Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted November 2, 2004 in Resource Library with permission of the Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia. The essay is contained in a brochure which was published in connection with an exhibit of the same name being held at the Georgia Museum of Art October 9-December 5, 2004. We express appreciation to Bonnie Ramsey of the Georgia Museum of Art for bringing the essay to our attention. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to purchase a copy of the brochure please contact the Georgia Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


Jane Byrd McCall Whitehead's (1861-1955) Idealized Visions About Simple Living and Arts and Crafts

by Heidi Nasstrom Evans


Whitehead's Childhood in Philadelphia

A photograph for a studio card taken in Washington, D.C., probably in the 1870s, shows a young Whitehead posing with a bird sitting on her finger (figure 3). [4] Recently liberated from its cage, the bird symbolizes Whitehead's middle name, Byrd, a distinguished family name that earlier belonged to Jane Byrd (born 1729), daughter of William Byrd (1674-1744), the founder of Richmond, Virginia, and recognized as a celebrated colonial writer, planter, and government official. Byrd was also a pet name used by family and friends. At the time this portrait was taken, Whitehead embodied the feminine Victorian ideal, being physically delicate, lovely, fragile, socially active, ethereal, and spiritual in her love of art. Birds acting as metaphors for women often are given these attributes and are common in Greek mythology; for example, the goddess of love, Aphrodite, is represented by three birds, the sparrow, the swan, and the dove. The darker nature of femininity is represented by the sweetly-singing Sirens -- half-woman, half-bird creatures -- who lured sailors to watery graves. Whitehead used bird references to identify herself. She designed wing-and-arrow motifs to mark collaborative works of art with her husband, the wing representing Jane Whitehead and the arrow representing Ralph Whitehead (figure 4). Similarly, Byrdcliffe, the name of the arts colony she and Ralph Whitehead founded in Woodstock, in 1903, integrated her family name, Byrd, along with the second half of Ralph Whitehead's middle name, Radcliffe.

Whitehead spent the earliest years of her life in Philadelphia, a nationally recognized art center at the time. At a young age, she went abroad to be educated. By the time she was fifteen in 1876, Whitehead was friendly with Max Müller, the Orientalist and philologist Oxford professor, with whom she would remain lifelong friends. A calling card from Mrs. Max Müller, dated 1876, is the earliest known dated evidence in Whitehead's scrapbook from her early trips abroad. Reportedly after the death of her father, Peter McCall, in 1880, Whitehead went on an extended voyage to England and the Continent with her mother, Jane Byrd Mercer McCall, and sister, Gertrude McCall. During this time, Whitehead studied fine arts throughout Europe, most notably at the Académie Julian in Paris and with John Ruskin in England. Ruskin's philosophies about art and life were the primary inspiration for the Arts and Crafts Movement. Ideas like those conveyed in the following Ruskin passage most certainly played a central role in the development of Whitehead's early thinking about simple living. They subsequently evolved and were applied in her development of artistic environments in California and New York.

I am no advocate for meanness of private habitation. I would fain introduce into it all magnificence, care, and beauty, where they are possible; but would not have that useless expense in unnoticed fineries or formalities . . . I speak from experience. I know what it is to live in a cottage with a deal floor and roof, and a hearth of mica slate; and I know it to be in many respects healthier and happier than living between a Turkey carpet and gilded ceiling, beside a steel grate and polished fender. I do not say that such things have not their place and propriety; but I say this, emphatically, that the tenth part of the expense which is sacrificed in domestic vanities, if not absolutely and meaninglessly lost in domestic discomforts and incumbrances [sic], would, if collectively offered and wisely employed, build a marble church for every town in England . . .
John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) [5]


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