Two portraits of Cape Cod: Amelia Watson and Clare Leighton.
H. D. THOREAU AND AMELIA WATSON
When watercolorist Amelia Montague Watson (1856-1934) and her friend Margaret Warner Morley (1858-1923) traveled to the Cape in the summer of 1894, they brought with them a new edition of Thoreau's Cape Cod, issued by the Riverside Press of Houghton Mifflin (the successor to Ticknor and Fields). The text, which originally formed the subject of a lecture series and some magazine vignettes, is the combined account of four walks Thoreau took along the length of Cape Cod between 1849 and 1857, some with his friend, the poet Ellery Channing. Edited after the author's death in 1862 by his sister Sophie and Channing, the collected writings were issued in 1864 by Ticknor and Fields under the title Cape Cod. The result has been described as a nautical form of Walden, a spiritual quest, with the sea rather than woods and a pond as the backdrop. (2)
While Watson traveled with Morley she embellished the margins of her copy of Cape Cod with miniature watercolors. This was a common practice of the time, especially amongst women. Two years later in 1896, in time for the Christmas market, Houghton Mifflin reproduced Watson's embellishments chromo-lithographically in a new two volume edition of Cape Cod. Watson's personal 1894 edition with its autograph watercolors is now housed in the Paul Brooks Collection of the Thoreau Institute in Concord, along with nineteen supplementary watercolors for inclusion in the published edition.
The 1896 introductory note prefacing Thoreau's text includes these words:
The present illustrated edition takes as its hint from an actual copy of Cape Cod with marginal sketches in color made by the artist as she read the successive chapters amid the scenes characterized by Thoreau. Thus she saw the sand, the lighthouse, the ocean, the sails, the fishermen, the weather-beaten houses.... The original book, conceived and executed for the artist's friend and compagnon de voyage, is reproduced for the pleasure of those whose own reading of Cape Cod is illuminated by the color and form which Thoreau's writing suggests or their fortunate memory brings back.
Amelia Montague Watson, born in 1856, grew up in East Windsor, Conn., just outside Hartford. She and her sister, photographer Edith Watson, were part of the Hartford circle surrounding Harriet Beecher Stowe. By 1890 she had established a strong reputation as a watercolorist, especially of landscape and rural subjects, exhibiting widely in galleries in the Northeast, including the Boston Art Club. (1a) By the end of the century watercolor was established as a medium in its own right for male and female artists, but was considered especially suitable for women painters. In the 1880s Watson became the head of the art department of the Martha's Vineyard Summer Institute in Oak Bluffs, where she continued in the summers for twenty years. (2a)
Watson's book is an example of a decorated gift edition of a kind very popular at the time. A more famous example of the genre, also from Houghton Mifflin, is Celia Thaxter's An Island Garden of 1894, illustrated by Thaxter's friend Childe Hassam with views of her beloved Isle of Shoals garden, painted in the style of Thaxter's own watercolors.
Both Thaxter's and Watson's books were bound in cloth bindings designed by the celebrated Boston artist Sarah Wyman Whitman [Fig. 1]. Whitman, a founder of the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts who is also famous for her stained-glass windows, was the publisher's principal designer for literary publications from the mid-1880s until the end of the century. Whitman's contribution as a binding designer is the exquisite but practical sensibility that she brought to the affordable trade cloth binding. (3) For her friend Thaxter's book Whitman created a vertical arrangement of stylized poppies, a favorite flower of Thaxter's and a frequent motif of Hassam's. For the little Cape Cod volumes she chose a sparer design of beach grasses. The integrated design and craft aesthetic of Thaxter's and Watson's books should be appreciated in the light of the growing influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement in Boston, for which unity of design was a clarion call.
So how does Watson interpret Thoreau's text? A reviewer in the New York Tribune, praising Miss Watson's "daintiest marginal sketches," continued: "She has put into them a sympathy in harmony with Thoreau's own." (1b) But I would argue that Watson misses some of Thoreau's acerbic edge. For instance, Thoreau's book has been described as his funniest, and we have Emerson's report that Concord audiences "laughed till they cried when it was read to them." (2b) However, Thoreau's comedic strain is little in evidence in Watson's interpretations. Two or three vignettes of small children playing in beached skiffs and the Wellfleet Oysterman are the closest that she will get to comedy.
Tragedy too plays a part in Thoreau's Cape Cod tour. His book opens with his detailed and sometimes brutal eyewitness account of the aftermath of a notorious shipwreck in the waters off Cohasset in which ninety-nine emigrants from Galway perished. Watson does not attempt in such small scale to illustrate the scene's horrifying scope. Instead she offers a tiny vignette of one minor but telling incident in Thoreau's narrative: a scene where the author encounters an old man and his son unconcernedly loading seaweed cast up in abundance by the storm, with no thought to the dozens of bodies washed up nearby. In spite of its small size, through murky browns and greens Watson conveys in miniature the desolation of Thoreau's scene [Fig. 2].
