Furniture designed at the Byrd Cliffe Arts and Crafts Colony

by Robert Edwards

Since the first comprehensive exhibition devoted to the Byrdcliffe Arts and Crafts Colony in Woodstock, New York, in 1984 and 1985, the furniture produced there has been of great interest to students of the arts and crafts movement in the United States. Examples are now in the decorative arts collections of the most important American museums, but there has been little study of the sources that inspired Byrdcliffe designers.

Research has focused so far on the founders of the colony, Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead and Jane Byrd Whitehead (nee McCall), and their connections to the major figures of the arts and crafts movement, documented by the vast Byrdcliffe archives given to the Winterthur Museum in Winterthur, Delaware, in 1991.

Byrdcliffe furniture looks the way it does not just because of when it was designed and who designed it. The method of construction is also an important factor. Connoisseurs of American furniture have always taken a hard line about joinery. For them the beauty of a finely cut dovetail is as much moral as it is aesthetic. Continental Europeans and, to a lesser extent, the British, are not so sanctimonious. Who could guess how an eighteenth-century painted Venetian commode supports itself on such insubstantial curled legs? By the end of the nineteenth century Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) was having his designs for exaggerated high-backed chairs made in Scotland, and Francois Rupert Carabin (1862-1932) was lashing naked ladies to tables in France. Their furniture was uniquabout design, and they had no reverence for the niceties of construction. At the same time in the United States, designers like Gustav Stickley (1858--1942) were more comfortable with their puritanical interpretation of the directives of the arts and crafts movement. Mumbo jumbo about honest construction and truth to materials was taken seriously here, even if it was primarily a marketing ploy. The appearance of handcraftsmanship was and still is an important signifier of American arts and crafts production, yet Byrdcliffe furniture seldom has the loose-pin joinery or heavy-handed chisel marks that would establish its handmade status.

The furniture produced at Byrdcliffe seems to me at odds with the American arts and crafts standard. One obvious reason is that the founder was British and thus lacked the American puritan spirit. Also, Whitehead's inept sketches suggest that his education left him with an artistic sensibility but without the skills to create art of any sort. (2) He evidently studied woodworking in Paris, and later, while waiting to finalize a divorce from his first wife, he took woodworking courses in Germany Unfortunately, we can only guess at what he made as a student. He probably made several tables and desks with bulbous legs used at Arcady, the grand house he began building in 1894 in Montecito, California. He asked his second wife, Jane, to execute the drawings and then had others make the turned parts. At Byrdcliffe he seems to have had little to do with the actual construction of the furniture. In my judgment Whitehead's eccentric sense of proportion is his most obvious contribution to the design of Byrdcliffe furni ture.

The Whiteheads' art education played a significant role in the appearance of Byrdcliffe furniture. Their taste in household furnishings was formed by their close association with British, French, and Italian art experts. White Pines, the Whiteheads' home at Byrdcliffe, was a gloomy place by the time their son Peter (1901--1976) died. The burlap on the walls had darkened to the color of dried blood, and the green-stained woodwork had faded to a murky tone. Those dulled colors certainly seem to fit the idea of an arts and crafts interior of the kind frequently described in Stickley's Craftsman magazine. However, the interiors as they appeared after the house was completed in 1902 were rich with color and opulent materials. The Whiteheads were fond of scarlet silk brocades from Italy, and they purchased richly colored textiles from Morris and Company (see Pls. II and IV). They used silks and printed velvets with patterns designed by Charles F. A. Voy-sey (1857-1941), and they had examples of brilliantly glazed ceramics by William Frend De Morgan and Halsey Ralph Ricardo (see Pl. V). Along with reproductions of Italian Renaissance chairs they had furniture inlaid with ivory and exotic woods designed by George Washington Henry Jack (see P1. III) and Emile Galle (1846-1904). The walls were hung with huge watercolor reproductions of paintings by Raphael (1483-1520). The Whiteheads evidently worked together on the design of colorful stencils to be used in the interior of White Pines, but these were either not realized or have been lost under subsequent layers of wall coverings (see Pl. VII). Even so, the interiors must have been a riot of rich color and pattern that would surely have impressed and inspired the artists who arrived at the colony in the summer of 1903.

