-old regional historian and author.
A second important component of the Byrdcliffe Centennial is a loan exhibition in Woodstock this summer, through September 7, that will include more than 120 examples of furniture, crafts and fine art created at the colony. The objects will be divided between three venues grouped together in the town: the Kleinert/James Arts Center, the Woodstock Artists Association and the Center for Photography.
This will be followed by a larger traveling exhibition accompanied by a catalog with essays by six contributors on Byrdcliffe’s history, architecture, personalities and artistic output. Opening at the Milwaukee Art Museum in the summer of 2004, the show will also travel to Cornell University, the New-York Historical Society and Winterthur.
The traveling exhibition is co-curated by Nancy E. Green, senior curator of prints, drawings, and photographs at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, and Tom Wolf, professor of art history, Bard College. Wolf points out, “Only a few people in American decorative arts are really familiar with Byrdcliffe. When I started working on this show, what I heard over and over again was, ‘I’ve heard about Byrdcliffe, but I’d like to know more about it,’ which is one of the reasons we undertook the show.”
Wolf continues, “Furniture has been the main thing that’s been known so far, but I think there is a very interesting painting tradition. What I’m continuing to work on is the feminist tradition that made Woodstock a center for single independent women who are interested in pursuing artistic lives.”
For more information about this summer’s events and tours as well as the future traveling exhibition, contact The Woodstock Guild, 34 Tinker Street, Woodstock, NY 12498; 845-679-2079 or visit www.woodstockguild.org.