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Bolton Coit Brown; Artist and Co-Founder of Byrdcliife Art Colony, Part 1 -A Group Inside a Fence

Updated: Nov 4, 2023

Eva Watson Schutze (1867-1935)

Bolton Brown, c. 1905

Platinum print

Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art

The painter, printmaker, art teacher and mountaineer Bolton Coit Brown formed a friendship with the Byrdcliffe founder Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead in California at the turn of the nineteenth century. Their friendship developed after the Englishman acquired some Japanese prints from Brown (at the time he was working as a part time art dealer in Japanese nineteenth century prints and later in Woodstock he would briefly do the same). In the early 1890s Ralph and his wife Jane had settled in Montecito, a secluded community in Santa Barbara County, close to the Pacific Ocean. Their villa, Arcady, was located on seventy hill top acres with a view of the sea and backed by a ravine and wooded mountains.

Attributed to Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead


Arcady, 1897-1899

The Winterthur Library:

Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts

and Printed Ephemera

Unknown Photographer

Jane Whitehead at Arcady, 1895-1899

Gelatin silver print

Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild

On a mission to found an art and crafts colony in the spirit of John Ruskin’s St. George Guild, Whitehead became interested in hiring Brown to design furniture. Despite his lack of experience in this line of design, Brown informed Whitehead that he had experience designing furniture, and early on in Brydcliffe he created furniture designs, examples of which are located in the Joseph Downs Collection at the Winterthur Library in Winterthur, Delaware.

Ralph and his wife Jane initially sought to create their arts and crafts colony in Oregon. They had bought up land in a forested and nearly inaccessible district near Albany, Oregon, but when the buildings were completed political and religious arguments ensued between the musicians, and a love affair developed between a female pianist and the brother of a violinist, which resulted in the violinist refusing to work with the pianist. The staff quit this flailing enterprise, and the venture ceased before it had a real chance to get going.

Whitehead and the writer Hervey White went off to explore Virginia and North Carolina, and Brown traveled to New York State in search of a different site to originate the art colony. The place had to be in the country, at least 1500 feet above sea level, and not in the Catskills because, Whitehead declared, according to Brown, “they are full of Jews” (Bolton Brown, “Early Days at Woodstock,” Publications of the Woodstock Historical Society 13 [Autumn-September, 1937], p. 4). Brown countered with his belief that the colony should be near the great cities in the northeast corner of the United States, that New York was to be preferred, and that the “only land fifteen hundred feet [above sea level] near this [city] was in the Catskills” (Brown, p. 4). Brown also convinced Byrdcliffe that Jews were only on the periphery of life in Woodstock.

Brown later explained that during the course of the spring of 1902 he was on the lookout for a site for the art colony in the vicinity of the Woodstock/Bearsville area. Utilizing government Geological Survey maps of the entire region, he traversed by horse, buggy and foot. Much of his travelling took place on land without roads or paths, and, as he related, “for sheer savage impenetrability and utter laboriousness some of these Catskill trips really capped my experience [and] tore and ripped my clothes“ (Brown, p. 5).

Brown related that he was exploring a high pocket of land with steep walls which had a farm at its bottom (this was Mink Hollow) and in the course of coming to the southern entrance of this cul de sac he discovered Cooper Lake and from there decided to walk up the back side of Overlook Mountain where he emerged into a notch at Mead’s Mountain House. Brown likened himself to the explorer Balboa when he first saw the Pacific Ocean on seeing "that extraordinary beautiful view, amazing in extent, the Silver Hudson losing itself in remote haze, those farthest and faintest humps along the horizon being the Shawangunk Mountains” (Brown, p. 5). He came upon an old man working in an apple orchard with all the trees in blossom, and learned it was the owner of the mountain house George Mead. Brown inquired of him “What is the name of that place down there?’ He replied: ‘That is Woodstock Village.’ It looked good to me then; it has not ceased to do so” (Brown, p. 6). The artist then traveled below the forest belt and into the back fields to visit the cultivated territory that would become Byrdcliffe.

