Devoted to the Betterment of Man: Byrdcliffe: An American Arts & Crafts Colony

By Rich McKinstry, Winterthur Library Director

the porch at White Pines

On June 5, 1902, Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead wrote to his wife, Jane, from Kingston, New York:

We have found a country with a sky—such beauty of sky I have not seen except in France, I mean 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 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.

Such was Jane’s introduction to the area around the village of Woodstock, located in the Catskill mountain region of upstate New York. A painter, she must have been delighted to hear of such a place, and Ralph, who was scouting for a site for an artist’s community that he planned to establish, was undoubtedly equally pleased with what he saw.

Ralph Whitehead

Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead was a native of England. He grew up among wealth and privilege in Saddleworth in the West Riding of Yorkshire, a member of a family that owned Royal George Mills, where felt for piano clappers was made. In 1873, he entered Oxford and studied under John Ruskin, who many acknowledge as the fountainhead of the Arts & Crafts movement. During the 1870s, Ralph led the life of a student, immersed himself in Ruskinian doctrine, and traveled throughout Europe. He also found love and married. In the early 1880s, together with his Austrian wife, Marie, and four servants, he lived at 33A Crescent House in the borough of Kensington, London.

Jane Whitehead

Jane Byrd McCall came from Philadelphia. Her ancestors included John Mercer, governor and congressman from Maryland, and colonial Virginia luminaries George Mason and William Byrd. Her father, Peter McCall, served as mayor of Philadelphia in the 1840s. As a child, Jane developed an interest in art, and in her teenage years, she studied with John Ruskin at Oxford and at the Académie Julian in Paris. Jane and her sister, Gerty, were presented to Queen Victoria in 1886.

Evidence suggests that Ralph and Jane met in 1885. Having originally found friendship as disciples of Ruskin, by 1890 they had become romantically involved. So strong was their attachment that Ralph divorced Marie. Ralph and Jane exchanged vows in 1892 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and then settled in Montecito, California, where they built an Italianate villa called Arcady. They had two sons, Ralph Jr. and Peter.

Both Ralph and Jane were involved in artistic endeavors locally. In addition, Ralph traveled widely, visiting artists and progressive thinkers in America and abroad. All the while, he was imagining an artist’s colony devoted to the betterment of man based on the teachings of John Ruskin. From Chicago in June 1901, he wrote Jane: “I feel so terribly that it haunts me day and night that I have made myself no definite place of usefulness anywhere in this wide world. And I feel that for the boys’ sake I must make some place that as they grow up they may be able to respect me as one who bears his part in the march of humanity, as one who is doing his share of the work of the world.”

exterior of White Pines

One year later, Ralph found himself standing on Overlook Mountain, near Woodstock, gazing out over the land that would soon accommodate his great legacy, the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony. With like-minded thinkers, Whitehead established his colony on 1,200 acres, naming it Byrdcliffe, combining his wife’s middle name with a portion of his own middle name. By the spring of 1903, five main buildings had been constructed, including White Pines, where the Whiteheads lived, and other houses, workshops, and studios.

People synonymous with the Arts & Crafts movement came to live and work at Byrdcliffe: painters Herman Dudley Murphy from Boston and John Duncan, a Scotsman; Eva Watson-Schütze, a photographer; artists Zulma Steele and Edna Walker, both students at Pratt Institute in New York; writers Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Edith Wherry from Hull House; weaver Marie Little; potters Elizabeth Hardenbergh and Edith Penman; metalsmith Ned Thatcher; and furniture makers Dawson Dawson-Watson and Olaf Westerling.

interior of White Pines

Many observers consider furniture the highpoint of the colony’s production, though only about 50 pieces were ever made. Whitehead was inspired by furniture illustrated in such English magazines as The Studio and International Studio and especially by items created by English architect and designer Mackay H. Baillie-Scott. Zulma Steele and Edna Walker were responsible for ornamental design, basing their decorative imagery on local plant life. Byrdcliffe furniture was simple, straight lined, and boxy; surfaces were either stained or unfinished. Doors on cabinets often featured panels with drawings with floral themes or perhaps landscape paintings.

Whitehead hoped that the furniture made at Byrdcliffe would pay for itself, though without a marketing plan of any consequence and with competition from other Arts & Crafts furnituremakers, it did not. As a result, he ended production in the summer of 1905. Other crafts languished or were abandoned over time and instructors and pupils arrived and departed with some rapidity and regularity. Inspired by Ruskin’s admonition of obedience to authority, Ralph was a far-from-humble force to be reckoned with; most people chose not to and left.

children exercising at Byrdcliffe

Ultimately, Byrdcliffe failed as a community of artists, but its influence on Woodstock was very real. Bertha Thompson, a jewelry and tableware designer who came to Byrdcliffe in 1903, commented in 1933 that “Mr. Whitehead had dreamed of a community of workers in the arts and handicrafts, associated but independent, living a simple and satisfying life amid beautiful surroundings.” Continuing, she noted, “Many fine, sensitive spirits, in other times and other places, have dreamed this dream so impossible of full realization, forgetting that the human race has yet to learn the true meaning of cooperation in community living.” Posing a question, Thompson concluded by asking, “Who can say that Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead’s dream has not been realized in this wider community as we know it today?”

Through the generous donation of a descendant of Jane Whitehead, the Winterthur Library has the archive of the Byrdcliffe art colony. For details, see its finding aid. Additionally, some 200 images from the collection can be viewed online.

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