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. The many pieces remaining in the house in 1976 presumably had not found buyers. (3) We do not yet know how many pieces were actually sold, although it appears to be fewer than a dozen. The recent discovery of furniture that does not appear on the original inventories has increased that number slightly hut the marketing of Byrdcliffe furniture cannot be considered successful. Most arts and crafts furniture failed to meet the movement's criteria, and the Byrdcliffe product was no exception. It was not all made of indigenous woods, as John Ruskin (1819-1900) decreed. It sel dom 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 s o 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. (4) This is because these women studied at the Pratt School of Design (now Institute) in New York City when Arthur Wesley Dow was teaching there. There is a trend today to cast Dow in a starring role in the establishment of the arts and crafts style. However, his influence on the design of Byrdcliffe furniture has been overestimated. Dow and Whitehead corresponded about the curriculum for the Byrdcliffe summer school, but furniture production was a separate enterprise planned years before the craft classes were thought of.

To be sure, Steele and Walker signed many furniture drawings, and the blue landscape panels on some of the cabinets apparently relate to Dow's teachings. However, the women often produced renderings and working drawings for furniture they did not design, and they painted none of the four or five known moon-over-water blue landscape panels. There were some nocturnes among the landscape panels Jane Whitehead painted while living in Montecito that were later incorporated into Byrdciffe furniture. These wood panels were usually nine and one-half by five and one-half inches and could be fitted into the doors of any of the standard cabinets, large or small, made at Byrdcliffe.

One "chiffonier" (a term used in Byrdcliffe documents) is particularly well known because of its two blue landscapes painted by Hermann Dudley Murphy a relatively distinguished artist (Pls. VI, IX). He depicts a river that continues from one panel to the other. Murphy was a student at the Academie Julian in Paris at roughly the same time as Dow and Jane McCall. Other, unsigned, painted blue landscape panels resemble watercolors by Dawson Dawson-Watson (see Pls. XI and XX), who, like Murphy was an import to Byrdcliffe from the Society of Arts and Crafts, Boston. Another cabinet has blue landscape panels by Bolton Brown (1864-1936), who was among the first to come to Woodstock to set up the colony All these artists were Dow's contemporaries, but not one of them was his student. They were simply following a long-established fashion for monochromatic nocturnes practiced by such artists as Henri Riviere (1864-1951) and James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). The Whiteheads displayed a nocturne by Lowell Birge Harrison (P1. X) in the front hail of White Pines, and they also owned prints by Riviere.

Dow's book Composition (1899), with its simplistic lessons about how to create pictures and conventionalize designs, was intended to help a student or amateur achieve acceptable results through the use of formulas. It did not encourage individual creativity Dow's influence is not evident in the work of Byrdcliffe artists perhaps because they had completed formal training and had established reputations. (5) Similarities of composition and color between the Byrdcliffe panels and Dow's color woodblock prints (see P1. VIII) are obvious in hindsight, but one is not likely to have inspired the other.

Arts and crafts theory held that a piece of furniture should honestly express its function. This is not achieved by the chests with painted panels, since the doors serve as little more than frames for the landscape paintings. Similar chests made at nearly the same time by Arthur Frank Matthews (1860-1945) and his wife Lucia (nee Kleinhaus; 1870-1955) integrate landscapes with the rest of the case by distributing colorful decorations over the entire surface of the object. This is not to say that the cabinet with the river landscape by Murphy is not beautiful in itself. It is to say that I think the furniture decorated with carved leaves and flowers is theoretically a better example of Byrdcliffe furniture and the ideals of the arts and crafts movement in general.

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 in Plates land XII 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.

The designs Steele and Walker made for Byrdcliffe were invariably based on plants, usually rendered in a simplified but thoroughly realistic manner. Steele's tree leaf panels are like closeup photographs of trees as they appear in nature (see P1. XV). Steele was an accomplished easel painter. Her furniture masterpiece shows a blossoming wild carrot painted with great detail and no stylization (Pls. XVII, XVIIa). Dow was an advocate of abstraction of a sort not used at Byrdcliffe.

