Monday, February 4, 2008

Byrdcliffe Colony, an Arts and Crafts Utopian Community

Byrdcliffe Colony was formed in 1903 by wealthy Englishman Ralph Radcliffe-Whitehead, a student of John Ruskin, near Woodstock NY. Whitehead, who along with his American wife, Jane Byrd McCall, attempted to establish the perfect environment for an art guild adhering to the ideals of Ruskin and the Arts and Crafts Movement. Whitehead, was influenced by John Ruskin's passion for Gothic art and his social reformist ideals. The views of the British designer-craftsman William Morris, a Ruskin disciple who pushed for the return of design to its intimate relationship with processes and materials, also had an effect on Whitehead's thinking.
Seeing art as a factor in the improvement of society, and wanting a purpose for his life, Whitehead aspired to build his own arts and crafts community. His ideas found an echo in those of a socially prominent American artist, Jane Byrd McCall, whom Whitehead met on a trip through Italy. A Ruskinite, too, she joined Whitehead in helping realize his project. He divorced his Austrian-born wife and moved to the United States, where he and Jane were married in 1892. After travel abroad, they built a luxurious Tuscan villa called Arcady in Montecito, Calif., where they lived while planning ahead. Their aims for the colony (called Byrdcliffe from an amalgamation of their middle names) were that it should support itself by selling beautiful handmade objects; offer classes in all the crafts so that it could perpetuate itself; and provide a healthy life on a working farm that would also help to support it. But it wasn't until June 1902 that Whitehead, after months of looking in other areas, was alerted to the possibilities of Woodstock by a close painter friend, Bolton Brown. In a gorgeous setting at the foothills of the Catskills, Woodstock had the added advantage of being close to New York City, rife with commercial opportunities.
At its peak between 1903 and 1910, Byrdcliffe had about 200 working artists and artisans. Some rented studio space and worked on their own, some worked collectively with others, and younger artists from the Pratt Institute, Columbia University and elsewhere flocked to Byrdcliffe for classes. In a beautiful, rural setting, Whitehead built first class accommodations to attract artists and friends. Artists from around the country converged at this Utopian setting where they created pottery, textiles, metalwork and some furniture while enjoying the company of other craftsmen. No more than 50 pieces of furniture were ever produced and most of these were kept and used at Byrdcliffe. Production of furniture lasted only until 1905. Financially, Byrdcliffe never was successful, but it’s importance in the history of the Arts and Crafts Movement is second to none.
As an experiment in utopian living inspired by the arts and crafts movement, the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony was built sparing no expense. Byrdcliffe was a wonderful setting for practicing the art of living through creative manual work. The arts and crafts movement stressed reform of social, environmental and economic conditions to combat the slums and degradation fostered in the industrial regions and Byrdcliffe's Woodstock site offered a pristine environment for the creation of Whitehead's utopian enclave.
Although the arts and crafts utopian experiment soon ran out of steam, the continuing magic of Byrdcliffe enthralled many notable persons including the educator John Dewey, author Thomas Mann and naturalist John Burroughs. Isadora Duncan danced at White Pines; Bob Dylan lived in a house at Byrdcliffe in the '60s and early '70s; Joanne Woodward was involved in the river Arts Repertory at the Byrdcliffe Theatre. After Whitehead's death in 1929, his widow, Jane, and son Peter struggled to keep the colony alive. After Jane's death in 1955, Peter sold much of the land to pay taxes and maintenance on the heart of the colony which he kept intact. The Whiteheads intended to preserve Byrdcliffe "for the purpose of promoting among the residents of Woodstock...the study, practice and development of skill in the fine arts and crafts, as well as a true appreciation thereof..." Byrdcliffe remains a vibrant part of the cultural life of the Catskill region thanks to the careful stewardship of the Woodstock Guild.

Byrdcliffe is also an important regional example of the movement to create various types of utopian enclaves in America. British reformers especially saw America as a fertile and cheap land for the creation of visionary communities. The horrors of the working conditions of the industrial revolution led Robert Owen to establish his New Harmony, Indiana, community in the 1820s. Owen had a wide influence in America and a score of communities patterned on his theories were founded including one in Haverstraw, New York, and another in Coxsackie, New York, although these were both very short lived. In the 1880s Thomas Hughes established his Rugby Colony in Tennessee, inspired by Ruskin and espousing creative manual labor. Other arts and crafts communities were also founded in America, including the Roycroft Community in East Aurora, New York, which was established in 1895 by Elbert Hubbard on the principles of the guild system and the aesthetics of William Morris.