For the most part Watson's embellishments do not constitute illustrations but rather decorations, which is how they were advertised in Houghton Mifflin publication catalogues. The inhabitants of Cape Cod appear in Watson's images far less frequently than they do in Thoreau's narrative, and she only occasionally explores their labor [Fig. 3]. Picturesque cottages serve as surrogates for the human population [Fig. 4] Her strengths lie in portraying rolling dunes, windswept scenery and small details of nature.
Clare Leighton's Where Land Meets Sea: The Tide Line of Cape Cod presents a quite different portrait. Published in 1954 Rinehart & Co. almost a century after Thoreau's Cape Cod and sixty years after Watson's edition, Leighton's book is her personal verbal and visual tribute to a place and its inhabitants that she knew well. (1c)
Wood-engraving was Leighton's principle medium, and she was well known on both sides of the Atlantic for her prints, produced both as independent art works and as illustrations for books. In the British phase of her career, prior to 1939, she is identified with an outstanding group of women graphic artists, including Gertrude Hermes, Gwen Raverat, and Agnes Miller Parker. (2c)
As a wood-engraver Leighton combined a strong sense of design with a high degree of technical skill. Within the discipline imposed by black and white, she achieved a range of powerful expression. She was proud of her place within the distinguished British tradition of wood-engraving, with its emphasis on craft, praising the medium for "its exacting need for precision" and "the strong, clean, deliberate drawing" it demands. (3a) In Ruskinian tones she expressed scorn for what she termed "slovenly cutting" and a fashion for feigned crudeness as evidence of creativity. For Leighton, it was a virtue of the technique that there can be no shortcuts or compromises, that poor draftsmanship cannot be concealed.
Leighton first visited Cape Cod in the 1940s, spending every summer in Wellfleet until the end of her life. English by birth, she emigrated to America shortly before the Second World War, and after a few years in North Carolina settled in the small town of Woodbury, Conn., where she lived until her death in 1989. For Leighton, an ex-patriot, unmarried, and with few family ties, connectedness to place was central. Nowhere is this better expressed than in her several books, which she termed "personal impressions" of places that she loved. Each chapter is a vivid and penetrating vignette of some aspect of the place or its inhabitants, embellished with wood-engravings: full-page illustrations, headpieces and tailpieces. Her publishers allowed her to extend her artistic control over "the rhythm of the book as a whole" by also designing the layout, typography, cover and jacket [Fig. 5]. (1d)
She welcomed the opportunity that writing gave to indulge a side of her artistic sensibility that she was denied in her chosen graphic technique: her love of color. As she phrased it, "deprived of the sensuous facility of the palette.... I escape into my writing and become a verbal painter." (2d)
Her first American book, Southern Harvest (1942), was her conscious attempt to come to terms with her new home, "to push my roots into their new earth of the American continent." (3b) Writing during the Second World War while living in North Carolina, she expressed the hope that it would help foster understanding between the "English-speaking peoples" of America and Britain who were united in their common fight. Leighton celebrates the traditional agricultural and craft practices that she found in the mountains as a refutation of the European stereotype of a streamlined, industrialized America. In passages that at times ache with homesickness, she seeks solace in the commonalities she detects between the people and topography of her native Chiltern Hills and the mountains of North Carolina.
By the time she wrote Where Land Meets Sea, she was comfortable in her adopted homeland, and Cape Cod was a place where she felt that she belonged. In the foreword she explained that she wrote the book "solely because I wanted to do so ... because I happen to love the Cape deeply." Each chapter is a portrait of a different aspect of her life on the Cape: "Trolling for Bluefish," "The Rituals of Summer,"
"The Magic of the Flats" [Fig. 6].
Although at times tinged with melancholy, it is probably Leighton's most joyful book ("my watery book" she called it), a celebration of a way of life in rhythm with the pull of the tides and the fierce power of the northeaster. The constant motion of the waves and the sparkle of reflections on the water become dynamic elements in her compositions, as for instance in the full-page engraving "Surf Casting" [Fig. 7]. Here you can see the emphasis in the composition on sweeping rhythmic lines, what she describes in the text as "the twist and turn, the fling and the recoil of the rod." (1e) The figures are united with the coastal landscape, their limbs and their rods merging with the lines of the shore and the dunes.
Leighton, part of the postwar summer-visitor boom, rented a cottage from a summer family on the edge of the village of Wellfleet and on occasion extended her stay beyond the summer months. She thus felt attuned both to the lives of visitors and to year-round residents who struggled to maintain their traditional livelihoods. In her text Leighton situates herself between the "vacationist" (her word) and the lifelong coastal inhabitants: fishermen, scallopers, cranberry growers. Apart from a pair of dramatic chapters about a hurricane and a shipwreck, Leighton concentrates on the gentle seasonal pursuits of blueberry picking [see cover of this issue], quahogging at low tide, walking on the beach. She is ever conscious of the passage of time, as for instance in the chapter "The Rituals of Summer," where she writes of the urgency that she feels as the season rushes towards Labor Day and time threatens to run out on all the diversions that make summer complete.
