The Artisans Who Put Woodstock On the Map

The Byrdcliffe mark, visible on a vase, right, is pointed out on the door of an oak chest by Nancy Green, who curated
The Byrdcliffe mark, visible on a vase, right, is pointed out on the door of an oak chest by Nancy Green, who curated "Byrdcliffe: An American Arts and Crafts Colony." (Photos By Pat Crowe Ii -- Associated Press)
By Randall Chase
Associated Press
Thursday, June 23, 2005


Long before Woodstock became synonymous with rock-and-roll, it was known for Arts and Crafts.

A new exhibition at Winterthur explores the utopian history of the famed gathering place in Upstate New York through the legacy of Byrdcliffe, a relatively obscure Arts and Crafts colony founded in 1902.

"It was like a commune from the '60s or '70s in a way, which is ironic," said Nancy Green, the exhibition organizer and a senior curator at the Herbert Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University. " . . . That's what we think of Woodstock now."

"Byrdcliffe: An American Arts and Crafts Colony" is the first major traveling exhibition about the colony founded by wealthy Englishman Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead and his Philadelphia-born artist wife, Jane Byrd McCall Whitehead.

Winterthur, home to the Byrdcliffe archives, is the fifth and final stop for the exhibition, which runs through Sept. 5. Previous shows played at the Milwaukee Art Museum, Cornell, the Albany Institute of History and Art and the New-York Historical Society.

The exhibition features almost 200 works, centered on the handcrafted furniture for which Byrdcliffe is best known. It also includes pottery, metalwork, textiles, ceramics, photographs, and painting and drawings. The show is complemented by a comprehensive, 256-page catalogue that tells the story of Byrdcliffe in words and pictures, including a "cast of characters" who at one time or another called the place home.

"It's a wonderful assemblage of the kinds of items that were produced at Byrdcliffe," said Rich McKinstry, senior librarian at Winterthur.

Green and other organizers pored over archives in the Joseph Downs collection at Winterthur in putting the show together, and a separate room in the show is devoted to Winterthur's archival holdings. The archives, which include photographs, diaries, correspondence, drawings and designs, were donated to Winterthur more than a decade ago by Jane Whitehead's grandnephew Mark Willcox Jr.

Inspired by the back-to-nature musings of artist-philosophers John Ruskin and William Morris in response to the Industrial Revolution, Whitehead enlisted Bolton Brown, a Stanford University art professor and outdoorsman, and Hervey White, an Iowa-born, Harvard University-educated writer active in Jane Addams's Hull House circle in Chicago, to help build an Arts and Crafts community.

After looking at sites in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia, Whitehead settled on Woodstock, which Brown discovered and which is still home to an Arts and Crafts community run by the Woodstock Guild of Craftsmen.

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.

But Whitehead's utopian dream didn't turn out as he planned.

Unwilling to put up with Whitehead's dictatorial control over every aspect of Byrdcliffe, Brown was gone by the end of the first year. White, described by Green as "the great humanitarian protohippie," split a year later to establish a colony nearby. The Maverick, as it was called, became popular for its music festivals and outdoor theater.

A panoramic photograph of a 1920s gathering at the Maverick, with men dressed as women, women dressed as men, and children and adults adorned in clown and animal costumes, conjures images of the freewheeling bohemians who converged at the famed Woodstock Music and Art Fair in 1969. The link is reinforced in a black-and-white photograph of a young Bob Dylan, cigarette dangling from his lips, ensconced in front of a piano at Byrdcliffe in 1968.

Pressing on despite the departures of Brown and White, Whitehead realized that despite his decision not to eschew the use of machinery, as some Arts and Crafts communities had done, Byrdcliffe's furniture would never be commercially profitable. Byrdcliffe, which is thought to have produced only about 50 pieces of furniture, simply was unable to compete with more production-oriented Arts and Crafts operations such as those run by Gustav Stickley and Elbert Hubbard.

One reason for Byrdcliffe's relative obscurity, Green said, is the "rhetoric of failure" that has surrounded it.

"I think the founders probably considered it a failure, but if you look at the exhibition and the records and the artifacts that have survived, I think it was a success," McKinstry said. "It gives us a good look into the arts and crafts movement."

The Whiteheads' youngest son, Peter, willed most of the Byrdcliffe land and property to the Woodstock Guild of Craftsmen upon his death in 1975, and the guild later purchased the Whitehead home, White Pines, from Willcox.

Byrdcliffe's legacy lives on primarily in its furniture, which has fetched prices of up to $250,000. While keeping with the boxy, linear, utilitarian forms indicative of the Arts and Crafts style, Byrdcliffe furniture is unique in its distinctive panel designs and carvings, which some refer to as a fusing of decorative and "high" art.

"The furniture is the first thing that everybody 'oohs' and 'aahs' about. It's so beautiful," Green said, noting that the designs also slowed down production and made Byrdcliffe furniture "that much more expensive."

Two of the most prolific designers at Byrdcliffe were Edna Walker and Zulma Steele, whose floral patterns dominate the exhibition in works such as "Linen Press With Sassafras Panels" and "Desk With Three Panel Iris Design."

The Whiteheads themselves are represented in the exhibition through their photographs, paintings and pottery. While the Whiteheads used slipcast Asian-style pottery forms from plaster molds and concentrated more on glazing, fellow dabblers Edith Penman and Elizabeth Hardenbergh, better known for their prints and paintings, fashioned simple hand-built pottery pieces, an example of Byrdcliffe's free flow of artistic ideas.

"It's as much about the story as the works themselves," Green said. "Byrdcliffe gave people a chance to experiment, to take risks."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company