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The Byrdcliffe Arts and Crafts Colony

 

In 1901 Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead purchased about 1,000 acres of land near Woodstock, New York, in order to establish an artists colony. He named it "Byrdcliffe," combining his wife's middle name with a portion of his own middle name. During the winter of 1902, Whitehead initiated the construction of buildings, including housing for residents and studios and workshops for their use. One year later, Byrdcliffe had facilities for metal- and woodworking, a pottery, an art studio, a dairy, and a library. There were also dwellings; Whitehead called his place, the main house, "White Pines."

Whitehead grew up in Saddleworth, Yorkshire, England. His father owned a financially rewarding business that manufactured felt used in pianos. It still exists today, though not as a Whitehead family enterprise. Young Ralph received his early education at Harrow. He then attended Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied under John Ruskin, acknowledged to be "the philosophical fountainhead of the arts and crafts movement." Whitehead finished his education at Oxford in 1880 with a master of arts degree.

In 1892 Whitehead married Jane Byrd McCall of Philadelphia. They had met some years earlier in Europe. As a socialite in Europe, Jane had taken instruction in drawing from Ruskin, studied art at the Académie Julian in Paris, and was presented to Queen Victoria in 1886. By the time Byrdcliffe had been established, the Whiteheads had two children, Ralph Jr. and Peter.

Individuals of note synonymous with the arts and crafts movement peopled Byrdcliffe during its early years, and they produced furniture, pottery, textiles, paintings, and artistic photographs. By choice, cabinetmaking was the predominant craft. In 1904, the busiest year for furniture production, about 50 pieces were made, including tables, chairs, lamp stands, shelves and bookcases, sideboards, and chiffonniers. Craftspeople mostly used local poplar and oak; a few pieces were of cherry or mahogany. Observers have remarked about the simplicity of Byrdcliffe furniture and its lack of refined proportions.
 


 

Ultimately, Byrdcliffe failed as a community of artists. Whitehead experienced difficulty relating to his residents, and after a time they left, never to return to the colony. In addition, it was hard to transport the furniture produced there to markets in New York. As time passed, Byrdcliffe simply became a place for the Whiteheads to raise their two children and to entertain family and friends. In 1917 Jane wrote to her son Ralph Jr., "now let us realize that it has had its day--its raison d'etre has passed by." Even so, because Byrdcliffe had acted as a magnet for arts and crafts practitioners, Woodstock, New York, lost its identity as a rural farming village and became a haven for other communities of artists.

Byrdcliffe has remained in family hands for nearly a century. Whitehead died in 1929, only 25 years after Byrdcliffe had experienced its busiest times and just a few months after his eldest son had been killed at sea. Jane lived until the mid 1950s, and Ralph and Jane's youngest son died at "White Pines" in 1976. Today, different portions of the property that once made up Byrdcliffe are owned by a Whitehead nephew, the Woodstock Guild, and private individuals.

In 1991 the Joseph Downs Collection welcomed its first donation of records from Byrdcliffe; six years later the transfer of materials was complete. In the Byrdcliffe archives are family letters, including those to and from Jane and Ralph Whitehead beginning in the 1890s; photographs; drawings and paintings; magazines; scrapbooks; the Byrdcliffe library card catalogue; trade catalogues of products used at Byrdcliffe; publications written by Jane and Ralph Whitehead; land surveys; and legal documents. This modest exhibition highlights a collection of far greater size and depth.

Much of the information in this introduction and quotations are from "The Utopias of Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead," by Robert Edwards, The Magazine Antiques, January 1985, pp. 260-76.


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