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 Young Adult Life in England and on the Continent

Figure 5 depicts Whitehead in pre-Raphaelite-style dress on a visit to Europe, probably around 1892 following her marriage to Ralph Whitehead in August of that year.[6] On this trip, she set up an atelier with Miss Mercier in Paris.[7] She also studied at the Académie Julian, and visited and painted in Cannes and Grasse. The notes in her calendar from this trip also include references to arts and crafts in London.

Whitehead is self-consciously posed on a daybed covered with silken pillows and a tiger skin, with copies of Renaissance masterpieces hanging on the walls. A plant to the left seems to be the same type featured in sketches executed by Whitehead and John Ruskin in 1883.[8] On an easel is an engraved panel, dated 1891, which features a moody landscape with rolling hills, pine trees, rays of light, and a pair of disembodied wings breaking through the clouds. [9] An inscription surrounds the edge of the panel, reading "Tu ne cede malis/Sed contra dudentior ito./Qua Tua te Fortuna sinet," which roughly translates "yield not to harm or danger/in spite of your youth/go, you should be allowed to seek your fortune." [10] This panel shows a circular design with the wing and arrow flying over the horizon at sunrise or sunset. Believed to commemorate the marriage contracted by Jane and Ralph Whitehead on a hillside in Serbelloni, Italy, [11] the panel and the iron bat hanging on the wall to the left traveled with the Whiteheads throughout their lives together, being present in photographs of their homes in Montecito and Woodstock.

The cover of Grass of the Desert (1892), one of the Whiteheads's publications, is marked with a stylized version of the theme that was examined in the 1891 marriage contract panel painting. In it Ralph Whitehead wrote, "The wing is that corporeal element which is most akin to the divine, and is intended to soar aloft and carry that which gravitates downward into the upper region, where dwell the gods." [12] Jane and Ralph Whitehead collaborated by mail on Grass of the Desert and The Vita Nuova of Dante (1892) while she was in Colorado Springs in 1891 on an 1891 rest cure awaiting Ralph Whitehead's divorce from his first wife, Marie. Charles Whittingham the Younger's Chiswick Press published both books. Chiswick Press was known for excellent craftsmanship and detail and was where British Arts and Crafts luminaries William Morris and Walter Crane also published books.

In figure 5, the photograph depicts a caged bird, akin to the one in figure 3, that sits on a wooden stand with a carved fleur-de-lis emblem in relief. The fleur-de-lis symbol, or Florentine lily, represents a stylized iris, lily, or lotus flower. Both alone and in combination with the wing and arrow, the Whiteheads used the fleur-de-lis to symbolize their relationship and collaborative artistic and intellectual projects. Jane Whitehead created a design using the fleur-de-lis coupled with the wing-and-arrow motif for the cover of The Vita Nuova of Dante. These motifs and variations were used on additional publications and for other uses. After 1903, Whitehead modified the motif to symbolize Byrdcliffe and to mark articles made there.

It is possible to conclude that Whitehead imagined this highly refined artistic environment from circa 1892 (figure 5) to be representative of the simple living described in this essay's initial quotation from about the same date. The setting's references to worldly knowledge and classical education correspond with ideas about simple living focusing on enlightened material restraint and high thinking. Here, Whitehead's expression of simple living is akin to ideas expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson at the middle of the nineteenth century. In David Shi's The Simple Life, he explains,

Emerson repeatedly explained to his listeners and readers that in stressing the primacy of thoughts over things he was not asking them to abandon their coarse labors and flee to the woods like Rousseau's "noble savage." The good life, he stressed, required more than "the crust of bread and the roof." It should include "the freedom of the city, freedom of the earth, traveling, machinery, the benefits of science, music and fine arts, the best culture and the best company." Emerson clearly recognized the benefits of a capitalist economy. [13]

Over time, however, the visual manifestation of this philosophy in Whitehead's built environments became less urbane and more visually austere, culminating at Byrdcliffe where emphasis was self-consciously placed on highlighting the natural qualities of materials and signs of handcraftsmanship.

 

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