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 Life at Byrdcliffe

From 1903 onward, the Whiteheads and their two sons, Ralph Jr. and Peter (born in California in 1899 and 1901, respectively) lived at Byrdcliffe in New York. Here, the Whiteheads achieved the rustic ideal Jane Whitehead described in the preceding 1900 quotation. Inscribed around a small color landscape sketch in one of Whitehead's sketchbooks is the phrase "Live in the country with faith. Byrdcliffe" (figure 8). The religious connotation of this motto refers to the spiritual elevation that was believed to result from adherence to the tenets of simple living: retreating from the city to the country; avoidance of excessive materialism; high thinking, which for Arts and Crafts practitioners included committing oneself to craft practice in any number of media; and healthful living, including a nutritious diet, as well as exercise in the out-of-doors. Naturalist John Burroughs, an icon of the simple life, visited Byrdcliffe and lived nearby. He described it in the following way:

The situation is very beautiful, high on the flank of Overlook Mountain above the small and picturesque Woodstock valley and commanding a superb mountain panorama. . . . [the place] shows a delightful mingling of the sylvan and the pastoral. The various cottages and buildings are as picturesque as [. . . unreadable . . .], both outside and in; low and rambling, of undressed boards and timbers, and stained a rich tan color. The landscape has been no where marred or defaced; the modesty and privacy of nature has in all things been guarded. And the people, upwards of fifty of them, go well with this kind of background: very democratic, free and informal in their intercourse and thoroughly serious and earnest, each one with some work or pursuit that occupies the greater part of each day-young men and women painting landscapes or portraits or modeling in clay, or working in leather, or in metals, or weaving, or designing or taking music lessons, or working at cabinet work in carpentry . . . [22]

Burroughs continues to describe the "large solid library" and the dance room and art gallery, where Saturday morning art critiques led by artists of "established reputation" were held. He concludes, "Mr. and Mrs. Whitehead are the perfection of host and hostess, and their hearts are thoroughly in this work."

Jessie Tarbox Beals's photographs document Byrdcliffe's spirit as described by Burroughs. Beals and Burroughs both reveal the inseparableness of the people from the place. In addition to being "the perfection of host and hostess," as described by Burroughs, Jane and Ralph Whitehead adeptly crafted their ideal environment to include people, activities, landscape, and the built environment.

A Byrdcliffe prospectus, dated 1907, and an article, "The Byrdcliffe Colony of Arts and Crafts," by Poultney Bigelow, in American Homes and Gardens in October 1909, feature Beals's photographs. [23] Pictures of the dark stained cedar facade and the natural wood finishes, hand-woven textiles and roughly hewn ceramic tiles of the hearth in the living room of White Pines, the Whiteheads's home, and an image of children exercising outdoors at Byrdcliffe illustrate the rustic simplicity and earthy aesthetic Whitehead sought to achieve in Woodstock.

Whitehead's 1903 drawing (figure 9) shows one plan for the first floor's southeast room, now the living room alcove. [24] The design includes green walls with orange lily decoration and a fireplace faced in purple and green glazed bricks and an inscription overhead. Built-in drawers for storage and a bench similar to those found in inglenooks -- cozy corners popular during the Arts and Crafts Movement, surround the hearth. A less ornamental variation of Whitehead's scheme was executed and remains intact in White Pines. It preserves the architecture of the design but substitutes a natural wood finish, plain walls, and a teal colored brick fire surround for the vivid color scheme and floral wall ornament shown in the drawing.

The design for the living room alcove, supporting letters, and documentation show that Jane and Ralph Whitehead collaborated on the design of White Pines and Byrdcliffe while she was living temporarily with her children at a family camp in Aiken, South Carolina. At this time, Ralph Whitehead and a team of collaborators, including Hervey White and Bolton Brown, worked with builders on site. In the case of the design for the living room alcove, Whitehead's calendar for 1903 indicates that she executed it and four other "pastel interiors" in Aiken, while Ralph Whitehead was visiting. [25] They corresponded on plans; for example, Ralph sent some room designs to Jane, who, in turn, made changes and suggestions and returned them through the mail. [26] Even the name of the site was a collaborative effort:

Dearest Wife! Here I am at last in our house. . . . It's so good for me to have real duties in life in the way of business, and if this House of Yggdrasil is to be strongly founded I must give myself to it . . . And then the whole place, the future city of Atlantis shall it be "Byrdcliffe" or would it be [illegible] to leave out the "cliffe" . . . For the moment I can only suggest "Byrdavon," or "Byrdhaven." [27]

Jane Whitehead writes,

I think really you must simplify. The address must have as few names as possible. Begin with the end -- N.Y. Ulster Co. Woodstock. That's all necessary, then let the estate and the company be the same name. . . . our house might be "Ye House of Yggdrasil" and the company "The Looms of Yggdrasil." I like looms very much, and am quite willing to give up "Byrdcliffe." . . . Do the rooms as you think best on the spot. If you don't follow my suggestion I shant mind. But I think what I propose to you today is far the best plan. I don't know why we did not think of it before. It will add greatly to Mackie's [their live-in childcare provider] comfort if her room has a door leading into the nursery. [28]

In retrospect, we know the Whiteheads eventually agreed on the name Byrdcliffe and named their house White Pines. A loom room is attached to White Pines, and Yggdrasil is the name of an artist's studio, which became Jane's home after Ralph's death in 1929.

At Byrdcliffe, Whitehead involved herself in most of the art forms mentioned by Burroughs and particularly developed a passion for pottery (figures 10 and 11). Jane and Ralph Whitehead's White Pines Pottery was a collaborative project to which they applied experimental efforts from about 1908 into the 1920s. The forms are largely based on classic Chinese and Persian examples, and the glazes are derived from consultation with celebrated Arts and Crafts potters including Charles Fergus Binns, a British émigré who became the first director of the New York School of Clay Working at Alfred University; Adelaide Alsop Robineau, known for the technical refinement of her potting and glazes; and Frederick Hurten Rhead, who came from a family of English potters and worked at a number of Arts and Crafts potteries in the United States, including Roseville Pottery (Ohio), University City Pottery (Michigan), and Arequipa pottery (California). Rhead was Jane Whitehead's teacher between 1913 and 1917. [29] Jane Whitehead developed a stylized White Pines symbol for circular paper labels attached to some pottery. White Pines Pottery is marked also with the Whiteheads's wing-and-arrow symbol, which was incised into or painted in black on the bottom of pots. Some pieces, however, include only a three-digit numeral that could be followed by an "A" or "B." [30]


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