When categorizing Byrdcliffe drawings by style it is not always easy to distinguish Steele's designs from the more schematic work of Walker. The carving designs of Dawson-Watson are easy to identify, for he favored heavy-handed abstract twining leaves that were not always botanically specific.

No decoration can unquestionably be attributed to Whitehead, but there is no question that he controlled all aspects of furniture design. In the margins of his copies of Studio magazine there are sketches of cabinets and stools with notations in his hand. Many working drawings bear his notes about the exact profile of a molding or specifications for the hardware to be used. Curiously given Whitehead's penchant for control, his notes are seldom about methods of construction. This produced considerable variation in the quality of construction. Some case pieces have dovetailed drawers while in others the drawers are rather crudely nailed together. Some lamp stands are made of boards with beaded edges and paneled tops in mitered frames, while other stands are crude in every way and have tops of a single unframed board. Some cabinet doors are held tightly together with long tenons, while others have short tenons that have loosened over time.

Jane Whitehead's journals contain references to staining furniture, and one of her letters describes her dissatisfaction with the colors applied by a workman when she was absent. Her notations verify her considerable artistic talent and serve as a reminder of how much the appearance of the furniture has been altered by the passage of almost a century While the delicate transparent tints of green and brown that she used to color the cabinet in Plate XII still seem vivid and harmonious, they do not look like they did when she first painted them. Her notes about staining together with renderings showing more than one color scheme indicate that buyers could choose colors that best suited their decor. This may be why some of the furniture left at White Pines was never given a finish. The quartered oak was left unsealed, and long exposure to the air has turned the shimmering grain pattern to such a mellow color that it is hard to imagine the intended effect. Some pieces have had a bright varnish brushed over the o riginal suede-soft surfaces. Housekeepers with good intentions spruced up other pieces with tinted furniture polish. The chiffonier shown in Plate VI was cleaned for an early exhibition, removing most of the green stain and making Murphy's river landscape panels much more prominent than they were intended to be. Inventory lists refer to some cabinets made of poplar, a wood that is almost white when newly cut so that stains would have been clear and bright. However, poplar changes over time to a dark greenish brown color.

Time has also changed the appearance of the factory-made brass hardware on Byrdcliffe furniture. We know it was once highly polished because an unused supply was found in the original tissue paper wrappings. However, on the furniture it has darkened considerably Whether Whitehead anticipated this darkening is not known. The crude drawer handles made at Byrdcliffe of wrought iron, brass, and copper have retained their original dull surface. Their hammer marks relate them to the hardware used by Stickley, and they are certainly in keeping with arts and crafts theory However, they do not relate to the furniture as well as the commercial pulls. The wide shallow curve of cast-brass handles provide a grace note that is much needed on the monolithic cabinets. (6) Placing Byrdcliffe furniture within the confines of a particular movement or style is problematic. At the beginning of the twentieth century writers about arts and crafts furniture toyed with names like "Modern English," "Quaint," "Craftsman," "Mission," and "New Art." The last is simply a translation of "art nouveau," and recently all arts and crafts production was dumped into the classification of art nouveau. (7) Such academic hairsplitting helps reveal design sources not readily apparent by looking at an object. An example is a so-called Tirol cabinet designed by Dawson-Watson and carved with writhing leaves that look art nouveau (see P1. XX). However, the cabinet is inspired by Gothic designs (see Pls. XVIII, XIX). Akhough Byrdcliffe furniture was made during the arts and crafts period, there is very little difference in the way its decorations were designed and the way ancient Persians simplified flowers to create patterns for tiles.

Whitehead's library included copies of F. Edward Hulme's Suggestions in Floral Design (1878) and Plants, Their Natural Growth and Ornamental Treatment (1874); Owen Jones's The Grammar of Ornament (see PL XIII); Lewis Foreman Day's Nature in Ornament (1892) and Some Principles of Every-day Art (1890). All these books contain illustrations of leaves, flowers, and plants that are closely related to the decoration on Byrdcliffe furniture.

