Byrdcliffe Centennial Exhibition: An American Arts and Crafts Colony


in association with the Woodstock Guild and Woodstock Artists Association
and curated by Nancy Green (Johnson Museum) and Tom Wolf (Art Historian, Bard College)

June 7 to August 3, 2003

In the winter of 1902, construction of the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony began on Mount Guardian just outside the hamlet of Woodstock NY. Seven farms, 1500 acres in all, were purchased for the enterprise by a wealthy Englishman named Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead. By the time it was completed in 1903, 30 buildings stood comprising what has been referred to as a “textbook example” of a utopian Arts and Crafts community.

The Arts and Crafts movement began in England in the last quarter of the 19th century as a reaction against rapid urbanization and industrialization and the overwrought elaborate Victorian sensibility. Its most passionate and well-known spokesmen were John Ruskin and William Morris. They shared a rural, utopian ideal based on a brotherhood of artistic collaboration. They believed that man could regain control of his life if the work he did reflected the nobility thought to have been lost when machines eliminated the need for the art of hand craftsmanship.

Ironically, it was the benefactors of the great wave of 19th century industrialization who had the means to rebel against it. Whitehead (1854-1929), the son of a wealthy mill owner from Yorkshire, England came directly under the influence of utopian ideas when he studied with Ruskin at Oxford and later traveled with him in Europe. It is from Whitehead’s enduring vision to found his own utopian community that Byrdcliffe owes its existence.

Whitehead came to America and married Jane Byrd McCall in 1892. The daughter of a prominent Philadelphia family, she shared her husband’s utopian vision of an artist-craftsmen

community. After faltering starts in California and Oregon, Whitehead and two acquaintances – Hervey White, a writer, and Bolton Brown, an artist and educator, crisscrossed the country searching for the perfect site. Brown found the natural beauty of the Catskills and their proximity to New York City ideal for a utopian Arts and Crafts school and workshop. Whitehead agreed, enchanted by the views of open farmland dotted by trees and cottages.

Byrdcliffe, taken from the middle names of Ralph and Jane, was fully built and operating by the summer of 1903. It had a metalworking shop, a pottery, a woodworking shop, a large studio for Bolton Brown’s art classes, a dairy barn, guest houses, a dormitory for students, and White Pines, the Whitehead’s own house. Unlike the vernacular architecture specific to the Hudson Valley, with its tidy white clapboard farmhouses, Byrdcliffe buildings resembled low rambling Swiss chalets characterized by their dark stained indigenous pine siding, gentle sloping roofs with wide overhangs, and ribbons of windows painted Byrdcliffe blue.

The Byrdcliffe Arts Colony is located on 300 wooded acres with 35 unique and picturesque Arts and Crafts buildings on country pathways in Woodstock, New York – a two-and-a-half-hour drive north of New York City in the Catskill Mountain Region. It is the only intact Arts and Crafts colony left in America – and the oldest one in continuing operation.

– Nancy Green

In a collaboration between Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell University and The Woodstock Guild, the major centennial exhibit will showcase the most extensive collection ever displayed of furniture, ceramics, metalwork, woodwork, pottery, fine arts and textiles designed and produced at Byrdcliffe during the early years. It will be held at three of the major art institutions in Woodstock – the Kleinert / James Arts Center, the Woodstock Artists Association and the Center for Photography at Woodstock.

The exhibit will begin with a three-month showing from June 7 to September 7 (till August 3rd at CPW and July 27th at the WAA), then travel to Cornell and to Winterthur, in Delaware, before moving on to the Milwaukee Museum and the New York Historical Society.