These various efforts to create "communities of aspiration" form a vigorous part of American culture. New York State saw successful Shaker communities in the late 18th century; the successful utopian community at Oneida which was established in 1848 near Syracuse and still exists, although not as a commune but as a residence, inn and conference center; the creation of the Chautauqua Institution near Jamestown in 1874 which today draws 300,000 annual visitors for a summer season of arts, education, recreation and religion; and the continuing existence of Chautauquan-style communities at 1000 Island Park on the St. Lawrence River, and at Round Lake near Saratoga. In the 19th century the rise of the Hudson River School of painting drew artists to the region, and Byrdcliffe has a place in the history of artist's retreats which includes the late 19th century Pakatakan Colony near Arkville and the Cragsmoor Colony near Ellenville. Before Byrdcliffe, artists were drawn to Woodstock for stays at the Overlook Mountain House and Meads Mountain House. After Byrdcliffe's zenith the classes of the Art Students League brought many artists to Woodstock. However, it was a result of Byrdcliffe's creation that Woodstock attained its prominence as one of America's premier art colonies.
It is estimated that about fifty pieces of furniture were made at Byrdcliffe before production stopped in 1905. Only a few pieces were designed specifically for use at White Pines. The rest were supposed to be sold to the public. It was not all made of indigenous woods, as John Ruskin decreed. It seldom had the exposed mortise and tenon joints that were the marks of honest joinery for Stickley. It was not made by the person who would ultimately use it, and it was very expensive, which meant that the common man, so central to democratic arts and crafts theory, could not afford it. Scholars today make the case that Byrdcliffe became an essential part of the arts and crafts story after the arrival of Zulma Steele and Edna Walker. This is because these women studied at the Pratt School of Design in New York City when Arthur Wesley Dow was teaching there.

Most Byrdcliffe cabinets have the same problematic proportions that plague the furniture Whitehead made for Arcady They appear ponderous and usually lack the details that might minimize abrupt transitions. By contrast the piece here is one of two known cabinets that are narrower than the standard two-door Byrdcliffe cabinets, which are sixty-one inches wide. In this case the span between the legs is short enough to allow a visual connection between the corner brackets. Finally, the cornice molding is more attenuated than that on the wide chests. Still, all these refinements to Whitehead's basic design would not have carried the piece without the panels of delicately tinted swirling sassafras leaves designed by Steele and colored by Jane Whitehead. The low-relief carved panels Steele designed are the most distinctive elements on Byrdcliffe furniture. Robert Lang reproduced this piece of furniture in the April 2007 issue of Popular Woodworking, you can also find it in Popular Woodworking Press's recent book, Popular Woodworking's Arts & Crafts Furniture Projects: 25 Projects for Every Room in Your Home (Popular Woodworking)

Though Byrdcliffe brimmed with spiritual moxie - and fun, too, as attested by photographs of picnics, parties and such - its most important material product was the beautifully decorated Arts and Crafts furniture turned out by the colony's woodworking shop. This production spate lasted for only two years, from 1903 to 1905, because of cost factors and more efficient production and promotion by competitors, like the similarly ideological enterprises run by Gustav Stickley and Elbert Hubbard. Still, the 50 or so examples of furniture produced at Byrdcliffe, executed by workmen from artists' drawings, are superbly Arts and Crafts in their rugged but elegant design; their boxy, rectilinear build; and their dark wood tones and rustic finishes. They are simply adorned, with carved floral decorations taken from local plants, but some even have painted scenes.

One well-known example shown here is a sturdy small oak cabinet (called at Byrdcliffe a chiffonier) from 1904. Its two door panels were painted with a single composition, a lovely scene of a river meandering through a green landscape, by Hermann Dudley Murphy (1867-1945), an artist who taught at Byrdcliffe in its first two summers.

Several pieces are adorned with decorations by Zulma Steele (1881-1979), a painter, potter and designer very active in colony life and work. A drop-front desk in green-stained cherry with its three panels painted in iris motifs is one of her most appealing contributions.

A big, heavy dark chest of poplar is lightened by Edna Walker's delicate tulip design in peachy-orange across a horizontal front panel. Walker and Steele, both Pratt graduates who had studied with the famous painter and teacher Arthur Wesley Dow, together designed a house, the Angelus, at the colony, where they lived for many years.

This wall cabinet features an Iris design by Zulma Steele, unlike most Arts and Crafts furniture its made from Poplar, the original has a greenish stain with a relief carved iris. I also found this original drawing on Ms. Steele's iris motife. This cabinet is going to be my next project and I'll try my hand at the carving on the door
panel. I've previosly made his cabinet from the plans from Popular Woodworking Magazine, , the plans are also included in the CD included in Popular Woodworking's Arts & Crafts Furniture Projects: 25 Projects for Every Room in Your Home (Popular Woodworking). The cabinetry is simple in this project but stock selection is critical, poplar is white when cut, but ages to green, it can also include black and purple streaks which you want to avoid. In the Popular Woodworking plans the iris is an aplied cut-out using a scroll saw which I did on the first cabinet, this time I'm going to use the same design, included in the plan, but I'm going to carve it, or attempt to, stay tuned.


Margaret said...

Again, such an informative post! I had no idea about Byrdcliffe! It's unfortunate that the community was not more successful, but they certainlly produced beautiful work.

Brad Ferguson said...

Thank You Margaret, it really is too bad that so many of the utopian communities didn't survive the Depression. I guess the hard realities of life often conflict with artistic Ideals.