The diverse styles of Steele, Walker, and Dawson-Watson are in keeping with Whitehead's ideas about furniture design at Byrdcliffe. He did not accept the prevailing arts and crafts notion that there should be no distinction between art and craft, which was to be accomplished in part by having a single artisan design and produce the object. Whitehead wrote:

Now, in order to have anything good made in stuff, or in hard material, we must seek out the artist to provide us with a design, and then a workman to carry it out as mechanically as possible, because we know that if he put any of his coarser self into it he will spoil it. (8)

We know little about the workmen he hired to carry out his artists' designs, but we do know that many of them were also artists. Steele and Walker must have executed their painted designs themselves, but it is very unlikely that they carved the low-relief panels. The leaves and flowers are outlined with a continuous bevel at an unwavering angle. The background is leveled entirely by chisels, which have left almost no marks. No sandpaper was used. As simple as these carvings appear to be, they required considerable skill and could not have been executed by an amateur woodworker (see P1. XV).

It is possible that Whitehead's elitist attitude contributed to the short life of the furniture shop. His artists soon left his employ: Brown in 1903 and Murphy soon afterward. Steele moved away to concentrate on easel painting, and Walker moved to New York City where she became the "director of American weaving" at the renowned Herter Looms. (9) Dawson-Watson left in 1904 and later achieved a degree of fame as a painter of the American West. Birge Harrison, who had been hired to direct the Byrdcliffe School of Art, left in 1906 to teach at the Art Students League in New York City. By 1906 no artists were left who were willing to do Whitehead's bidding. Thereafter artists rented the colony's buildings as temporary studios in which to create their own art.

We are fortunate that so much documentary evidence has been preserved about Byrdcliffe and that it is being studied. The utopian experiment had its successes and failures achieving the simple life that was the arts and crafts ideal. However; the furniture made there transcends theory to become the blending of art and craft that Morris dreamed of when he wrote, "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful." The transparent stains allow the grain of the wood (indigenous or not) to show through and create a quiet wavelike pattern. The weeds and leaves (indigenous or not, stylized or not) recall pastures and woods for all who see them. The color schemes are sufficiently subtle to enhance an interior without demanding attention. And although some of the forms, such as the chiffoniers and linen presses, were unusual in the United States, they were--and are--both useful and beautiful.

(1.) The exhibition was held at the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington and the Edith C. Blum Institute at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. See also Robert Edwards, "The utopias of Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead," The Magazine ANTIQUES, vol. 127, no. 1 (January 1985), pp. 260-276.

(2.) Ralph Whitehead himself claimed to be "without any creative power at all" (Ralph Whitehead, Grass of the Desert [London, 1892], p.63).

(3.) Inventory lists indicate that a "Tiro]" cabinet was sold, and period photographs show other pieces of furniture that were not found in White Pines or other Byrdcliffe buildings in 1976. Drawings for a bed to have been built for Jane Whitehead survive in the Winterthur Museum. (92X39.409a, b, and c, folder 8, box 5, series I, Byrdcliffe Papers, Manuscript Collection 209, Winterthur Library, Winterthur, Delaware).

(4.) See Nancy E. Green and Jessie Poesch, Arthur Wesley Dow and American Arts and Crafts (American Federation of Arts, New York, 1999), pp. 69-72.

(5.) Dow's methods of abstracting or simplifying leaves and flowers were particularly useful to amateur china painters, although there were many other publications in which they could have found the same advice. Art students across the country were being taught to dissect and flatten flowers as way to find characteristic shapes to turn into patterns.

(6.) Hardware not manufactured at Byrdcliffe is marked either by the Reading Hardware company of Pennsylvania or G. Bayer of New York City.

(7.) Art Nouveau: 1890-1914, ed. Paul Greenhalgh (V and A Publications, London, 2000) argues that all decorative arts produced anywhere in the world during those years may be considered art nouveau. This necessarily includes the furniture designs of George Grant Elmslie (1871-1952), George Washington Melter (1864-1926), and Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), traditionally considered Prairie School architects who have been included in the arts and crafts movement.

(8.) Whitehead, Grass of the Desert, p. 63.

(9.) Bertha Thompson, The Craftsmen of Byrdcliffe (Woodstock Historical Society, Woodstock, New York, 1933), p.10.

ROBERT EDWARDS is an independent scholar and a dealer specializing in late nineteenth-century American decorative arts.