Like Thoreau, Leighton includes a long shipwreck chapter in which she describes the sinking of a Greek freighter and the rescue of the crew, mercifully with no fatalities. Where Watson's focus is the horizontal view of the desolate rock strewn beach populated only by the pair of seaweed collectors, Leighton's vantage point is a cluster of rapt, windswept spectators, backs silhouetted against the foam, watching the lifeguards struggle below, as the looming freighter tosses helplessly on the roiling waves [Fig. 8].
In the chapter "The Wellfleet Oysterhouses," Leighton meditates upon these ramshackle buildings, contrasting their present picturesque but idle state with the Wellfleet of yesteryear, as described by an old shell fisherman, who takes her back to a time when "Wellfleet had hummed with work." Now the oysterhouses serve mainly as a motif for artists such as herself. Some have been bought by a "sentimentalist" and moved away from Duck Creek, into the woods, to save them, "where they now stand as safe as though they were in an old people's home" [Fig. 9]. Watson had recorded a similarly picturesque motif of wooden sheds perched on a fragile wharf, delicately illuminated by the setting sun [Fig. 10].
From the cynical vantage point of the next century, there is a ring of truth to the criticism voiced by the New York Times reviewer that Leighton was determined to see "quaintness among a people whose main interest ... is making a summer dollar." (1f) An air of nostalgia pervades much of Leighton's writing which at times can be cloying to the modern reader, but is offset by her striking images, visual and verbal, her vivid, sympathetic characterizations and lively descriptions of her adventures.
Watson and Leighton both saw their books as verbal and visual celebrations of the vital essence of a place that they loved. Turning the pages of a book imitates the notion of a journey, unfolding through time with stops along the way. The reader is invited to come along, to enjoy Cape Cod as these two women so evidently did.
(1.) Cape Cod by Henry David Thoreau, with illustrations from sketches in colors by Amelia M. Watson, in 2 volumes (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin & Co. 1896). Where Land Meets Sea: the Tide Line of Cape Cod, written, designed, and decorated by Clare Leighton (New York: Rinehart and Co., 1954).
(2.) Leila Hatch, "Castles of Sand: Thoreau on the Seashore," The Thoreau Reader (http://thoreau.eserver.org), p. 6. (Accessed 9 August 2009.)
(1a.) Information about Watson's life and career comes from Michael J. McCue, Tryon Artists, 1892-1942 (Columbus, N.C.: Condar, 2001); Linda Smith Cohen, "Amelia Montague Watson: Painter, Illustrator, Teacher 1856-1934" (thesis, Trinity College, Hartford, Conn., 1987); and An Introduction to the Watson Sisters (East Windsor, Conn.: Wood Memorial Library, 2004).
(2a.) See Henry Beetle Hough, "Amelia Watson," Duke's County Intelligencer, 9 (February 1968): 84-92, for an account of Watson's tenure at the Summer Institute.
(3.) Nancy Finlay, Artists of the Book in Boston, 1890-1910 (Cambridge, Mass.: Houghton Library, Harvard University, 1985), p. 106.
(1b.) Undated clipping contained in the Watson Family Papers, quoted in L. S. Cohen, p. 19.
(2b.) Letter from Emerson to Thoreau, 6 February 1850, in The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Eleanor M. Tilton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 8:236.
(1c.) Leighton's book was reissued twice with a new subtitle: Where Land Meets Sea: The Enduring Cape Cod (Riverside Conn.: Chatham Press, 1973; Boston: David R. Godine, 1984).
(2c.) For a detailed account of this group, see Patricia Jaffe, Women Engravers (London: Virago Press, 1990).
(3a.) Clare Leighton, Wood Engraving and Woodcuts (London: The Studio, 1932), p. 95.
(1d.) Clare Leighton, "How I Made My Book," American Artist 19 (February 1955): 40.
(2d.) "How I Made My Book," p. 40.
(3b.) Southern Harvest, written and engraved by Clare Leighton (New York: Macmillan, 1942), p. v. A British edition was published in 1943 by Victor Gollancz, London.
(1e.) Where Land Meets Sea, p. 94.
(1f.) E. B. Garside, "The Quiet Raptures of a Cape Cod Summer," New York Times, 15 August 1954, p. BR 12.
SUSAN ASHBROOK (Chair, Department of Art History and Critical Studies, the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University) is particularly interested in nineteenth- and twentieth-century wood-engraved illustrations. She has written on Clare Leighton in New England and is now beginning to research the career of Amelia Watson.
This article is revised from a paper presented at the 2009 APHA conference, The Book Beautiful, in Newport, R.I.
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|Date:||Jul 1, 2010|
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