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Byrdcliffe The Original Woodstock Art Colony

Article, Photography and Painting
by Robert Selkowitz
adapted from article in "Kaatskill Life" Fall 1995.
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The Arts and Crafts Movement arose in the late nineteenth century in reaction to the dehumanizing monotony and standardization of industrial production. Taking root in England with the support of the art critic and theorist John Ruskin, and flourishing in the studios of William Morris, the movement brought the importance of the artisan's hand-craft, united with a romantic vision of nature, back into focus. It recalled the guilds of the Middle Ages and found resonance in the work of the Pre-Raphaelite painters.

As an experiment in utopian living inspired by the arts and crafts movement, the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony was founded in 1902 on 1,500 acres of south-facing mountainside above Woodstock in the Catskill Mountains. Today, 29 buildings on 600 acres comprise the continuing Byrdcliffe Arts Colony, now owned by the Woodstock Guild, a non-profit arts and environmental organization with over 600 members. Byrdcliffe's founder, Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, a student of John Ruskin at Oxford University, spared no expense in building and equipping Byrdcliffe as a setting for practicing the art of living through creative manual work. The arts and crafts movement stressed reform of social, environmental and economic conditions to combat the slums and degradation fostered in the industrial regions and Byrdcliffe's Woodstock site offered a pristine environment for the creation of Whitehead's utopian enclave.

Facilities included studios for painting, weaving, pottery, metalwork, woodworking; cottages with bathrooms and sleeping porches; a library, and a rambling villa for Whitehead and his family. He built White Pines as his residence with a skylit, cathedral ceilinged weaving room overlooking a picturesque view across the Woodstock Valley. Byrdcliffe's "Edwardian Redwood" architecture combined California, Swiss and Austrian Styrian styles in dark brown stained native hemlock with blue painted trim.

A Plea for Manual Work was written by Whitehead and published in 1903 to promote his vision for Byrdcliffe: "...our locality was chosen for three things: its beauty, its healthfulness, and its accessibility...[we] have arranged for a summer school of painting and decorative design...[we] are prepared to take pupils in cabinet making and woodcarving...[It] is our intention to make furniture of a simple kind which shall be good in proportion, and to which distinction may be given by the application of color and carving by artists' hands...[We] will give a welcome to any true craftsmen who are in sympathy with our ideas and who will help us to realize them."

Artists and craftspeople were attracted to Byrdcliffe and by 1905 over one hundred were in residence. Unfortunately, Whitehead ruled Byrdcliffe as an absolute monarch and alienated his closest allies, forcing them to leave the colony. Bolton Brown, a painter and teacher who found the Woodstock site in 1902, left Byrdcliffe after a year to settle in the village of Woodstock. Hervey White, a poet and author who helped Whitehead establish Byrdcliffe, left the enclave in 1904 to establish his own Maverick Colony off Maverick Road in Woodstock. In this way, Byrdcliffe helped seed Woodstock and the surrounding area as an artist's colony. While Whitehead presided like an autocratic country squire over Byrdcliffe, his vision attracted artists, writers and musicians who would create the greater Woodstock Art Colony.

Although the arts and crafts utopian experiment soon ran out of steam, the continuing magic of Byrdcliffe enthralled many notable persons including the educator John Dewey, author Thomas Mann and naturalist John Burroughs. Isadora Duncan danced at White Pines; Bob Dylan lived in a house at Byrdcliffe in the '60s and early '70s; Joanne Woodward was involved in the river Arts Repertory at the Byrdcliffe Theatre. After Whitehead's death in 1929, his widow, Jane, and son Peter struggled to keep the colony alive. After Jane's death in 1955, Peter sold much of the land to pay taxes and maintenance on the heart of the colony which he kept intact. The Whiteheads intended to preserve Byrdcliffe "for the purpose of promoting among the residents of Woodstock...the study, practice and development of skill in the fine arts and crafts, as well as a true appreciation thereof..."

Upon Peter Whitehead's death in 1975, Byrdcliffe was left to the Woodstock Guild of Craftsmen who have continued to maintain and administer programs at the colony. In 1979, the Byrdcliffe Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of its historical and architectural significance. Byrdcliffe's cottages have been rented since 1984 only to working artists, maintaining sympathy with the founder's creative vision. These cottages bear romantic names like Angelus, Morning Star, Varenka, Serenata, Fleur de Lis, and Evening Star and nestle along winding lanes under the forest canopy. A large barn originally housed farm animals and hay during the colony's early years when self-sufficiency was a goal. Today the barn is used for concerts, plays and art shows with a pottery studio and classroom on its lower level. The Villeta Inn houses 14 artists accepted into Byrdcliffe Artist's Residency Program during the colony's summer season.

The painter Carl Eric Lindin remembered the early years when "the birds sang as if the earth had just been newly created. And Byrdcliffers sang too, and danced and made love to each other, just like the birds."

Byrdcliffe remains a vibrant part of the cultural life of the Catskill region thanks to the careful stewardship of the Woodstock Guild. Architect Lester Walker, who serves as Guild board president, has drawn a design plan for the preservation of the Byrdcliffe Colony and the Guild is committed to the goal of creating a year-round Artist's Residency Program. By the time of its centenary in 2002, Byrdcliffe will be assured to its continuing impact on the cultural life of our community, through its theater, classes, and artist's residences.

Byrdcliffe is also an important regional example of the movement to create various types of utopian enclaves in America. British reformers especially saw America as a fertile and cheap land for the creation of visionary communities. The horrors of the working conditions of the industrial revolution led Robert Owen to establish his New Harmony, Indiana, community in the 1820s. Owen had a wide influence in America and a score of communities patterned on his theories were founded here including one in Haverstraw, New York, and another in Coxsackie, New York, although these were both very short lived. In the 1880s Thomas Hughes established his Rugby Colony in Tennessee, inspired by Ruskin and espousing creative manual labor. Other arts and crafts communities were also founded in America, including the Roycroft Community in East Aurora, New York, which was established in 1895 by Elbert Hubbard on the principles of the guild system and the aesthetics of William Morris. These communities echo the credo of the Victorian landscape architect and Newburgh, New York, native Andrew Jackson Downing: "Happy is he who lives this life of a cultivated mind in the country."

These various efforts to create "communities of aspiration" form a vigorous part of American culture. Here in New York State we saw successful Shaker communities in the late 18th century; the successful utopian community at Oneida which was established in 1848 near Syracuse and still exists, although not as a commune but as a residence, inn and conference center; the creation of the Chautauqua Institution near Jamestown in 1874 which today draws 300,000 annual visitors for a summer season of arts, education, recreation and religion; and the continuing existence of Chautauquan-style communities at 1000 Island Park on the St. Lawrence River, and at Round Lake near Saratoga.

In the 19th century the rise of the Hudson River School of painting drew artists to our region, and Byrdcliffe has a place in the history of artist's retreats which includes the late 19th century Pakatakan Colony near Arkville and the Cragsmoor Colony near Ellenville. Before Byrdcliffe, artists were drawn to Woodstock for stays at the Overlook Mountain House and Meads Mountain House. After Byrdcliffe's zenith the classes of the Art Students League brought many artists to Woodstock. However, it was a result of Byrdcliffe's creation that Woodstock attained its prominence as one of America's premier art colonies.

 

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