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Byrdcliffe: An American Arts and Crafts Colony

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It was early in June 1902 when three men gathered on top of Overlook Mountain and gazed down the valley at the hamlet of Woodstock below. For all three it was a triumphant moment. After several months of searching, they had finally found an idyllic spot for their future arts colony. Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, the man who would finance the project, wrote exultantly to his wife Jane a couple of days later, “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.”1

Byrdcliffe,2 Whitehead’s dream of an artists’ community, had found its home.

Writer Hervey White, associated with Jane Addams’s Hull House in Chicago, and painter Bolton Brown shared that mountaintop vision with Whitehead, and both men put all their energies into establishing the community and attracting like-minded creative people. Unlike other similar Arts and Crafts colonies in America and in Europe, Byrdcliffe had a threefold mission: to produce beautiful handmade objects that, when sold, would finance the colony; to offer classes in all the crafts so that the colony’s success would go forward for future generations; and to lead a healthful life on a working farm that would help to support the inhabitants and provide the best of a rural environment in terms of beauty and simplicity of lifestyle.

For nearly three decades the Whiteheads would summer, and occasionally winter, at Byrdcliffe. The campus became host to numerous writers, artists, and musicians who came and stayed, sometimes for a summer or two or even more. Some bought land from Whitehead and built permanent summer residences; some visited annually but stayed at the inn, the Villetta. It was a complex group that came and, inevitably, personalities clashed. But the variety of participants was impressive. Among the artists, Hermann Dudley Murphy, Dawson Dawson-Watson, John Carlson, Carl Lindin, Birge Harrison, William Schumacher, Blanche Lazzell, Ellen Gates Starr, and Laurin Martin all brought skill and professionalism to the colony. The diverse group of writers included Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Elizabeth von Arnim, Oscar Lovell Triggs, Owen Wister, James Shotwell, John Dewey, and John Burroughs.

Despite Byrdcliffe’s failure as a commercial venture, Whitehead succeeded in some ways where previous such ventures had failed. Whitehead, raised in Victorian England, was enamored of the teachings of William Morris and John Ruskin and, while he did not follow the socialist views of Morris3 nor the humanitarian, moralizing approach of Ruskin, he did believe that a community with shared artistic goals could thrive. He successfully encouraged women working within the sphere of decorative arts. Though it was commonplace for women to be thus employed at the turn of the century, Whitehead did not pigeonhole them into gender-oriented crafts or assign credit for their work to their male collaborators. Women at Byrdcliffe were involved in metalwork, weaving, pottery making, painting, furniture design, and even architectural design. Men, too, like many of their counterparts involved with the Arts and Crafts aesthetic, worked in the fields of weaving and pottery decoration. In most cases, each person was given due credit for his or her work, though some of the collaborative pieces remain anonymous.

At the time that Byrdcliffe was founded, one of the most crucial debates among Arts and Crafts practitioners revolved around the use of machines for mundane chores, leaving the creative work to be done individually by the artist. Many thought that the machine had a purpose and that a complete rejection of it in favor of the purely handwrought displayed a foolish romanticism. Others, adhering to a complete medieval guild approach, felt that use of a machine dehumanized the worker. At Byrdcliffe, machines were in use and, like Frank Lloyd Wright,4 Whitehead felt that the machine did not cause an artist to lose interest in his work but rather enabled him to get on with the business of creating in a timely way. While a seemingly simple point, this made a huge difference in the production schedule of any such enterprise and also dramatically cut the time that was spent on menial work.

The very atmosphere of the community itself was important to Whitehead. He envisioned a colony where the children of the inhabitants would live healthy lives, learning their lessons outdoors when weather permitted, being trained in the crafts at a young age while also learning to distinguish beauty in their surroundings. He thought the art school would attract a new, active group of like-minded practitioners who would carry on the dream into future generations. To this end he sought out gifted teachers active in the Arts and Crafts movement.5 He traveled from New York to Philadelphia to Boston in search of artists he thought would inspire and develop the skills of these students. He wanted these artists themselves to achieve a complete satisfaction in their work, and so he provided the most up-to-date equipment, offered them access to his superb personal library, hosted cultural evenings, and hoped the furniture they produced would find serious buyers. When this market failed to materialize, Whitehead cut his losses and closed the furniture shop in 1905.

The colony would continue in many configurations until the death of Whitehead in 1929. His dream of a community of like-minded artists working together in harmonious collaboration was an unrealistic one, yet, unlike other such enterprises, the Byrdcliffe campus still exists as an artist’s colony today. Though the concept has changed from Whitehead’s original intention, a nugget of his ideal remains—nurturing artists in a place of unparalleled beauty and inspiration.

Nancy E. Green
Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs

 

NOTES

1 RRW to Jane, June 5, 1902, Kingston, New York. Winterthur Library, Downs Collection.
2 At the beginning there was some debate as to the name of the colony:
“As to names, I think really you must simplify—the address must have as few names as possible. . . let the estate & the company be the same name, ‘Yggdrasil’ our house might be, ‘Ye House of Yggdrasil’ & the company ‘The Looms of Yggdrasil’ I like very much, & am quite willing to give up ‘Byrdcliffe’” (Jane to RRW, undated letter, Wednesday, 6:00 p.m., Winterthur Library, Downs Collection). “Yggdrasil,” the tree of life in Norse legend, was a favorite of William Morris. “Igdrasil” was also the name of a literary journal published in England in the late nineteenth century to which Ruskin periodically contributed. The Whiteheads ultimately decided to stay with "Byrdcliffe,” a combination of Jane’s middle name, Byrd, and the second half of Ralph’s middle name, Radcliffe.
3 Though Whitehead would have agreed with the motivation that led Morris to his socialist ideas: “We were borne into a dull time oppressed by bourgeoisdom and philistinism so sorely that we were forced to turn our back on ourselves, and only in ourselves and the world of art and literature was there any hope.” Morris to Fred Henderson quoted in E. P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (Stanford, 1955, [reprint 1988]), 14.
4 As early as 1901 Wright was writing, “In time, I hope to prove that the machine is capable of carrying to fruition high ideals of art—higher than the world has yet seen!” Frank Lloyd Wright, “The Art and Craft of the Machine,” Brush and Pencil (May 1901): 84.
5 It was T. J. Cobden-Sanderson who first coined the phrase “Arts and Crafts” on May 25, 1887, at an early meeting of what became the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, established in 1888. Alan Crawford, C. R. Ashbee: Architect, Designer & Romantic Socialist (New Haven & London, 1983), 31.

 

This exhibition has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, promoting excellence in the humanities. (Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.)

This exhibition is also supported in part by The Henry Luce Foundation, The National Endowment for the Arts, public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency, and The New York Council for the Humanities, a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Additional support was provided by The Getty Curatorial Research Program, Winterthur Fellowships, Furthermore: a program of The J. M. Kaplan Fund, Cornell Council for the Arts, and Cornell University's Atkinson Forum in American Studies.