A View Looking Down on Woodstock

From Overlook Mountain

In early June, Whitehead, White and Brown gathered on top of Overlook Mountain and gazed down at Woodstock below. A couple of days later Whitehead wrote Jane about the spot they had discovered within five hours travel of New York City: “We have found a country with a sky – such beauty of sky I have not seen except in France. I mean of Northern skies. Such a sky for any painter, a transparent blue with wonderful gradation towards the horizon and such beauty of cloud formations & of distant blue mountains as I never expected to see in N.Y. State” (Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead to Jane Byrd McCall Whitehead, June 5, 1902, Winterthur Library, Joseph Downs Collection). The men wandered over the farmlands that were to become Byrdcliffe, and, half in fun, pointed out to one another where they wanted to build. In later years the time to get to and from the city would improve for travelers by train and boat via the West Shore train and the Hudson River Night Line that would leave downtown Manhattan and travel overnight to East Kingston.

The future colony was located in the middle of cultivated fields with few patches of forest, and had spectacular views down the mountain. Brown succeeded in buying 1200 acres of land for the Whiteheads. By the late fall of 1902 he managed to wrangle seven large farms out of the hands of their owners, among them members of the Snyder, Kelley, Riseley and Rivenberg families. Whitehead and Brown decided on the building sites and the general lay of the roads. At the start of the project Hervey White and Brown served as the supervisors of the building project, and were responsible for overseeing the construction of footpaths, water systems and the low, rambling board and board-shingle bungalows. Brown was the principal architect, foreman and designer. At first construction was supervised by Brown, but after finding his work faulty, Whitehead asked Hervey White to take this on. The Byrdcliffe buildings have been described as similar to the work of California architects like Bernard Maybeck, and to the design of Swiss chalets.

Byrdcliffe Today

Originally, Bolton Brown was slated to run the school at Byrdcliffe, but he was demoted to drawing master and hustled into a small frame dwelling. Whitehead reportedly took this action after Brown designed and built a house for himself with his own hands and design at an enormous expense without ever consulting Whitehead. The issue over his faulty oversight of construction also would not have helped save him from the demotion. Ironically, it was Brown who came up with the idea for having a school at Byrdcliffe. The house would be occupied by Birge Harrison in 1904 after he agreed to take over the running of the school and teach landscape painting. Carniola had a front door that was eight feet wide, and 13 rooms that opened off a vast central gallery covered with a skylight. The palatial building burnt to the ground in a fire in the 1960s. Among its last residents were Hollister and Betty Sturges and their children Hollister, Jr., Pam and Abigail. Abigail Sturges will be contributing a forthcoming blog relating some of her memories of Carniola.

Unknown Photographer

Casa Carniola, 1905

Gelatin silver print

The Winterthur Library:

Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts

and Printed Ephemera

Brown also did not get any brownie points from Whitehead after he expressed his opinion that the teachers who were hired for the first year at Byrdcliffe were incompetent. Brown was further displeased with the overall lack of discipline by the students, which he blamed on the fact that they were encouraged by Whitehead to have a good time and act as they pleased, and as a result dId not take their studies as seriously as they should have. Over time Whitehead and Brown disagreed with one another more and more, and as Brown recalled, “when the time found in me a disposition to stand for my ideas, he said I ‘mistook‘ my position. . . . The first man in, I now became the first man out” (Brown, p. 13).

Brown settled a mile to the east of Byrdcliffe, buying forty acres of land from Ella Riseley for six hundred dollars, where he built a house and focused on his career as a painter. As Brown explained it, with his move away and that of several others at Byrdcliffe “the art colony [of Woodstock] entirely outgrew the original idea – a chosen and selected group, inside a fence – and became instead a large free public movement that has been growing steadily for thirty years and is likely to grow thirty more” (Brown, p. 14).

Brown had an extremely difficult personality. He had a talent for antagonizing almost everyone he came in contact with. In 1923 he referred to himself as the “only simon-pure lithographer in sight” (“Lithographic Items of Interest,” The National Lithographer 30 [March 1923], p. 32). In a letter to the press he complained about the “unjust absurdity” of the art exhibition jury system, and the “evil childishness of the prize system" (”“Bolton Brown Advocates a Further Step for Independent Artists,”The New York Times, February 17, 1917, p. 10). He desired that the paintings on exhibition at the annual exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists be hung without mention of the artist’s name, and without signature. Brown was vocal about his atheism, and regularly argued over the existence of God with his minister father. Following his divorce from the California-born artist Lucy Hines Fletcher Brown he began chasing after young women, and traveled to England in 1915 with a 21 year old model.

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